Now updated, May 2011 - My Quad-Monitor Rackmount PC and HTPC!
I recently had a massive ebay sale of all my old computer and hi-fi junk and decided to build my ultimate PC from scratch. It's taken a slow, but rewarding, 3 months to buy all the bits required and complete it all.
My requirements were:
- as much screen real-estate as possible
- as silent as I could possibly make it
- all my music/videos accessible from my laptop and HTPC even when the main PC is off
- fast enough to play occasional games
- no messy cables
Here's the end result:
I found the cheapest way to get lots of screen space was with the fantastic Dell 2007fp. Three of these gives me a desktop resolution of 4800x1200, which is plenty to avoid my windows overlapping too much.
To drive the three DVI monitors from one PC, I needed two video cards. It made sense to buy two identical ones so I could go SLI if required. I bought two 256MB XFX 7600GT 'Fatal1ty' PCI-E(x16) SLI Passive cards. These have heatpipes and large heatsinks instead of fans. They get surprisingly hot to the touch.
Motherboard duties are served by an Asus P5N-E SLI NF650i. My last few boards have been Asus and worked fine, so I stuck with the same make. Importantly, this board has no onboard chipset fan. For the CPU, I chose an Intel Core 2 Duo E4300. Dirt cheap, plenty fast enough and massively overclockable if required. RAM is 2x1Gb Corsair Value Select, DDR2 PC5300. There's little point going for a higher spec on the RAM unless on the limit for overclocking.
The Core 2 Duo retail heatsink makes noise - which just won't do! This got replaced with a Scythe Infinity heatsink. This monster is 160mm high - a fact that eluded me until I tried to put the lid back on the computer case. Oops. I found a slightly less ridiculous heatsink, the Noctua NH-U9F, which fitted nicely in the case but was missing the vital springs in the packaging to attach it to the CPU. After a trip to the local hardware shop, I added some washers and guessed the right pressure to apply to the CPU. The CPU temperature is now usually below the motherboard temperature!
2x80mm Nexus fans, 1x120mm Nexus fan. These are all under PWM control using "SpeedFan" in Windows. They spend most of their time running at nearly their slowest speed.
Hard disc is a 250Gb SATA Samsung SP2504C. This is pretty quiet, and seek noise is hardly noticeable. To help dampen it down further, I fitted it in a Scythe Quiet Drive enclosure, and then suspended the whole thing with bungee cord in the case.
Power supply is a Xilence Office Edition 460W Semi Fanless. The fan only spins when the PSU reaches a very high temperature - which it never does. Finding a fanless PSU rated to drive an SLI system is actually quite hard!
My computers are normally a big cable-ridden mess on the floor. I was determined not to let this one go the same way. Now, 19" cabinets, as found in server rooms, always look very neat. You can fit in lots of computers and get around the back of them easily. Everyone told me it would be nuts to have one at home, but I ignored them all
I bought a Compucase 19" rackmountable case with sliding rails. There was now no going back! The case is expensive for what it is, and inside is not even that good quality. It's built to last though - the whole computer weighs about 17kg.
That covers my main Windows PC. Now time for another PC build! I needed a place to keep my music and videos - also to be accessible from my laptop and HTPC when the main PC is off.
Network Attached Storage (NAS) is usually the way to go, but to get decent transfer rates you need Gigabit ethernet. Gigabit NAS's are normally pretty expensive. I found a more flexible (and probably cheaper) approach was to build another computer, this time a low-power VIA EPIA based machine. Again, it had to be as quiet as possible, especially since this PC would remain on 24/7. The whole setup is in my spare room, so it's no good to have hard discs spinning during the night if guests are staying.
I decided to run this PC from a Compact Flash card. There always seem lots of questions about this on various forums, but few people actually go through with it. CF cards only have a limited number of writes per sector before the sector dies. It's typically 10,000 or 100,000 write cycles which is actually not much if you let Windows put its swap file on the card.
In fact, running Windows from CF is tricky anyway, as Windows writes to disc a lot. I believe some people have been successful using Windows XP Embedded, but I went for an easy life and ran Linux instead
I didn't have to do much other than not create a swap partition, and changed some of the file locations to point to RAM disc (mainly things in /var). I've been running the PC on an 8Gb CF card for a month and it hasn't died yet. Hopefully, I'll get a year or two's use from the card.
The motherboard is a VIA EPIA EN12000E. This comes with a 1.2Ghz VIA CPU, and is fanless. It is one of the few mini ITX form-factor boards that has built-in gigabit ethernet. I have a small 60W PSU board in the case which is enough to power the motherboard and a 3.5" HD.
The hard disc is 500Gb and, again, suspended with bungee cord in the 1u case. The PC is 100% totally silent when the hard disc is spun down.
To join it all together, I bought a Dell Powerconnect 2716 16-port Gigabit managed switch. I have an rj45 cat5e patch panel where all my devices are terminated.
Via the XBox, I can watch live TV and recorded TV wirelessly from my HTPC downstairs. The xbox runs Microsoft XBox Extender software, the HTPC runs Windows MCE 2005.
I thought the 12u 19" cabinet was a horrible mistake when it first arrived. It looked roughly washing machine sized, and totally out of place at home. Once I fitted everything and pushed it into the corner of the room, it looked much better. It uses up no more floorspace than my old computers did piled up on the floor. The 4u main PC and 1u EPIA are both mounted on sliding rails, and can slide fully out of the cabinet.
There's loads more stuff, but don't want to go on any longer! Hope you all like it