Note: I updated the post about my 2013 desktop upgrade based on some component changes and my thoughts/experiences after about year. Feel free to check it out if you're interested in such things.
I built a new Home Theater PC over the summer. I didn't get around to discussing the parts here as I usually do (though you can find the details on my hardware specs page), but I've been very happy with it so I thought I write a (relatively) quick post about it to share some details.
For me, the case is what makes the HTPC a home theater PC as opposed to just a PC that you have connected to your TV. While I've never found an HTPC case that meets 100% of my desires, I found the HTPC 7000B a while back and was quite taken with it. It's taller than I would care for and looks slightly more "PC-ish" than I would prefer, but it has a number of great features going for it:
After building it and using it for a few months, I can happily report that I'm overall very satisfied with it. It looks good, it fits everything I need, and the airflow and cooling is reasonably (though not exceptional) and quiet.
The one and only complain I have is that they placed the IR window directly in front of the optical drive support beam. I could not physically install the IR receiver because the support beam was right where the receiver needed to be. The only thing I could do to fix that was bend the support beam out of the way, but then that makes it useless for the optical drive. Fortunately, I'm not using an optical drive in this system, but I'd like the capability to add it if I need one in the future, but because of this design that's no longer possible. Still, everything else about the case is just wonderful, and since I'm not actually using the optical drive it's not really an issue, so I can give it a pass on that.
Overall, big thumbs up and highly recommend.
The case requires a microATX motherboard, and after narrowing down the options I went with the ASRock board above due to price and the relatively modest selection of features I wanted for this system. Final verdict? I f*ing love it. It's stable, easy to setup UEFI-wise, boots almost as fast as it takes for my TV and receiver to fully power on, and has been very, very stable and reliable. It puts both of my recent desktop motherboards to shame, and I'm now sorry I didn't go for as ASRock for it when I had the chance.
Unfortunately, ASRock boards always seem to be available in only limited supplies for some reason, but if you see one that seems to fit your needs, grab it. I seriously can't recommend this highly enough. After the hell I've gone through with my desktop boards, working with this one has been pure, unmitigated joy.
I wanted a powerful but low-power/cool processor for this system, and the i5-4690S fit the bill perfectly. It's pricey, but for a fast quad-core processor w/ turbo (though unfortunately no hyperthreading) and perfectly capable embedded graphics for a HTPC running at just 65 W, it's worth it for me.
I was so pleased with the Noctua cooler I added to my last desktop that I decided to add a similar, lower profile version to this system, and once again I'm very happy with it. It's super quiet and does a great job of cooling the CPU. Highly recommended.
I really don't have anything else to say about it, but just a word of caution - it's a tight fit in this case and with the motherboard I used. I had to play around with the orientation of the cooler quite a bit until I found a position that works, and even then the tips of the heatpipes came so close to the case fans that they would actually come in contact causing a rattle whenever someone walked across the floor and caused the case to vibrate just a bit. I ended up propping the cooler up a little bit by wedging a cable between it and one of the DIMMs, which solved the rattling problem. Just wanted to give everyone else a heads up - if you use these same components in your build, be prepared to play with it a bit to get it just right; otherwise, you may want to look for a more compact cooler.
Not much to say here. 8 GB is more than enough for this system, the RAM itself is low-latency and low profile, and I've been happy with the brand for some time. It just works.
Not much to say here, either. Like the Noctua cooler, I was very happy with the Seasonic PSU I picked up for my last desktop, so I used one here as well, and it doesn't disappoint. Recommended.
Crucial M4 CT128M4SSD2, 128GB SSD (Newegg)
I picked up one of these on sale at Amazon for $80 a while back, which was a hell of a deal. It's not very big, but it's fast, I don't need much space for this system (in fact, I'm only using 6.5 GB on it, as all of my data is stored on my NAS), and, most importantly of all, I already had it and didn't need it for anything else. :-) This is a good drive, but honestly you'll want to pick up something more recently if shopping for SSDs today.
This is a ridiculously old card now, released back in 2007, but it's a critical component for my HTPC as it's the only video card I have that will support component video out, and as far as I can tell no cards on the market today support this feature. I'm still using a TV and receiver from before HDMI existed on appliances, so I absolutely need this feature right now. I'm planning on upgrading my home theater in the next year or so, at which point I'll probably switch over to using the embedded Intel HD Graphics 4600 controller with HDMI, but in the meantime this seven year old card is still kicking and still working great.
For input I'm using a couple of controllers. The first is an Esky Mini i8 wireless mini keyboard/touchpad. It's actually not too bad for what it is, though for anything that requires a lot of typing I'll just SSH in from may laptop.
The second is a universal remote controller using the RC6/MCE protocol with an internal USB IR receiver. This works and makes navigating XBMC convenient, but it's not without it's flaws.
For one, the design of the board is just stupid, with the receiver sticking up perpendicular to the board. This requires that the entire board be placed sticking away from the IR window, which is likely to cause problems because there usually isn't going to be that much free space behind the front panel of a case (see my case comments above for more on this). Having the IR receiver by parallel to the board would've made much more sense as I could then just mount the board flush against the front of the case.
Second, something (I don't know if it's the board, the protocol, or just the Linux driver) prevents the multiple signals from the remote from being processed properly. If I hit down twice rapidly, it'll only register one press. If I hit down, say, four times rapidly, it'll register something like six presses. If I want to press any button two or three times, I have to purposely press them slowly to get it to register. This quickly gets very irritating. I don't think this board is necessarily the cause of this, but it definitely keeps me from loving it like I thought I would.
Third, despite my best efforts, I can't get this to power on the system from an off (S0) state. I can get the Esky keyboard to do that, so the system is obviously capable of this, but the IR receiver apparently won't send the correct signal to power the computer on.
