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Reged: 11/24/03
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Loc: N. Virginia
Assembling the Linux PC
      #27345 - 04/14/07 10:29 PM

In this post, Tanker Bob discussed his choice of components for his new PC build. Now it's time to come clean on how all that worked out.

Newegg, where I buy almost all of my PC hardware, packed all the components very well and everything arrived intact. Some reviewers commented on damage to cases during shipping, but the RaidMax arrived in perfect condition.

The first step upon arrival of new toys is always to unpack and oogle at the stash! Have you noticed how colorfully and attractively manufacturers package new computer stuff? OK, got that out of the way.

Casing the system
Upon unpacking the RaidMax Smilodon, I was immediately struck with how much case technology had improved in the last 7 years. A great deal more thought has been given to optimal airflow in the case, as well as to accessibitily to internal components. Both of the Smilodon's side panels unlatch very simply and fold down for full access to an installed motherboard and all the cards and drives. What a great idea! It made the assembly so much easier. I haven't had so much access to internal contents since my old 1976 Triumph Spitfire that dropped a tiny engine into a small cavern under the hood. The steel case is very sturdy, and fan placement seems ideal to create the desire wind tunnel. It has information stickers in strategic locations giving step-by-step directions on how to access or assemble things like fans and the drives. The Smilodon even includes a handy slide-out parts box under the drive bays. Plus the Smilodon looks great!

The blood sacrifice
Experience PC builders and auto mechanics both know that no job can be successful without a sacrifice of blood. While trying to get a drive fan cover released from the case, Tanker Bob cut his finger. As it turned out, I didn't need to remove that cover and ended up reinstalled it. The whole incident seems contrived to draw the requisite blood. Got that out of the way...

The brains of the operation
The Intel E6600 came with a nice instruction booklet on how to align the CPU in the LGA 775 slot. As usual, clever design prevents incorrect installation even without the instructions. The LGA775 system doesn't use slots for CPU pins like the old days. Instead, the CPU simply has an array of flat contacts and the LGA775 slot has short, retractable pins. This prevents ruining CPUs by inadvertantly bending pins, plus the CPU just literally drops into position on the motherboard. A very clever and usable approach. The E6600 came with a large cooling fan with aluminum fins. It probably works fine for normal use, but copper conducts heat much better.

I followed the CPU-specific directions on the Arctic Silver website (old PC was still running during most of the assembly) for applying the thermal compound. How you do this is very important, so don't be in a hurry to blow off the directions.

The Zalman 9700 is gigantic! While I designed the system to fit this cooler, I had my doubts upon actually seeing it. The shiny, copper-finned cooling array is a work of art. The excellent instructions made mounting the 9700 on the motherboard and CPU a simple process, but getting the second hold-down screw in was anything but easy. That's good, because it must hold the huge, copper cooling array and fan tightly to the CPU for maximum heat transfer. On the other hand, it's a bear getting the second screw into the mount. Once together, it looked even more gigantic on the motherboard. Even with the motherboard sitting up vertically, the assembly doesn't seem to stress the board much.

The Motherboard
The MSI P6N SLI Platinum Motherboard comes with two Quickstart guides plus a very nice user's guide. The best is the poster-sized color picture with all the components labeled around the edges. There aren't words to express how simple this makes assembly for both the experienced and novice user. I had no difficulty attaching the MSI to the fold-out panel in the RaidMax and wiring the two together. Everything was accessible like I was working externally on top of a workbench. One catch, though. The Smilodon's power supply sits at the top of the case but the power cables are a bit short for that position. After plugging in the 24-pin power connector to the MSI, the panel no longer reaches the flat position. In fact, it sits up at about a 45 degree angle. Not a huge deal unless you plan on working on the motherboard a lot after initial assembly.

The EGVA GeForce 640MB 8800GTS video card is a monster! It takes up two slots worth of space and bumps up against a third. The MSI has 3 PCI slots, but the fit on one will be very tight next to the 8800GTS. This card also extends far back across the motherboard, but that isn't a problem with my setup.

