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 Post subject: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Tue Mar 29, 2011 5:48 pm 
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Hi all, I'm a new member here, but I spent a long while reading the forums and website reviews. Thanks so much to everyone involved who contributed their wisdom and advice. It really was invaluable to someone like me who is comfortable around computers but had never built one before :)

Still I found the whole process a little overwhelming at times, and would like to share my experiences and choices here, in the hopes that it will be beneficial to someone else.


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 Post subject: Re: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:41 pm 
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Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 6:07 pm
Posts: 6
Problem

I needed a new computer, plain and simple. After 9 years of upgrades, my old one finally bit the dust. There were some major issues I did not want to repeat in a new build, namely:

1.) It was very loud. Sounded liked a jet engine taking off when I hit the power switch. Sadly it's something you can get used to over time, the constant droning whirring sound that dominates the entire room.

For some reason I find I'm very sensitive to noise anymore, be it electronic devices, ambient sound, other people, whatever the source I want to minimize the background noise. Also music is very important to me, and I often listen to very soft music, distracting sounds ruin the experience. So that's how I ended up here on SPCR :) Maybe a totally silent fanless PC is not compatible with my needs, but the quieter the better.

2.) The motherboard had those horrid bad caps, which have swollen over time leading to much instability, especially in 3D graphics applications.

If possible I wanted a motherboard with high quality capacitors, which would be less prone to suffer the same fate. I'm not someone who likes to buy a new computer every year or two, so long term stability is important.

3.) The case was too big and heavy. I had some kind of primitive full-tower Antec case. It feels like it's made of solid lead. And while I like a little extra space for expansion and air flow, I don't plan to use 6 or more HDDs.

Thus I was only considering a midtower or smaller case, with a layout that suits my needs.

4.) The case also had poor usability. Lack of front USB ports is a big hassle for me, as I need to plug in USB thumb drives and flash readers several times a day, as well as the occasional webcam or digital tablet. Also it had a door covering the front optical bays and power switch, so it either gets in the way or stays half open uselessly.

The more ports featured on the front of a new case, the better, and if it has no door... great!

5.) The case and components would overheat. Probably this was due in part to the case design, the fans used, and the inefficient cheap power supply.

The cooler the computer can run, the quieter right? Again something I came to SPCR to solve.


Here's the specs on the dinosaur for comparison:
Case: Antec full tower monster, black
PSU: 400W generic brand (replaced after original Enermax died)
CPU: Athlon XP 2200+
Mobo: Gigabyte w/ PCI, parallel-ATA, AGP, USB 2.0
RAM: 512MB DDR (upgraded to 1GB, later 2GB)
GPU: GeForce 4400 Ti 128MB (upgraded to GeForce 7600 GS 512MB)
HDD: 80GB IDE (upgraded to 300GB and later 2x500GB RAID1)
Sound: SoundBlaster Audigy
Optical: DVD-ROM and CD-RW (upgraded to DVD-RW)
OS: Win XP Home
Display: 19" CRT (lately using a widescreen LCD TV)
Speakers: Creative Labs 5.1 surround set



There was precious little I could salvage, when it came time for a new PC. Basically the 2x 500GB drives were SATA using a PCI RAID card, so I broke up the RAID and reused them. I'm reusing the speakers at least for now, although I think they are losing somewhat of their quality and weren't so great to begin with. The rest is brand spanking new.


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 Post subject: Re: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:42 pm 
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Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 6:07 pm
Posts: 6
Goals

I toyed with a few ideas: a small HTPC or fanless sytem vs. a more traditional general purpose computer. In the end I settled on the latter. I'm not a hardcore gamer, but I do on occasion like to play games as well as performing video and image editing. In short I like a machine that can do everything I ask, but my budget's not unlimited. So I just hoped I could find the right components to accomplish the following:

1.) Reasonable size case with good usability, efficient airflow, room for expansion, not too heavy. Also I'm not a big fan of flashy cases. A computer is not something I want to show off on a daily basis, I want it to sit discretely in a corner, silently doing my bidding. Any "gamer" case with a stylish window, LEDs or outlandish design was ruled out immediately.

2.) Quiet system. Not necessarily silent, in fact the impression I got from SPCR is that some level of noise is a given, for reasonable higher end systems. In other words performance is the trade-off with silence. I'm sure there are solutions to achieve both, but with limited time, budget, and experience, I decided "quiet" was good enough.

3.) Good performance. As I said I don't fret over the latest games and how many FPS I can get, I'm not going to be using SLI/Crossfire graphics, nor do I plan on extreme overclocking. Still the faster I can do what I want to do - the better.