All in all I'm reasonably happy with the IR receiver for the investment I made, but I'll probably look into switching it out at some point for something that'll hopefully address some of the above issues a little better.
On the whole, I'm very, very, very, very, very happy with my HTPC. I'm running Gentoo Linux on it and have it set to boot directly into XBMC, which I use as the main user interface. It boots fast, runs fast, operates very quietly, and looks quite good mixed in with my other home theater components. If you decide to build your own HTPC, I hope this will give you some inspiration and useful tips.
Hey, what do you know? This actually did end up (relatively) short, by my standards. :-)
I updated the post to account for a couple different components that I swapped out, as well as some general comments about my thoughts/experiences with the components after nearly a year.
I finally settled on and ordered all of the components. I updated each item below to clarify my final selection, so please read on if you're interested in the details.
It's been over three years since my last post about upgrading my desktop, which can mean only one thing. It's upgrade time again! As I've done in the past, I'm going to post the details and part selection here, both to help organize my thoughts on the subject as well as solicit feedback. Unfortunately, unlike my previous builds, the comment system for this site is currently disabled (see this post for the details, if you're interested). So, if you do have any feedback or suggestions, please hit me up on IM or shoot me an e-mail; I'll post any feedback I receive in a future update.
My current desktop was originally built in 2007, and was upgraded in 2010. At this point, it sports a Nehalem-based Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM, a couple SSDs, an Nvidia GTX 460 video card, and other miscellany. If that sounds like a pretty beefy system to, well, that's because it is. I've actually been very, very happy with it, and it's still the fastest computer I've every used. It does everything I need, and does it well.
So, you may be wondering why I'm interested in upgrading at all. That's a fair question, and it comes down to three basic reasons:
If not for the USB and SATA support (which I really want, and almost upgraded last year to get), this computer could easily last me another couple years as-is. I've been on a three year upgrade cycle for the past few years, and I've been building my computers with that cycle in mind, but this time I think I'm going to aim for five years. I'm sure there will be some new hot technology introduced within that time frame that I really want, but honestly, modern multi-core CPUs (especially the Core i7 processors with hyper-threading) are fast enough even for my generally crazy needs, and with solid support for super fast I/O interfaces now for my SSD and USB disk drives I think I should be good for a while.
Because I want to get a new case as well, I'm going do a complete build this time rather than another upgrade. As noted my current desktop is still quite capable, so I'm trying to figure out what I want to do with it once I'm done. I'll probably move it to HTPC duty (which also provides emulator-based gaming in my living-room, so all that horsepower won't be going to waste), with my current HTPC possibly being relegated to classic PC gaming duty. It'll be fun figuring out how exactly to handle all of that as well. :-)
I probably won't be ready to pull the trigger on this until July (the core components below have just launched, and I want to give things a few weeks to settle down), but since I've already begun my research I wanted to go ahead and document it here. So, with all that out of the way, let's get down to business.
The i7-4771 has worked out well. It's very fast, as one would expect, and hasn't given me any issues at all. Intel's still an asshole for the forced, arbitrary product segmentation, though.
I decided to to go with the Intel Core i7-4771. This is a slight upgrade to the "locked" i7-4770 so that the default clock speed is now on parity with the i7-4770K. Given the rather shitty overclockability of the i7-4770K and the loss of other features, I decided trying to overclock this just wasn't worth it, and the i7-4771 should be fast enough as-is to last me five years.
The choice of CPU largely dictates the rest of the components, so I'm starting with that first. My last two builds/upgrades have used high(ish)-end Intel CPUs, and I've been very happy with both of them. Unfortunately, without a competing high-end offering from AMD to spur competition, Intel has gotten lazy on the desktop side. Their recent CPUs have only marginal performance improvements over previous generations (focusing instead on mobile-centric features such as power consumption), product selection is extremely limited, and prices are pretty high. Again, though, AMD doesn't have a high-end competitor, so if I want the best processor for a high-performing five year system that's at least reasonably cost-effective, then the i7-4770 line is pretty much the only option. So, while this is undoubtedly a stellar chip, I'm rather disappointed in the circumstances leading to this decision, which is kind of an odd thing.
One other item of disappointment is Intel's forced and rather arbitrary market segmentation, which restricts certain CPU features to certain CPU modules. The Core i7-4770K that I listed above, is part of their "unlocked" line of processors that allow overclocking. Unfortunately, unlocked processors are also feature-crippled, because apparently Intel feels that their customers shouldn't be able to get both a top performing and fully featured CPU. Nevermind that enthusiasts buying those high-end, unlocked parts are the also the people mostly like to take advantage of those additional features, such as VT-d, a feature I'm personally interested in that can be extremely useful in certain virtualization scenarios. Instead, they want their consumers to choose between the best performing parts, and slower, but more fully capable, parts. Assholes.
So instead of the i7-4770K I'm also considering the "locked" Core i7-4770. The specs are pretty similar, but the i7-4770 gives me VT-d support (potentially useful in the future for virtualization, which I do run on my desktop) and some other goodies, whereas the i7-4770K gives me the possibility of overclocking my CPU (potentially useful in the future so I can eek out some more performance if/when needed). But, because Intel has become lazy and has no real competition on this level, I can't have both. Assholes.
Right now I'm leaning toward the i7-4770K, but that's not definite. AMD also announced a new CPU refresh just yesterday, so I'll be interested to see how those look (especially considering my growing dissatisfaction with Intel), but I think it's unlikely they'll be compelling enough to change my mind. I really, really hope AMD can get back in the game over the next couple of product cycles, though. We need that competition, and I'd really like to give AMD another shot my my desktop if the can put out a compelling enough product.
