New Machine

My faithful primary home machine, castor, after 4.5 years, was showing its age, and was especially sluggish with Eclipse, which with I’d begun dabbling in Android work. (Past tense, since I’ve put Android on hold while working on a different project, DiffJ).

So it was off to newegg for the parts for a new machine. The main criteria were speed (CPU and disk), and cost, preferably under $1000, and ideally under $900. (OK, actually ideally would be $0, but that’s quibbling.)

Without much elaboration, here’s the final setup:

Case – Antec 300 Illusion

This is for my newly-claimed, newly-painted, newly-furnished (thank you, Ikea!), and newly-decorated home office, where “home office” no longer means “table in the kitchen, and desk in the bedroom”. Since I have the tendency to start working early in the morning, I wanted a machine with lights. (The missus was no fan of the blue nocturnal illumination in the bedroom, so the lights of my Sonata case had been taped over.)

The Illusion does provide no shortage of illumination, with three bright lights, good for my wee-hour stumbling into the (home) office. And at $70, it was quite affordable.

Motherboard – ASUS M4A89GTD PRO/USB3

I’ve gone with Gigabyte and ASUS exclusively, and the Gigabyte motherboards supporting 6.0Gb/s SATA were not favorably reviewed on newegg, so this time it was ASUS’s fortunate turn. I also wanted onboard video, DVI specifically, since after getting a work machine with DVI, I’ve noticed the difference. ASUS motherboards are easy to work with, so this was an easy choice (after an hour or two of reading reviews). $150 at newegg.

CPU – AMD Phenom II X6 1075T

I generally prefer AMD for cost to performance, and this was very highly rated at cpubenchmark.net. At $175, it was right at the point of what I wanted to spend.

PSU – OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W

I’m not a gamer, and don’t have 6 SLI cards in my machines, but I wanted something above 500 watts. I’ve had a couple of failures of Antec CPUs, which I’ve exclusively used before, so I was looking for a modestly-priced alternative, and this was $75.

Memory – Kingston 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1333

To me, memory is memory, and the other web sites (Crucial, Corsair) were klunkier, so at $85, Kingston was king.

SSD – OCZ Vertex 2 60G

After working with an SSD, I’ll never use anything else for development. (Well, not until the next better alternative comes along.) At $105, this was pricey, but less so than the others. And it was from the same manufacturer as the PSU, appealing to my OCDness.

HDD – Western Digital Caviar Black WD1002FAEX 1TB 7200 RPM SATA 6.0Gb/s

$85 for one terabyte, and I use only WD drives, so this was an easy choice.

DVD – ASUS DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS Black SATA 24X DVD Burner

Mostly a ???, but same manufacturer as the motherboard. $25.

Network adapter – TP-LINK TL-WN851N PCI Wireless Adapter

I’ve had good luck with TP-Link and Linux. $27.

Keyboard – Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

The only Microsoft anything in this system, but I find their keyboards so much better than Logitech, and at $42, the 4000 is my favorite. Actually, I wanted the 7000 (wireless), but newegg wasn’t keeping them in stock. Maybe some day.

Mouse – Logitech M510 Black 5 Buttons Tilt Wheel USB RF Wireless Laser Mouse

Again, I’m not a gamer, but like the right-handed, full-sized mice the most, and opted for Logitech, at $40. I like my other mice, all Microsoft, but it’s becoming more difficult to find a non-“mobile” (read: small) mouse, and my big mitts don’t work well with those.

Assembly was straightforward, other than my being a bit befuddled by the EATX auxiliary power cord (8 prong, not 4), which resulted in black-screen at first boot. After some head-scratching (and reseating some dislodged memory), all was well.

Linux Mint is what I’ve been using for the past three or four machines, because It Just Works. No RPM fuddling, enabling restricted repositories, etc. Just boot, install, and off we go.

The trickiest part was how to mount and partition the SSD and HDD. Here’s mine, where the SSD is sda, and the HDD is sdb:

    /dev/sda1 on /boot type ext4
    /dev/sda5 on / type ext4
    /dev/sdb1 on /home type ext4
    /dev/sdb6 on /var type ext4
    /dev/sdb5 on /tmp type ext4
    /dev/sdb8 on /srv type ext4

That way the OS is on the SSD, as is /tmp. I do my development under /proc (it was /Files and /Depot, but I’m fighting the FHS less now).

The machine smokes, but only in the figurative sense. Far faster than before, and on par with my Intel X8 box.

“New” Machines

Last weekend I “rebuilt” two computers. The first was a true rebuild, migrating components from one case (an Antec NSK 1650) to a smaller one (Antec Minuet), with the goal of this being a small form factor machine for the kids to use in the library/TV room.

The machine was formerly a home server, but most of its functionality had been superseded by large external hard drives and off-site backups. So rather than it just occupy closet space, it was revived as a desktop system for the kids to use for gaming and education.