4.) Budget conscious. My old computer cost me right around US$1500 in 2002, including monitor. Although various upgrades over the years raised the total cost. I was hoping to fall into the $1000-1500 range again. Since I couldn't reuse much of the old one due to obsolescence, this will be stretching it.


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 Post subject: Re: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:42 pm 
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Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 6:07 pm
Posts: 6
Components

Image

OK, now the fun part :) Here's the list of components going into the new build and why:

1.) CPU: Sandy Bridge - i7 2600K

This was a "no brainer". Intel's brand new architecture boasts top of the line performance, competing with $1000+ CPUs in their "older" line, and at a reasonable cost. It seems for some time they have held the performance crown awaiting some unknown master stroke by AMD. As AMD had nothing ready to compete, I went with Intel on this one. I'm not fond of overclocking, but I thought the combination of hyperthreading support and potential at least of overclocking was worth the small premium for the K series. The "better" integrated graphics of the HD 3000 is useless, because it can't be used except with a cheaper H67 motherboard.

The Intel stock cooler gets surprisingly good reviews it seems, so I'm not planning to change anything about this if it stays cool and quiet.

(I bought this a week before news of Intel's flawed chipset, see Final thoughts section below for more info)

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2.) Motherboard: ASRock Extreme4 P67

Though Sandy Bridge was still new, there was a full complement of motherboards available. The decision to be made was between the H67 or P67 chipsets. H67 gets you use of the integrated graphics built into all SB CPUs, but offers limited overclocking support. P67 lacks the ports for integrated graphics, but allows overclocking the CPU. Also the P67 boards are generally higher end (more expensive) and offer more SATA and USB 3.0 ports, more stylish design, and features catering to the gaming- and performance-minded consumer.

This is a decision that requires consideration of the case to be used. If you have a case to recycle, you'll hopefully know what form factor it can handle. For me building from the ground up, I decided an ATX mobo would offer the best range of features for me, thus I would need a slightly larger case.

The Extreme4 offers a plethora of features that I like: high quality capacitors(!), extra room for expansion with plenty of on board USB and SATA ports, fanless cooling, clean logical layout. You pay a bit more for this, but as I found out before, if your motherboard lets you down your computer will be the definition of instability. It's not a place to skimp, in my opinion. ASRock was an unknown quantity to me, it seems they have built a reputation on offering "budget" boards, and some people steer clear of them. Now they seem to have expanded in their offerings and reviews are generally favorable, so I'm taking a chance perhaps.

(I bought this a week before news of Intel's flawed chipset, see Final thoughts section below for more info)


3.) Case: Antec Three Hundred Illusion

This was a tough decision. The P180 series seems to get a lot more respect around here, I'm sure it's a great case and it looks fantastic. But for the moment the P180 series is hard to find and rather out of my budget. I also considered the Mini P180 for it's sleek minimalist design, dual-chamber interior and excellent reviews. Ultimately the deal-breaker was that the Mini P180 only allows a Micro-ATX or smaller motherboard, and so far the Sandy Bridge motherboards in that form factor are quite limited. Also there are doubts over how large a graphics card can fit inside that case, and if I have to mod or remove a drive bay - what's the point?

Less headaches and more options are why I went with the good ol' Three Hundred.

(The "Illusion" means the case fans have these terrible blue LEDs which are impossible to miss, and there are 2 additional fans included. The price difference is minimal, so I figured a couple of extra fans was worth it, and if the LEDs proved too annoying I could do a little *snip snip* to fix them.)

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4.) PSU: Seasonic X650 Gold

I care about the environment and even though the new PC that I'm building won't exactly be "green", still I'd like it to be as efficient as possible. So that means I wanted an 80PLUS rated supply, and the Seasonic as reviewed on SPCR, seems to be a great choice. Less noise, less waste, and fully modular - what's not to like? It's a step up from 400W on the old computer to this 650W supply, but I bet the difference in efficiency is huge. The old one literally blows out hot air.

I'm hoping this combined with an LED backlit display and other energy efficient components will also reduce our utility bills...


5.) GPU: ASUS DirectCU Radeon HD6850

Some graphics cards are for people who want to run all the latest games, squeeze out every watt and FPS they can get from their system. Those people probably don't care about how loud the card is. They don't flinch at spending $500-1000 for a new card. But I do. So I looked carefully for a well performing, quiet card, and thanks to a review right here on SPCR, I found it: Asus DirectCU & AMD Radeon HD 6850 Graphics Cards.