For additional reference, here's AnandTech's review of the Core i7-4770K (and Haswell platform has a whole):
They also wrote-up a detailed analysis of the Haswell architecture a while back:
I'm very happy with this cooler. The thing's a beast, but it's so quiet and cools very well. I've since added Noctua coolers to two other systems, and I've been happy with those as well.
I went with the Noctua NH-U12S as originally mentioned. It's much larger than I would've liked, but at least slimmer than many of the alternative options, and should be whisper quiet even at high load. This is probably overkill since I don't plan on overclocking after all, but it'll be the first high-end air cooler that I've ever used, so I'd still like to get it anyway just to see how well it works.
I used the stock cooler on my previous two builds, which worked perfectly fine, but the fan was definitely noticeable when the CPU under load. For this computer, taking the five year plan into account, I'm looking at three main factors:
The Noctua NH-U12S seems to score well on all of these. Based on the reviews and comparisons, it doesn't excel at any one criterion, but is a solid, reasonably priced all-rounder.
The Gigabyte board was a total piece of shit. The main reason I'm adding this update is to warn people away from it. It's buggy and extremely unreliable. One (or both) of my DVD/Blu-ray drives would occasionally fail to be recognized by the motherboard when I started my computer, Wake-On-LAN didn't work reliably at all, and the computer had a very bad habit of turning itself back on immediately after you shut it off, such that it was literally impossible to shut the computer down without holding the power button in for 8 seconds to force it off. I tried opening a support ticket with Gigabyte, but got several shitty, very unhelpful responses. After suffering through that for several months, I switched over to the Intel board listed above and I'm now done with Gigabyte, at least for the next couple generations until they hopefully get their shit together again.
As for the Intel board, it's fine, but it has its quirks as well. It's much more expensive than the other choices, and because it's Intel I was hoping it'd be super stable, but that hasn't been the case. It has a really nasty bug that prevents it botting from ANY video device other than the built-in HDMI controller if you disable Legacy (BIOS) booting, which caused me a lot of grief when initially setting this up as I have no HDMI-capable devices in my house (they also state this bug was fixed in the UEFI firmware I had on the motherboard at the time, but that's a lie). It also has Wake-On-Lan issues like the Gigabyte, and it's the slowest booting motherboard I've had, well, ever for a desktop. Aside from the Wake-On-Lan issue, though, it is stable once I got it up and running, so while I'm not overly happy with it, I can at least stick with it for a while. I highly doubt this is going to be a 5-year computer because of this, though - I'll almost certainly upgrade my motherboard (and, by extension, processor) before then to try to get to something better/faster/more stable.
I went with the Gigabyte motherboard. As mentioned below I had some quality concerns regarding the choice of components in the ASRock motherboard, and between Gigabyte and Asus I gave the nod to Gigabyte just because I have a Gigabyte board in my current computer and have been happy with it.
I've narrowed down the list of motherboard contenders to the above three. Each has their pros and cons, but the general difference is that the ASRock board seems to pack more features than the Gigabyte and Asus board, but at the cost of lower quality components. I still need to sift through the details a bit more before I'll be able to decide on one.
Unfortunately, while each of these are perfectly adequate, none are ideal because, as discussed in the sound card section below, I'm constrained by the need for a conventional PCI slot. For this product cycle, motherboard manufacturers are only including PCI slots on their low- to mid-range motherboards. So, if I want to be able to carry forward the last great sound card fully supported under Linux, I need to give up the higher end stuff. Honestly, it doesn't seem like it's going to be a big loss, but I would like a bit more options - the three above do cover my needs, but only barely, and aside from the ASRock (which I have some quality concerns about) none feature much in the way of niceties.
No complaints here. It just works.
Decided to go with some fast DDR3-2133 low latency (CL 9) memory. There were only a few options available in this range, and I chose G.Skill just because I had good luck with them in the past. I went with a 2x8 GB kit for 16 GB total RAM, with the option to add an additional 16 GB later (though, honestly, even 16 GB is more than I really need, so I don't expect to upgrade beyond that).
Haven't begun researching this yet. If I decide to overclock my system I might pick up some higher frequency RAM to go along with that, but most likely I'll stick with a fairly conservative standard option.
As with the Noctua CPU cooler, I'm now officially a Seasonic fan. It works great and is very, very quiet. I've also added Seasonic PSUs to two additional computers as a result of this experience and I've been bappy with both.
I decided to stick with the Seasonic SS-660XP2. Looks like it has all the qualities I'm interested in, and managed to pick it up on sale for a great price.
Not a ton to say here. PSUs are pretty boring, but are nonetheless one of the most critical system components, as a misbehaving PSU can cause no shortage of problems. The Seasonic SS-660XP2 gets high reviews for being a quiet, efficient, and reliable product, all of which I'm looking for. Unless something else catches my eye, I'll probably stick with this.
Cooler Master CM 690 II Advanced ($90 - Newegg)
Rosewill Blackhawk ($90 - Newegg)
Thermaltake Armor Revo ($140 - Newegg)
Zalman Z12 Plus ($70 - Newegg)
Zalman MS800 Plus ($114 - Newegg)
Cooler Master HAF XM ($110 - Newegg)
Gigabyte Luxo M30 ($53 - Newegg)
Apex PCV-588 ($35 - Newegg)
The Cooler Master case I picked out here has been ok. Not great, and definitely not bad, just ok. It does it's job fine, and there are some nice features (in particular I've used the built-in hard drive dock a couple of times now and it's very convenient), but having all port/buttons on top of the case rather than in front just creates a a lot of clutter. I literally have to shift cables out of the way every time I want to turn my computer on. I'm also still not crazy about the looks, but it's gown on me somewhat. So, I'm reasonably happy with it, and don't have too much of a problem recommending it to others. Because of the top port thing, though, I probably wouldn't buy it again for myself.