The components are hardly cutting edge: Gigabyte 8I865GME motherboard, Intel Sempron 331 (2.66 GHz) CPU, 512 MB of memory (Crucial D400), with 1GB added (Kingston), a Seagate 320GB PATA hard drive, a Pioneer DVD-RW, and a 20″ Dell flat panel monitor.

Installation in the Minuet was a bit of a hassle. As with other SFF cases, there is little room, and cable management is problematic. But the components fit well, and the quality of the case was excellent.

I then installed Windows XP and Ubuntu in both machines, first Windows, since Linux is much better at being installed after Windows than the other way around.

Installation of Windows XP was the typical nuisance, between the complexity (tracking down and installing drivers for audio, video, and wireless networking), and the time consumed.

In contrast, installing Ubuntu was amazingly easy. While installing Windows on the second computer, and after starting the format of the hard drive, I went to the first computer and started installing Ubuntu. The only screen during the Ubuntu installation that took me a while was the one for partitioning the hard drive. Not being familiar with the option of automatic resizing, I chose to partition the hard drive manually, with my usual scheme of dividing the space evenly between Windows and Linux, and allotting twice the RAM size as swap space. That done, I then launched Ubuntu into installing the files, and went back to check on the Windows box.

Windows was about halfway done formatting the hard drive, so I soon went back to the first computer. Ubuntu was done installing the files, so I booted up, and saw the Grub menu, with the Windows installation added. I checked the Windows installation, then booted into Ubuntu. In short, as they say, “it just works”. An alert popped up about connecting to a local wireless network, so I chose mine, and that was the end of configuration of the machine.

I put the Edubuntu CD into the drive, and started the Ubuntu package manager, from the Add/Remove Programs item in the menu. Installation of new programs was trivial, and the Edubuntu CD was also found as a repository for new programs. My 11 year-old son (it was his computer) had a lot of fun for the rest of the day on his “new” computer, finding and installing dozens of games and educational programs and utilities.

The experience on the other machine was essentially identical: problematic to install and configure Windows, and trivial to install Ubuntu.

I’m been a long-time Red Hat and Fedora user, but based on this experience, it’s very probable that I’ll switch my primary home machine to Ubuntu or a derivative, likely Linux Mint, for the extended multimedia support. I may keep with Fedora at work, if only to maintain my familiarity with it, and also because multimedia support is not an issue.

Small Form Factor XP Machine

I built a new machine today, for a friend. It was spec’ed to be a decent gaming system, but also to be small. This was my first SFF machine, and I chose, as usual, an Antec case, the 1380, as my starting point. I like Antec cases, which are not flashy, nor are they very expensive, and their power supplies are usually very good.

On-board graphics sufficed, so I looked at ASUS and Gigabyte motherboards, finally settling on the ASUS M2A-VM. For AMD CPUs, I find Gigabyte to be the best price/value ratio, but the Gigabyte motherboard that I preferred was not in stock at the time that I ordered, so I went with ASUS, looking for AM2 compatibility in a low-cost MB, with good graphics and SATA support.

An AMD Athlon 64 X2 Windsor 4600+ (are the names long enough?) was chosen as the CPU, and the retail version includes a fan. The 1380 also includes a “card fan”, that is, a fan that occupies one of the card slots.

The drives are a Western Digital Caviar 320GB SATA hard drive, and a Lite-On DVD burner, also SATA. Despite the frailty of the cables and connectors, SATA is preferable because its cables are thinner, making for better cooling and less “mess”, especially important in a small case.

Memory is 2GB (2 x 1GB) Kingston DD2 667 (PC2 5300). I’m not a memory snob: Kingston, Crucial, etc., are good with me.

The build was fairly easy, despite the confining confines of the case. I went slowly and double-checked everything — this type of build is not one to be torn apart and rebuilt repeatedly. A small amount of configuring the BIOS was done, mainly some head-scratching when I tried to figure out how much memory to dedicate to onboard video. I left it at the automatically-chosen one, 128MB.

Video and sound are good, although there is some odd flickering when the machine boots up and launches Windows. Nothing horrendous, and it may be because of the archaic monitor, which is about 8 years old. (The monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. are not included in the build, and are used just for testing the machine and installing the OS.)

The OS was Windows XP. Unless someone really wants Vista, I steer them toward XP. And if they don’t care much about the OS, I’m more and more comfortable recommending Linux. But this was for gaming, and Windows is better for playing games. (Add your own snide comment here, as necessary.)

Despite the small size and stock fan, the noise level is minimal, about the same as what would be expected from the Sonata case. Performance was impressive, and “testing” the machine (playing Minesweeper for 30 minutes) showed no recurrence of the flickering video issue, so I’ve concluded that the problem is isolated to startup.

The machine is intended to be connected via an Ethernet cable, so a wireless card was not needed. Some new motherboards include built-in Wi-Fi, so I’m eager to see that functionality become more widespread.

Nice machine, and I’ll probably start evolving toward replacing/upgrading other machines with a similar build. The total hardware cost, including shipping, from newegg.com was approximately $370.