The relatively low power consumption of AMD/ATI's HD6000 cards allow for quiet fans, but every manufacturer can tweak the cooling design and performance characteristics a bit. The 6850 seems to be the sweet spot of performance, price and efficiency. ASUS just happens to have a very quiet fan/heatsink combo. Also under consideration were some of the PowerColor models, a company which is known for using fanless heatsink designs. While there was talk about a fanless HD6850, it wasn't available at the time, so I went with the ASUS instead.


6.) RAM: G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 2x4GB DDR3 1600

This is one of the places I cut the cost a bit, by going with a slightly less expensive brand of memory. The P67 memory controller I believe officially supports up to 1333Mhz memory and anything above that is overclocked. I haven't looked deeply into this yet, but I did buy 1600 rated RAM and will probably need to play around in the BIOS to get this to work. Right now it's listed as 1333 in CPU-Z, for what it's worth. Overclocking is not really my thing, so I might not even bother.

Thankfully the P67 is also dual channel memory, so I don't have to buy into the overpriced triple channel scam!


7.) SSD: Crucial RealSSD C300 CTFDDAC128MAG

I guess a solid state drive can still be considered a luxury, given the difference in price compared to a mechanical drive. Also I've been reluctant because of some stories about how performance degrades over time. In the end, the thought of a totally quiet, super fast drive won and I dished out the extra money for one of these beauties. I figure with a modern OS (Windows 7) and the new technologies that SSDs have, some of the initial pitfalls are minimized. This model had a rebate at NewEgg (probably due to new chipsets ready to launch this summer) so I jumped on it. Ever so glad I did...

This eliminates a lot of the hassles and what-ifs when planning a quiet build. I still planned to use two old mechanical drives for data storage, but this was not a big concern: if they prove too noisy I can always replace them.


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 Post subject: Re: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:42 pm 
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Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 6:07 pm
Posts: 6
Assembly

Image

Assembly was fairly straightforward but here's a few issues I encountered:

1.) Cable management and planning. The Antec Three Hundred case has what I'd call... primitive cable management. It's better than nothing but not great. Basically there is a compartment on the lower side of the drive bays. I guess you're supposed to just stuff all the extra length of cables in there? OK the case does come with two wire ties, but I felt like they might have included a few more at minimal extra cost.

There's a naive obvious way of routing all your cables, and a painful clever way of doing it. It took me hours to progress from the former to the latter. Basically... because the mobo is a large ATX form and the PSU is at the bottom of the case, it's quite a stretch to reach e.g. the CPU power cable which is at the opposite end of the case along a diagonal. Here's where I'd prefer to see something like space behind the mobo to make this connection easier and out of the way of expansion slots.

Similarly the front panel connectors of the case, for audio and USB, must reach all the way to the opposite end of the mobo along the diagonal. A few extra inches would be very helpful but alas. On my first attempt at doing this I went over the graphics card, which seemed stupid, but later I found I could untie the two connectors and bring them under the graphics card.

This is one way I think you can tell the Three Hundred is a cheaper case. It's nice once you have it finished and closed up, but for installing and making changes, it's a pain, especially for ATX mobos.

ImageImage Image


2.) Fan connectors. The case fan connectors are molex, not the 3-pin header variety you might expect. This is likely because each fan includes its own speed switch. This means you'll need to bring out a cable from your modular power supply with this in mind. I connected all 4 fans into one molex connector to keep them out of the way, and it seems to work okay. I had to rotate the rear fan 90 degrees so that the power cable would stretch far enough (and ultimately under the mobo) to reach in the cable compartment. Otherwise you have a power cable in the way of the top fan, and possibly at risk of vibrating or getting caught by the fan blades.

I can't understand why they felt it necessary to have each fan switch on its own wire, which just dangles uselessly unless you tuck it somewhere or tie it down - I did both. The case is closed, so it's not as if you'll be reaching in and adjusting fan speed all the time. Personally I'd rather have the case fans plug into the mobo so I can monitor and adjust fan speeds as necessary, in software without having to open the case. I just set the switches to low and they're fairly quiet, but still one of the loudest parts of the computer. This is hardly a complaint :)


3.) SSD mounting. The Three Hundred case supposedly has an SSD mount under the drive bays, across from the PSU. My problem was that neither the screws that came with the SSD, nor with the case would secure my drive. It has very shallow screw holes because it's a small, thin drive. In order to keep it from sliding around, I found it necessary to install some vinyl spacers I happened to have on hand.


4.) HDD and optical mounting. I'd like to see something a bit more clever than thumbscrews for the drive bays. My old case had plastic rails that you'd screw onto the drives and then slide them in place, so it feels like a regression moving to the Three Hundred. The included thumb screws only fit HDDs due to thread size, so for optical drives you'll either have to provide your own or whip out a screwdriver.