As noted previously, this was by far the most difficult decision to nail down. I'm still not crazy about the case I ended up choosing (the Cooler Master CM 690 II Advanced), but it does meet all of my requirements, and isn't hideous. As a bonus, it includes an adapter to mount two SSDs in one of the internal 3.5" bays, as well as dust filters for all of the fan intakes. It's also supposed to be reasonably quiet, which was an important requirement I forgot to list previously. Hopefully it'll work out.
The case has proven one of the most difficult components to find. I have a number of criteria, a some of which aren't really in line with the latest design trends:
The above listed "possibilities" are the few that come close to meeting my needs, but none quite cover all of them. I'm still doing research here, but would love any specific suggestions.
I'm rocking two SSDs in my current desktop: a 240 GB OCZ Vertex 3 for my home drive, and a 128 GB Crucial M4 for my system drive. Both are Serial ATA 6 Gb/s, and are still amongst the fastest SATA drives available. There's no good reason to upgrade either of these at this time, so I'll be reusing them in the new computer.
The Pioneer blu-ray drive I picked up was a turd. It was incredibly slow when it did work, but more often than not it just didn't work. I may have just gotten a bad unit, but I read a lot of similar complaints about the same drive, so I wasn't particularly interested in a replacement. Plus, Pioneer treats this drive as a bastard stepchild, not releasing firmware updates for it nearly as often as it's retail counterpart, the more expensive BDR-2209.
I ended up going without a blu-ray drive at all for a while and just using my old, trusty Samsung SH-S183 DVD burner, but I ended up buying the LG drive listed above a few months ago because I really wanted to rip some blu-rays. The new drive actually works very well - it rips DVDs in about half the time of my Samsung DVD drive, and rips blu-ray discs quite fast as well. The one complaint I have is that it is incredibly slow at ripping audio CDs (which, believe it or not, I still buy and rip). I'll probably keep my Samsung drive in here just for ripping CDs, but for everything else the LG blu-ray drive works like a champ and, though expensive, I'll happily recommend
I decided to pick up a blu-ray burner for the new computer. Went with the Pioneer mostly 'just because' - it was between this, an Asus, and an LG, and based on prior experience I think Pioneer is probably the highest quality of the three. Plus, the Pioneer was on sale for a good price. :-) Some preliminary reports suggest this may be a good ripping drive as well, but it's still mostly luck of the draw, so I'm not too optimistic. Will certainly put it through it's paces, though.
I'll probably stick with my previous drive. Would love to pick up a shiny new drive that excels at ripping audio CDs (yes, I still rip audio CDs), but finding those are a matter of pure luck - I've never seen one documented in recent years as good for ripping until long after they're off the market. Again, any suggestions here would be welcome.
My current video card is an EVGA GeForce GTX 460 FTW 1024MB 01G-P3-1377-TR (Newegg, which I bought about a year after my last upgrade. It still has enough oomph to handle the games I play (on Linux, which means they're rarely high end), and I don't see anything particularly compelling on the market right now, so I'll probably hang on to this for another 6 months to a year and then upgrade. Once I do, I'll almost certainly go with Nvidia, though; while the price per performance of the Radeon cards looks quite compelling, I need something that's going to work reliably and be supported for a long time on Linux, and AMD has not been able to prove themselves on either of those fronts. My last three desktop cards have been Nvidia, with the deciding factor being their Linux support every time, and despite some obvious drawbacks they have delivered quality Linux support with timely updates and long-term support. I hate to ride the fanboy train, but until AMD catches up on the Linux side, I have to stick with Nvidia.
Despite this being one of the limiting factors for my motherboard selection, I ended up replacing the Audigy 2 when I switched to the Intel motherboard. While I still like the features, capabilities, and especially the front drive bay component (it used to be called a Live! drive; not sure about the Audigy branding) of the Audigy 2, the hardware itself seems to be failing; every time I boot or resume my computer, I get a LOT of static through the speakers, lasting for a few minutes before (mostly) slowing down and stopping. I had this problem with my old computer as well, and was hoping that the new computer/motherboard and cleaning the contacts would help out, but that wasn't the case.
So, I switched over to the Asus Xonar DX, and I've been happy with it. It's a PCIe card, has a connector to drive front panel headphone/speaker ports, and the Linux driver is solid. I really haven't had any trouble with the card, and it sounds great. And, as a bonus, no static. :-) I do miss the live drive (in particular the volume control knob so I could easily adjust the volume coming through my headphones while playing drums), but the rest of the pros definitely outweigh that one con. I have no problems recommending this card.
I currently use an Audigy 2 Platinum. Despite Creative's extremely half-hearted attempts at Linux support over the years (which has proven almost entirely ineffectual), it works fine on Linux. It actually even offers some features that are difficult (if not impossible) to find on modern sound cards, such as a real MIDI synthesizer, soundfont support, multiple hardware mixers, etc. (and if stuff like "MIDI synthesizer" sounds antiquated keep in mind that classic gaming is a hobby of mine and I take full advantage of all the hardware capabilities of my sound card).
Unfortunately, the Audigy 2 is a conventional PCI card, support for which has been largely phased out on modern systems in favor of PCI Express. I've searched, tirelessly, for a well-supported (in Linux) PCIe card capable of matching at least most of the Audigy 2's capabilities, and I have yet to find it. So, I'll one again have to stick with my Audigy 2 for this upgrade, which is going to limit my motherboard selection as most high-end motherboards no longer support PCI. Most lower-end boards still do, and it appears that a smattering of higher-end boards do as well, so I'm hopeful I can find something that will work for me. This will almost certainly be the last upgrade through which I can carry this card, though. Hopefully at some point in the next three years or so I'll finally be able to find an adequate replacement.
