Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Hexaputer Project

What is a Hexaputer?

In general terms it is a six core computer. Both AMD and Intel make six core CPUs now. That's like having six computers in one little package of silicon bliss.

My last computer was an EMachine T6250. Bought almost exactly six years ago it was at the time a reasonably good computer for the $800 I paid for it at FutureShop. It was the first 'full' system I had ever bought myself. Before that, I'd always bought just a new CPU, or a new monitor, or upgraded the CPU, or....well, you get the idea.

The T6250 is based on the Athlon 64 3200+ CPU and is a 64 bit capable CPU. I confess I never really leveraged the 64 bit abilities. A lot of things, at the time, didn't run under 64-bit XP, and I had an XP Pro copy that I received (free) when I attended the launch event. It was 32 bit, so I flattened the XP Home the machine came with, installed XP Pro 32bit, and only looked back once in a while.

In hindsight, I'm surprised it lasted me this long. That it did is a testament to the amount of headroom that little beast had. In the days before XP supported SATA, it had SATA ports. The factory configuration didn't use them, but I eventually did. Over time, I added more memory, a nice 24" Dell monitor, a BFG 8800GTX NVidia card, and 2 1TB SATA drives to that box.

Recently, I was considering trying to upgrade the CPU. The factory CPU cooler was making ugly noises, so I bought a replacement unit, but never ended up installing it. I sat on the fence for over a year, debating what to do. Meanwhile, friends of mine bought i7-920 Intel systems, and other newer machines.

Oddly enough, the breaking point came when I got a new DSLR. The new camera is 16Mp and the images are just enough larger that copying and processing them in CS4 was starting to become a pain.

So, I did some research. No point in getting a 64 bit computer, with a 64 bit copy of Windows 7 if the things I use a lot weren't going to work. Adobe CS4 works. Spyder 3 Pro (my monitor profiling tool) works, my photo printer and day to day printer from Canon appear to have 64 bit drivers.....the planets were starting to align.

The next question was what to get. I like the look of the Alienware computers from DELL, and friends of mine have them. They're nice. I customized one one night. When I was done, let's just say the $ figure I arrived at was more than enough to send me to bed empty handed. It wasn't that I couldn't afford it, but if I had bought it, it would have hands down been the most expensive computer I've ever owned.

I felt I could do better.

I've been happy with the AMD Athlon. Even though AMD has been lagging behind Intel for quite some time in raw performance, they have some things in their favor. But there was a LOT to learn.

First of all, with any motherboard out there, you can run a single graphic card (either ATI or NVidia) no problem. The potential for trouble arises when you want to run two cards that communicate with each other. Both ATI/AMD and NVidia have well proven solutions for that, but the catch is, most motherboards only support one or the other (and from what I've read, although some might let you mix and match, you really don't want to go there).

This led me to realize that the choice of components was a tricky one. First, I decided on an AMD 6 core processor. They do not have the same raw performance as the Intel CPUs, but in 'bang for buck' terms, they rock.

Then, after thinking about it, for reasons I'll get into shortly, I decided to go with an AMD/ATI Crossfire motherboard instead of an NVidia compatible solution.

My current graphics card was long ago eclipsed by newer technologies, so there was little sense in trying to bring it across. And Tiger Direct has barebones kits.

These are a great solution for someone who wants to save a little money, build a computer, and know first hand the details of everything that is in the box, without having to make sure everything works with everything else. They do that latter part. So, I ordered a barebones kit with one addition. Here is the Hexaputer:

CoolerMaster 932 HAF Case w/700W Power Supply
ASUS Crosshair IV Formula Motherboard
AMD Phenom II 1100T Black Edition
8 Gb 1333MHz DDR3 RAM
XFX Radeon 5850 Graphics Card Black Edition
Corsair H70 Liquid CPU Cooler
Sony Optairic DVD/CD
Windows 7 Ultimate

I didn't, upon seeing it, buy it right away. I read several reviews. There are cheaper AMD 6 core chips that appear to overclock just as well......but the price differential was not that great. Certainly nowhere near like the difference between the AMD and Intel CPUs......

So I pulled the trigger. The packages arrived while I was away but Shauna was able to pick them up (thank god, I hate dealing with UPS). So when I got back from my latest trip, I had a new computer. There was only one catch.

Some assembly required.