There's nothing included in the way of drive noise dampening with the Three Hundred, which I guess is not a big deal if your primary drive is an SSD. But it's clearly another way they cut corners.


5.) No 3.5" external bay or adapter. This is another thing that makes the case feel cheap. To have a case with no 3.5" external bay (as commonly used for flash readers, USB hubs, floppy drives, etc) and no adapter provided was kind of a surprise. I ended up going to the Antec online store and ordering one to match the case. Why, you might ask? Well the Extreme4 mobo has an included USB 3.0 front panel which happens to be 3.5" wide.

Curiously I had to force the Antec adapter in there, you would think they'd have it machined properly since it's specifically for the Three Hundred case...


6.) Watch the Intel stock cooler's fan cable. Mine was wrapped tightly around the body, which at a glance looks okay. But on closer inspection, it was perilously close to the fan blades, close enough it was nearly touching them. Luckily I caught this, because I imagine a tug on the cable while connecting it or a brush against it might have pressed the cable into the path of the fan.


7.) The Extreme4 motherboard is a curious mix of old and new. It has a floppy port, but no parallel ATA ports. Does anyone really use a floppy drive anymore, when even 2GB USB flash drives are freely given away these days? It also has two PS/2 ports for mouse/keyboard, where one or none would suffice. Honestly I thought everyone had a USB keyboard and mouse these days... There's no rear serial or parallel port provided, but there is a "COM" header on the mobo which I guess is for people who can't live without one.

IMO they ought to make some kind of USB retro box for everyone who still needs their PS/2, floppy, serial or parallel port fix, and give the rest of us features we actually want. The sentimental part of me is kinda sad to see some of these ports disappear, but the practical side of me says they were always more trouble than they were worth, so good riddance! :D


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 Post subject: Re: Quiet Sandy Bridge Build (Guide / Advice / Pics)
PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:43 pm 
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Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 6:07 pm
Posts: 6
Final Thoughts

So far it's great! The difference between old computer and new is amazing. I'm running cooler, faster, and quieter than ever before - without any fancy coolers, cases, or fans.

It's taken my ears a bit to become adjusted, but now I *can* hear the fans if there are no other sounds in the room. When I play music, even the quietest I have will practically drown them out.

When I turn my speakers up to a certain level, there is a very high pitched noise, I'm guessing some interference. I'm not sure if this is from the integrated sound controller, the speakers/amplifier, or what. It may have been there all along and I was unable to hear it.

I can hear very clearly when the two mechanical drives spin up or down. That's a distraction, but it doesn't happen very often. In normal operation, they are either off or if I'm accessing the data, it's for something like music or movies that produce sound. Even in a quiet room, it's hard to hear the drives operating.

Sandy Bridge issue: So as I'm sure everyone knows by now, the Sandy Bridge chipset had a fatal flaw in its SATA controller that led Intel to issue a recall and set aside US$1 billion to cover the expense of replacing the old ones. The issue affected all Sandy Bridge systems sold in January 2011, specifically performance would degrade subtly over time and eventually your hardware might become unusable. The flaw only affected the chipset (which is part of the motherboard in a PC), so CPUs were not impacted. NewEgg was fantastic about the whole process, they sent me an email the very day Intel broke the news, notifying me that my motherboard had the flawed chipset. Then I was in wait-and-see mode for a month or so, until NewEgg sent the next email telling me they already had replacements and were starting to offer them to customers in order of purchase. So a few weeks later (and well ahead of the original estimate by Intel), I got my RMA offer which included the option for an Advanced RMA, meaning NewEgg will ship a replacement before receiving the defective part (i.e. minimal downtime on my end). The process went through without a hitch; I received my new, almost identical replacement motherboard in days and packaged up my old one which they received within a week.

As far as I'm concerned, NewEgg AND Intel have done right by me. It could have been far worse: Intel might have denied the problem or NewEgg could have tried a cheap fix like sending SATA controller cards instead of new motherboards. There were a few hoops to jump through, namely that NewEgg required an email response within 7 days to qualify for the RMA and there was only a week to use their prepaid UPS shipping label.

Was it annoying to have to completely rebuild my computer? Of course! But I also got the chance to apply wisdom learned from the first build, rewiring things a bit differently to maximize airflow and reduce clutter. (This included learning that the 12V CPU power cable was evidently causing the high-pitched squealing in my speakers, which I should have realized when I tucked it close to the motherboard and incidentally directly over the integrated audio controller!)

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