As noted in my last upgrade discussion, I'm still using two 22" Viewsonic CRTs for my desktop. They're big and heavy, and one appears to be starting to go slightly fuzzy, but given the retro gaming I do on my desktop (at a great many different resolutions), these CRTs still beat every LCD monitor I've seen on the market for my typical usage scenarios. As a result, I'll be sticking with these monitors once again, probably until they die (which will be a very sad day).
I recently had to replace my computer speaker system because of a lightening strike, so I have a fairly new Logitech Z906 (Newegg) 5.1 channel surround system. There's absolutely no reason to replace this.
I also decided to pick up a new media card reader. My old 3.5" reader works fine, but since my new case has four 5.25" bays, I thought I'd take a look at alternative options and found the nMEDIAPC ZE-C288. It has a few things that I like; in addition to basic multi-card reader functionality, it also provides a native microSD card slot, which is the type of card I most frequently use with it), two additional USB 3.0 ports, and two fan controllers (which I'm not sure I'll use, but the option is nice). Unfortunately, it has a rather low review score on Newegg due to not-so-great quality parts, but on paper the features look really nice, and for $27 I thought it'd be worth taking the chance.
Probably not going to change much here, either. I have a fairly old Logitech USB keyboard (Elite) and wireless mouse (Performance Mouse MX) that are rather worn at this point, but, sadly, are still the best options out there for my needs. Everything else - printer, scanner, network, etc., just works, so no need to mess with any of it.
This post ended up being much more long-winded than I originally anticipated, but I guess that's not terribly unexpected for me. I've also been working on this off-and on for a few weeks now, so... yeah, it's time to get this first draft posted.
If you stuck with it through the end, I hope you found it at least marginally informative and entertaining. If you have any feedback on my product selection, or in fact any of my comments above, please let me know (you'll need to e-mail me as comments are still disabled). I'll update this post as I finalize product selection, so stay tuned.
Update: 03/01/10 16:53
It's bought. I ended up going with the primary choices listed below. The motherboard was a tough call, as my current ASUS works so well, but I have a couple small nitpicky complaints that pushed me over to trying the Gigabyte board. Hope it works out.
Update: 02/26/10 03:00
I think I've decided on the motherboard and RAM. I updated the links below. I also decided to scale back to 4 GB of RAM. I'm simply having a hard time justifying 8 GB, even to myself. Since I'm only going to be using two of the four avaialble DIMM slots, though, I can always add more later if it becomes necessary.
At this point I should be ready to go, but I'm going to hold off a few more days (probably through the weekend) before making the purchase. I still want to do some more research to verify Linux compatibility with the motherboard and other stuff like that.
Update: 02/25/10 00:56
I've tentatively narrowed the motherboard down to two selections, one each from ASUS and Gigabyte. Models are listed below, but I still need to do more research on both the boards and RAM compatibility.
For the last several months I've been jonesin' for some of the new Intel Nehalem hotness (aka Core i7/9). From everything I've read, this is a major step up from the previous Core 2 generation of processors (which itself was a major step up from the Pentium line). However, I built my current desktop in March of 2007 (which, for the record, I'm very happy with), so I've bad to be patient and put off upgrading for a while. Given that March will be the three year mark for my desktop, though, I think it's about time to take the plunge. :-)
Now, as I mentioned above, I do very much like my current system, so rather than building a new computer altogether I'm just going to upgrade the guts of my existing one. For reference, here are the specs of my desktop. I plan on salvaging as much as possible, which should include the case, power supply, drives, video and sound cards, monitors, and all peripherals. The CPU, motherboard, and RAM will all need to be replaced (as well as the network card, which is integrated on the motherboard).
As I've done previously when researching components for my desktop and NAS, I'm going to post the details here both for reference and feedback. Since I'm just doing an upgrade this time, though, the list will be much shorter (and thankfully, much cheaper).
I'm just starting research at this point, but here's what I have in mind so far:
This seems to be the real sweet spot right now in the Nehalem line up in terms of price and performance. It's smokin' fast, includes both Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading (which are actually done right in Nehalem), and is not outrageously expensive. The Core i7-920 ($290 - Newegg) is another viable option, but although the two processors are approximately the same cost, the i7-8xx platform as a whole is cheaper than the i7-9xx due to the cost of other components. Unless something changes drastically in the next few weeks, the i7-860 will likely be my pick.
If you're interested in what makes this chip so lust-worthy, here are some (much) more detailed reviews by AnandTech:
Nehalem architecture overview: http://www.anandtech.com/cpuchipsets/showdoc.aspx?i=3448
Lynnfield processor core overview: http://www.anandtech.com/cpuchipsets/showdoc.aspx?i=3634
Core i7-860 review: http://www.anandtech.com/cpuchipsets/showdoc.aspx?i=3641
The motherboard situation is, as usual, a tougher call. There are loads of available options, ranging from <$100 to >$350, covering four different compatible chipsets (for the i7-860) and scads of different features. Here are a few options that should help narrow it down, though:
The RAM, PCIe, and NIC requirements are all pretty standard at this point. SATA 6 Gb/s and USB 3.0 are both brand-spanking new, though, so they're only available on a (relatively) few number of motherboards. I don't need either of these at this point in time, but I would like to have them available for future upgrades I'm considering (more on that below).
This excessively long Newegg link shows the current list of contenders, with prices ranging from $135 - $280. I'll narrow that list down just just two or three soon, but I need to do some more research first.
