Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Building my new rig–day 0

Day 0:  Well the time has come to build my new Desktop computer. I know they are going out of fashion. However I do use mine for my photography, music and blogging as well as work-related stuff. One of the downsides of working from home is that you do you own IT support, mind you,  it is also an upside. Although I wouldn’t claim to be an expert I have run sys admin for a group of Unix boxes and am aware of the issues. I still believe in the idea that if you don’t back up your data three times then you really don’t care about it.

In the past I have spent several hours upon a piece of work only for a computer or app crash to lose it all, just as I was about to finish.  There is nothing worse than re-doing stuff you have already done, especially if you are under pressure to finish up for the day.  A friend also “lost”  several thousand lines of code, fortunately he had a printout of the program and was able to scan it in and then use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert it in to machine readable form. It took a bit of work to get it running though, even now OCR isn’t perfect and in those days it could be pretty temperamental when working on the output of a dot-matrix printer.

I have also been having some issues with my current Desktop Computer which is around 5 years old. I have modified it somewhat. I have increased the disk storage capacity (x10), originally it came with a RAID 0 drive, which in the general scheme of things was an odd choice. RAID – Redundant array of independent disks allows a group of disks to appear as one, but they can be designed to work more quickly, by spreading data over two or more disks or more securely by providing redundancy. I wanted a quick machine, but latterly have settled for a more secure machine and switched it to Raid 1. My data is approaching around 1Tb of which around half is my pictures.

It wouldn’t really be the end of the world to lose them, but I don’t really want to. I have also taken to scanning documents and they could be more problematic if they got lost. The other challenge is that as I have been using video more, my machine struggles to process larger data sets.  So I have a passing acquaintance with the inside of a PC and the technology that goes inside. In reality building a computer is more of a constructional challenge than an electronic one. I have been checking out new video cards and thought why not go the whole way and build a new computer.

My goal was to build a fast and simple machine, but not at the bleeding edge of performance, because that costs. By backing off a little on performance you can still end up with a decent computer, but without it being too expensive. Mind you I am not trying to scrimp. I won’t use RAID though, I reckon some of my reliability problems were related to the RAID disk system. Paradoxically the (old) computer has been fairly reliable after giving it a scrub and re-loading the operating system (OS). It hasn’t been totally trouble free though.

My first step was to buy a book. Although the web has loads and loads of places to go to get information it can be tricky working out what is reliable and what is just a load of hot air. As lads my brother and I used to be keen on motorcycles and did our own maintenance. At one point we had an old  ‘57 Triumph 3TA, although without the bathtub. We rebuilt it and gave it a modern paint job. The best bit was after one particularly cold afternoon in the garage we  took the engine into the kitchen to put the barrel and head back on. Our parents were out! We failed to get it finished before they returned and my mother was not best pleased. Maybe that was the impetus we needed to get it back together. It was a very sweet moment the next day when after sticking the engine back in the frame it started on the third kick.  No, we weren't getting annoyed, it didn’t have the mod-cons of an electric starter.

Whew that was a digression, why – well the place to go for repair/maintenance manuals for motorbikes and cars was a company called Haynes.  They were very good and one of the first purchases after the acquisition of a motorbike, or later on a car, would be a Haynes Manual. Well they also do a manual called “Build your own Computer” and very good it is too. Whilst it simplifies matters it also gets to the nub of some detailed issues that I struggled to get a straight answer for on the web.

Haynes Manual: Build your own Computer

I then spent my evenings “watching” the TV, but really checking out what I needed. Essentially the choices were – Motherboard, Processor, Memory, Disk, Graphics, Optical drive and, last but not least a case. The result was I spent some time going round the possible choices considering what specifications I wanted and what the consequences would be of different choices. I suppose the first choice was Intel or AMD, I went for Intel, their products are used more widely and so the rough edges were more likely to have been rubbed off.  I probably ended up paying more for the name, but hey that’s life.

The next big choice, was what socket?  When you buy a Motherboard you buy a separate processor and have to “plug it in”. The choice of socket defines which family group of processors you can use. To cut a long story short I have gone for an i5 core – the i5-3570K  (a third generation Core) which uses an LGA1155 socket. It is a good compromise between performance and cost, the K on the end means that I will also be able to over-clock it. It is an Ivy Bridge CPU and I chose to use a Motherboard with an Ivy Bridge chipset.

At this point I found myself going round in circles. The Ivy Bridge chipset has a number of family members and they define the capabilities that you will find on the mother board, such as what sort of graphics cards can be supported, how many SATA ports (for connecting disk drives and optical drives) and how many USB ports. For future-proofing I also wanted to be able to use SATA 3.0 ports capable of 6Gbits/s transfer rates and USB 3.0 capable of speeds up to 4.8Gbit/s.

One determinant of how fast your computer goes is how fast can it get programs from the disk and then how fast can it read and write data to/from the disk. The other issue I wanted to deal with is how long backups take. For instance my pictures currently occupy around 520Gbytes of disk. Note a byte is 8 bits. So allowing for overheads a SATA 3.0 port capable of 6Gbits/s is able to shift 600MB/s (megabytes). This means at peak it would take 15minutes to shirt all the data. In reality it takes a lot longer – on my old machine RAID verifies would take 8+ hours and sometimes repeat several times.

I also wanted to be able to use Windows 8, without too much hassle, which meant choosing a Motherboard that was certified, at the time of doing this, that knocked out quite a few options. One aspect that I did decide whilst reviewing my options was to use an SSD drive along with a conventional HDD. I wasn’t to sure whether to use it as a cache drive, letting the OS hide it away, or to get a bigger one and put some/all programs on it and how to structure my data.

The goal was still to build a machine which was reliable, quite fast and not to complex. So my specification ended up as:

i5 processor (LGA1155) , P77 chipset (with >=2 USB 3.0 and >= 2 SATA 3.0), minimum of 2Tb or HDD, 8 or 16Gb of DRAM, optical drive capable of reading and writing Blu-ray and a good graphics good, capable of decent resolution. Flexible case with plentiful, but conventional cooling, solid power supply.

Next – what I actually chose.

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