I unpacked everything, looked it over, browsed the manuals, cleared a place to work (the dining room table is a great place to assemble a computer when you're single, especially if, like mine, your dining room has a wooden floor) and got started. The power supply was pre-installed, so the first thing I did was install the bracket for the cooler on the motherboard.

The H70 uses a custom bracket. I was glad I didn't wait until I had the motherboard mounted in the case. There is a cutout that lets you get at part of the back of the CPU mount, but it wouldn't have been enough to mount the custom H70 cooler bracket if I had already installed the motherboard. Fortunately, removing the stock bracket and installing the H70 mounting system was the first thing I did.

The next thing I had to do was set the standoff screw mounts for the motherboard in the case. This isn't too hard, you look at the holes in the motherboard, lining it up roughly where you want it to go, look for a nearby hole in the case, and screw in a brass standoff screw mount.

I had 3 screws in the motherboard itself before I realized I'd forgotten to install the backing plate in the case......and no, you can't 'finesse' it. I undid the motherboard screws, put the plate in, then got back to the business of screwing in the motherboard.

The next step was to put the CPU in the socket. This isn't hard.

Next, I hooked up the Corsair H70 cooler. This was not part of the kit, it was something I ordered separately at the same time. I decided to buy this system because the reviews said it was fairly easy to overclock. They also said, if you were going to do that, some form of liquid cooling was a very good idea. The H70 has a radiator sandwiched between two fans. One pulls cold air in, the other pushes hot air out. The idea is, you mount it so that cold air comes in from outside the case, blows through the radiator and then gets sucked out of the radiator and into the interior of the case.

Doing this in many system cases could pose real problems, as you're dumping a lot of hot air into the case. The HAF 932 though should handle this without trouble. It has a large fan near the floor to suck in cold air, and a large fan on the top to blow out hot air. I've checked, they're both working properly. High Air Flow for sure I think. The only catch was, I had to remove one of the 'stock' case fans to give me a place to mount the H70. Four problemo.

Next, I installed the CD/DVD Drive and the 1Tb hard drive that came with it, and hooked up the relevant SATA cables. I didn't pay a lot of attention to which SATA port I plugged what into, which really isn't that big a deal, but, as I'll detail later, can lead to some excitement.

Then I hooked up all the leads from the front panel and a plate that occupies an expansion port back panel (it provides more USB, etc). And, of course, I connected all the fans.

After installing the memory and the graphics card, it was time for the first power on test. I didn't install a monitor for this. I didn't really care if anything appeared on the screen. Instead, I just wanted to see it turn on properly and I was especially hoping for a lack of any sizzling sounds.....the first power on was (after a double check of the connectors) a complete success.

After that, I hooked up a monitor, and played with the overclocking functions a bit, then installed Windows 7, Adobe CS4 and MSOffice (200-and old). All without difficulty.

At that point, I decided, it was time to take the plunge. I'd done all the Windows 7 updates (that was a chore), updated the BIOS (that was easy), and generally had enough experience with the system that I decided to decommission my old computer.

So, I shut everything down, pulled the 1Tb drives from the old 'puter (along with their SATA cables), plugged them into the new box, hooked EVERYTHING up (my USB collection resembles a Christmas tree) and turned it on.

Pretty much everything worked. The Hexaputer didn't like the new USB keyboard at first (no drivers), but the on screen mouse oriented keyboard fixed that (gotta figure out how to turn that off now), the drivers for all the USB devices and printers appeared to install OK (getting that in top shape remains a todo) and generally, everything just worked.

There was one catch. CPU-Z showed my memory was running at a much lower rate than it should be. This bothered me (maybe it shouldn't have, but it did), so I set about learning how to overclock.

Keep in mind.....I was overclocking computers before some of you were born. Yes, a lot has changed since then, but I used to low level format my hard drives at certain pre-determined interleaves to ensure they gave me the best performance. Trust me, that makes a few reboots and performance tests look like a cake walk. Still, there are things to learn, which, at the end of the day, was part of the reason I embarked on this project in the first place.

Stay tuned for The Care And Feeding of Hexaputers....... :)

In the meantime, here are some photos:

The back side of the case, showing cable routing:

The motherboard, showing the cooler:

Last, but not least the drive bays. Note, in order to use all of these I'm going to need a beefier PSU..... :)


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