G.SKILL F3-12800CL7D-4GBECO, 4 GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 (PC3-12800) CAS 7-8-7-24-2N 1.35v ($120 - Newegg)
alternative: G.SKILL F3-10666CL7D-4GBRH, 4 GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 (PC3-10666) CAS 7-7-7-21 1.5v ($115 - Newegg)
I haven't decided on RAM yet, but the above options are the two leading contenders based on CPU specs and prior experience (I used G.SKILL in my current desktop and, once again, I'm quite happy with it). I won't be able to make a final decision until I've nailed down a motherboard, but here are my current thoughts:
There are several other components that I'd like to upgrade in the not-too-distant future, but I think I'm going to hold off a bit longer on them. Here are some current thoughts on this topic, in no particular order:
I currently run WD Raptor 127 GB drive for my system drive, and a slower WD RE2 500 GB drive for my home/data drive. At the time I built this computer, the Raptor was the fastest consumer drive available, but it wasn't big enough to hold all my data, so added the larger, slower drive for that. It's worked out pretty well, but since than I added my wonderful NAS to the mix, and with 2 TB of usable storage on that, I just don't have a great need for a large amount of local storage on my desktop.
Within the next year or so, I expect to jump on the solid-state drive bandwagon. I already see extremely compelling performance from these drives, with the Intel X25-M G2 setting the current consumer standard (see the AnandTech review for details) and newer, more efficient SSD controllers recently being introduced. However, I think this market still has some room to grow before I'm ready to jump on board. I'm specifically looking forward to Intel's third-generation SSD (and the competition's response), which is due out in Q4 2010. I'm hoping that by that point the maturing technology will have the last few kinks worked out, and that the prices should start approaching "reasonable".
Back to the current upgrade process. I think I'm going to reformat the Raptor and use it for both my system and data partitions, and just lose the RE2 altogether. I simply don't need that much local storage anymore with my NAS, so consolidating to the single faster disk makes sense (not to mention the slight power and heat savings from removing the second disk). This will also act as a good transition to an SSD, as those drives are quite small.
While my current 22" Viewsonic CRTs are gorgeous, they're also big, heavy, power sucking beasts. They served me well for the last few years, but I'm definitely ready to move on. Unfortunately, that magic combination of size, quality, and price of flat panel monitors still has yet to meet my requirements. I can certainly find some options available to day that I'd be satisfied with, but since my current monitors are still going strong I'd rather hold off a bit longer until I can (hopefully) get something I'm truly happy with. I'm going to evaluate my options again around the time I upgrade to an SSD, at which point I'm hoping there will be some better options available.
Since I don't game very much on my computer these days (thanks primarily to the rampant anti-consumer use of DRM), my current video card is more than powerful enough my needs. Unfortunately, despite being the top of the line model of the GeForce 8 series when I bought it just three years ago, Nvidia chooses not to support it properly for video decoding and acceleration (despite cheaper, lower cost versions of the same damn series of cards being perfectly well supported; not that I'm bitter). I'm also limited to 2xDVI output connectors on this card, which again works fine for my needs, but could potentially limit my monitor upgrade options.
For now, I don't have any definite plans to upgrade the card, but I'll reevaluate this if and when I finally get around to replacing my monitors. At that point, I can probably get a more powerful, more efficient card with more flexible output options for significantly less than what I paid for this card initially. I'm not sure it'll be worth it, but it's an option.
I currently use an Audigy 2, which works fine, but I almost want to upgrade the card out of spite for Creative Labs, which has become radically anti-Linux in recent years. I probably won't of course, if only because getting surround sound working properly under Linux requires a certain black magic that I have yet to fully understand, which makes me hesitant to even touch my working configuration. Plus, honestly, I'd be no better off after spending the money than I am now. Nonetheless, good Linux support is important to me, and I have no problem supporting companies that also support Linux. If I see something particularly compelling with great Linux support (or, as great as Linux support can be given the mess that is ALSA) I'll probably go ahead and pick it up.
That pretty much covers it. I'm pleased with my current speakers, input peripherals, case, power supply, and optical drive, so unless something just breaks and needs replacement, I'll be sticking with what I have. Granted, these components (with the exception of my speakers) are among the least expensive components of my computer, so I'm not exactly saving oodles of money by sticking with them, but I'll take what I can get.
This post ended up being much more long-winded than I originally anticipated, but I guess that's not terribly unexpected for me. If you stuck with it through the end, I hope you found it at least marginally informative and entertaining. If you have any feedback on my product selection, or in fact any of my comments above, please leave a comment below. I'll also update this post as I finalize product selection.
I finally ordered my hardware. I also finalized the list of components below and provided more details, rationale, and commentary about their selection. I also still need to finish some of the details of this post, which I've put off way to long (and I'm going to put off a bit longer), but that will eventually happen. Also, once I start building the NAS I'm going to document the pros/cons and any gotchas involved in setting up the system. Stay tuned.
For the past couple of months I've been researching various home NAS (network attached storage) solutions. Currently, all file-serving and backups are handled by a desktop system in my living room - which also handles my website and e-mail, multimedia functionality (hence running it in my living room), and a whole lot more. As I'm getting rather tired of the noise and recent instability, I want to migrate all functionality off of this system onto other systems/servers better suited to the tasks. My first step is setting up a NAS system for my house.
As I said above, I've been researching this for quite some time now, mostly because I'm having trouble deciding which direction I want to take. The two main choices are:
A commercial appliance would be the much simpler route, and is mostly what I'd been researching, but for various reasons I'm actually learning towards building a dedicated system now. The primary reason, to be completely honest, is flexibility. If I build my own hardware and install a "real" OS on it, even though it may be used specifically designed to function as a NAS device I still have the ability to do anything else with it that I may want or need. With an appliance, I'm much more limited in what I can do here (if it's even possible at all). Some appliances do allow remote console access, but every one I've seen is very vague on details as far as what can be done once you've logged in. Without being able to test it out myself, I have to assume that I won't meet my requirements.
So, why is building a dedicated system such a hard decision? This breaks down into two categories:
Let me address the efficiency issue first as it's more straightforward. This box will be running 24x7, and I want something that's going to be as quiet and energy efficient as possible. The majority of the appliances I've looked at were designed with this in mind, and while some are much better than others, all are more efficient than a typical desktop system. I want to stick this thing in a corner and not ever see it or hear it; just have it run reliably and not make a significant dent in my power bill.
The functionality issue is a bit more complicated. I stated previously that flexibility was the primary reason I wanted to build my own system, which may seem to contradict with this current statement, but they apply to different scopes. The former is about OS-level functionality; the latter is more about hardware functionality. Eg., two features I'd really like from my NAS are hardware RAID 5 using four disks and hot-swappable drives, both of which a fairly among among higher-end home NAS appliances. Hardware RAID is easy enough to do on a custom built system, but how-swappable drives is a completely separate issue; short of a rack mount server or tower-style case (both of which are ruled out by the noise/efficiency requirements), options are extremely limited.
With all that said, here are the components that I'm currently looking at. Any and all feedback, especially regarding personal experience, is most welcome.
Unlike most custom built systems where the case is a fairly insignificant component, this choice of components in this system is almost entirely dictated by the case as I've only been able to find one that meets both the noise/efficiency and NAS functionality requirements described above. As a result, my requirements (and personal preferences) are:
The case is the defining feature of this system. Whereas the system case can usually be considered an afterthought in most computer systems, for this project it was absolutely key. I wanted something small, quiet, and yet flexible enough to do whatever I needed. The hot-swappable drive bays in particular were a huge selling point. That, combined with the looks and form factor, is what ultimately convinced me that I could make a custom built system fit my needs rather than going with an appliance solution.
As a result, the case largely dictated much of the component selection below. It has a very unique form factor, which imposes several requirements on component choices. If anyone building a NAS decides to go with this case, be sure to do a lot of research on what can/can't be used. It looks like a slick little case, though, and if things work out as expected it should definitely be worth it.
Motherboard/processor selection was a really, really tough choice. I looked at many different options, covering the range from full dual-core Intel / AMD desktop procs to ultra low-voltage systems such as teh AMD Geode and integrated VIA processors. I ended up choosing the the EPIA SN10000EG motherboard based on a number of factors, including:
Note that the above list is not all "pros" for this board; it's simply a list of all factors that I considered. For example, I would've much preferred a dual-core 64-bit system, but the desktop choices were more power hungry than I wanted and the lower voltage solutions ("mobile on desktop") were of limited availability and maturity and prohibitively expensive. Most Mini-ITX systems are for some reason considered "industrial", which is just way of saying "expensive". $250 for a Mini-ITX motherboard and processor w/ integrated video is, sadly, pretty cheap compared to some of the other choices I explored.
Once I had decided on a VIA board, I looked at both the SN10000EG and SN18000G really hard, which are both essentially the same board though one uses a 1.0 GHz processor w/ passive cooling while the other uses a 1.8 GHz processor w/ active cooling. I actually had to fight my natural instincts to go with the faster board hear. If I was not including a high end hardware RAID controller in the mix then I definitely would've done with the SN18000G. However, I am including the RAID controller, while will take care of pretty much all of the disk processing. As a result, the more limited 1.0 GHz processor should be plenty enough to drive the gigabit NIC and take care of any other overhead. Plus, I like the fanless design and the fact that it draws literally half the power of the 1.8 proc. Like I said in my long introduction, power and noise are primary factors.
It's also important to mention that people building their own NAS systems in the future will actually have more/better options here than are available today. In particular, both the Intel Atom and Via Nano processors appear to be very very well suited for this type of system, packing plenty of power in a compact, low-power design. I'd especially love to use a Nano-based system for this, but it'll be several months before such systems are available.
RAM was basically an arbitrary selection - the above appears to be good RAM for a good price. However, RAM height matters here. From what I've read, if a CD-ROM drive is included in the case, then the drive will sit right on top of the RAM. Tall RAM will not fit. The SN10000EG motherboard I selected also poses a problem - since it includes a built-in compact flash card reader on the underside of the board, the board sits up a bit higher than usual. As a result, RAM height is even more of a issue.
I'm hoping that this DIMM will fit. I'll certainly report on it when I start building the system. From what I can tell now, it appears that if you're only using one DIMM, and a CD-ROM drive, you should be ok. If you plan on using two DIMMs, the CD-ROM will sit directly over the second DIMM, and as a result you'll need to get low profile RAM to fit it in. Alternatively, of course, the CD-ROM drive can be omitted.
The RAID card is another cause for concern. The special form factor case means that there isn't any standard method to secure add-on cards in place (eg., as you would screw a PCI card into the rear of a typical case). Chenbro makes a special PCI riser card and face plate for this, but it's limited to 32-bit PCI only, and only one recommended motherboard (hint: it's not the one I chose). As a result, I'm gambling a bit on the RAID card. I should be able to make it fit in the case with the above PCI-e riser card, but I'm not sure how/if I'll be able to secure it. Again, I'll report on this in more detail once I begin building the system.
As for the choice of RAID controller, I want with a high end 3ware card simply because I know it'll work and work well. Some things are worth paying for, and this is one of them.
Why terabyte drives? Why not? In all honesty, while they still carry a pretty decent price premium at this point, they're also among the best performing and quietest drives due to their high aerial density. Plus, they're huge. I'm building this system to act as the central file server for my entire home network, and quite frankly, I don't want to ever have to worry about running out of space on this system. With 2 TB of usable disk space (3-1 for the RAD 5), I'll have plenty, plenty of space to work with for the foreseeable future, and in the very unlikely event I manage to fill that up I can still slap one more TB disk in there at any time.
I chose the SpinPoint F1 drives not because the are the fastest, or quietest, or most efficient. Rather, I chose them because they are probably the best combination of all three factors. I spent a lot of time looking at various hard drives, evaluating them on these three criteria, and the SpinPoint F1 looks to be the leader of the pack at this point. Here are some detailed statistics if you're interested, courtesy of Storage Review.
The SN10000EG motherboard that I chose included a built-in compact flash card slot that's supposedly treated as an IDE device. As a result, I decided to go with a CF card as my main system drive. This will let me keep my OS install separate from the data drive RAID, and will generate less heat and noise than a normal hard drive as there are no moving parts. Of course, performance and lifecycle are concerns when using CF cards like this, but I plan on running my system mostly off of a ramdisk (hence the need for 2 GB). I'll discuss this more in my follow-up.
This was another arbitrary choice, but I've had decent luck with Samsung drives in the past and I liked the specs on this one. I should mention, though, that for this type of system a built-in CD-ROM drive is largely optional. It's needed to install the OS and nothing else. If you have a USB CD-ROM drive (or even a key drive) available, you could easily connect that temporarily to install the OS. In this case, I opted for the drive to have literally in case of any emergency situations - eg., my system died for some reason, and I need to boot off a rescue CD to recover/repair ASAP.
Network Interface Card
Currently I'm leaning toward OpenFiler as I have a heavy Linux bias, but FreeBSD seems to enjoy a stronger community following. I plan on investigating both. If both distros support my hardware properly, then all things being equal I'll stick with OpenFiler. However, I'm certainly not ruling out FreeNAS just yet.
The total cost of this system ended up being significantly higher than I first expected: $1425.29, plus tax and shipping. This is extremely pricey for a home NAS server, even a custom built one. In my case, I had certain requirements that I wanted to meet at all (reasonable) costs, and I feel the price was worthwhile. For anyone else, though, there are a few places where scaling back would save a lot of money.
RAID Controller - This was the single most expensive component. Find a motherboard that supports 4 SATA ports and setup either software RAID or on-board (fake hardware) RAID. It's definitely not as efficient or reliable, but it may work well enough depending on the requirements.
Hard Drives - I used three terabyte drives, which still carry a hefty premium. If you don't need an insane amount of storage room, consider smaller drives. For example, the 500 GB Western Digital Caviar SE16 (WD5000AAKS) can be picked up on Newegg for only $80, less than half the price of the terabyte drives I used. You can buy 4 of these for only $320, which in a RAID 5 array will still give you 1.5 TB worth of usable disk space. Also, you can skip the separate system drive (in my case, a compact flash card) and just install the OS directly on the RAID.
Case - There's no way around it - this is an expensive case. Unfortunately, if you want a compact, attractive, custom-built system w/ hot-swappable drives, this is pretty much your only choice at this point. However, if aesthetics and hot-swappability is not a primary concern, there's no reason you should need to spend more than $100 on a case, at the high-end.
Motherboard / Processor - Going with a different case will also likely free up some additional motherboard options. Eg., going with a standard ATX motherboard, or even a micro-ATX motherboard, will be far cheaper than a mini-ITX system.
Starting from scratch, and taking the above points into consideration, you should be able to knock at least half the price off of my system configuration, and even much more than that if focusing on budget rather than performance/features. Be sure to keep this in mind when spec'ing our your own system; don't let yourself be surprised by the total bill like I was. ;-)
For reference, here are the best appliance options I found:
to complete - QNAP, Storango, Irfrant, Thecus?
Update: 03/26/2007 05:03
I finally selected a data hard drive - the WD drive ended up beating out the Seagate based on some performance and acoustic reviews. I also changed my case selection from the Cooler Master Centurion 532 to the Gigabyte Poseidon GZ-XA1CA-STB. The Gigabyte seems to be a bit sturdier based on reviews, and also includes a rear 120mm fan (unlike the Cooler Master case). And with that, I'm done! Thanks to everyone that provided feedback. I'm going to unsticky this post as soon as I order the parts.
Update: 03/24/2007 15:05
I have nearly all components picked out. The only things left to do are decide on one of the three data hard drive choices and choose a rear cooling fan (which really shouldn't be too difficult). After that, it's time to spend some money! :-) Last call for comments if anyone has other suggestions...
I'm currently researching components for a new computer. Here's what I've decided on so far. Any comments or suggestions?
Undecided if I will purchase new monitors
If reused - ViewSonic G220fb (x2)
Network Interface Card
Integrated Dual Gigabit LAN controllers, Marvell PCI-E and PCI
Reused - Creative Soundblaster Audigy 2, plus integrated ADI AD1988B 8ch HD Audio
Reused - Logitech Elite keyboard, Logitech MX1000 mouse
pdabuyersguide.com posted a mouth-watering review of Sharp's new newet C-series Zaurus model, the SL-C860. Unfortunately, as with previous C-series models, the C860 is only available in Japan. Damn! But, you can import it through localization specialists such as Dynamism.
You can read the full review here.
Transmeta launched its new Efficeon processor today, once again turning up the heat in the increasingly import low-power-consumption market. The Efficeon is a pretty big improvement over Transmeta's previous Crusoe line, so here's hoping they can get some top-tier vendor backing.
You can read the full article here. There aren't any major revalations, but it does provide a good introduction to both the Efficeon processor and Transmeta, so it's a pretty good read.