Now for the major moment of consternation. When I folded the motherboard panel up to close it, the copper fins on the Zalman 9700 were just a tad too tall to cleanly pass under the power supply mount. The power supply itself was fine, but the side of the mount projected down just far enough to be an issue. Fortunately, the distance was small and I was able to bend the mount and rock the cooler enough to get past the mount. I think that when I get ambitious, I'll take a Dremmel to the mount for some "minor modification." I'm thinking that I should have gone for the smaller Zalman 9500, but once closed in the case, the 9700 fits fine. Combined with the MSI P6N's heat pipe system and the case fans, overclocking will be a breeze (no pun intended). In fact, the 9700's fan blows directly on the aft case fan, assuring that the hot air is expedited out of the case. Nice match up!

Going for a Drive
The RaidMax has two different mounting methods for drives. The 5.25" and 3.5" drive bays use a clever plastic pin-and-clasp system that takes just a second to fasten a drive in securely. It it by far the easiest mounting system I've ever seen, and it works well.

The Zip drive proved to be a bit deeper than RaidMax apparently envisioned 3.5" drives being. I had to fiddle with it and apply a bit of force (OK, I hammered it with my hand) to get it all the way into the case. It got there, though.

The hard drive bay at the bottom of the case rotates to the side and actually slides out of the case, even with the motherboard in place--very handy! The hard drives mount using provided slide rails that simply push onto the sides of the drives using the screw holes. Again, this took just a second to do. The drives simply slide into the bay until they click in place--very easy. I thought that they stuck out of the back of the bay too far, but that didn't pose any issues when I put the drive bay back in the case. A simple latch thumb screw keep the bay securely in place.

Power to the People (including Oops #2)
The power supply provided a dedicated connector for the video card--a pleasant surprise. The 8800GTS came with a power cord adapter, but I didn't need it.

The case fans and power-on LED provided a complication. Instead of the power-on LED connecting to the small pins on the motherboard, it needed a connector off of the power supply. That's one down off the top. Each of the four case fans (I added an optional one on the side) required a power plug as well. Fortunately, each had a male and female connector so that I was able to daisy-chain all of them and use just one power connector off of the power supply.

However, with four IDE devices, that left me one power connector short. Oops. As I write this, my Zip drive is taking a temporary vacation in PC paradise. I will pick up a y-cord to remedy that situation. It looks like RaidMax planned on you having all SATA hard drives. Not a show stopper, but a bit annoying.

I already mentioned that the power cords were a bit short. Well, I had to move my DVD writer down to the bottom slot of the 5.25" drive bay to share a connector line with one of the 3.5" drives. I'm not sure what RaidMax had in mind, but it's a long distance from the top 5.25" slot to the to 3.5" slot and the two connectors a power cable cannot span that distance. Hmmm. I will try to get an extension cable so that I can move my DVD writer back up to the top where it can more conveniently be accessed.

It's alive!
Two words--no issues. When I powered the system up, everything worked and went right to the BIOS setup. I'm not sure that I've ever NOT messed up a connection or have a cable pull loose during assembly. This case provides such impressive access to everything inside that chances are remote you will accidentally pull a cable while trying to reach some obscure corner. That's great design!

The BOIS is American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI) and very flexible. The BIOS detected everything installed without issue. The memory worked fine. The BIOS provides total control over the component voltage and speed settings. Overclocking has come a long way since the days of setting motherboard jumpers and calculating multipliers.

Cooling works perfectly. As I write this after over two days of constant-on operation, the 8800GTS temperature is just 57C, the CPU sits at 28C, and the overall system at about 37C. Granted the load isn't heavy, but I am overclocking about 5% at the moment. I'll bump that up over time as stability allows. Even with the great airflow and all the fans, this machine doesn't make any more noise than my old one. Sweet.

I'm so blue over you..
The first time Mrs. Tanker Bob saw the PC running, she exclaimed: "Wow, that's really blue!" True enough, this machine exudes blue! The front panel has blue LED highlights all down one side and in three bands across the middle. These serve as the power-on light, hard drive activity light, and the other blue light. One case side is clear and two of the internal fans have blue LEDs. Against the black case, the blue really looks sharp.

Linux rises from the parts
After ensuring that the information in the BIOS was correct, it was time to boot through to Kubuntu Linux. I had simply moved my hard drives across machines, so Linux had no warning that it was booting a different PC. Recipe for disaster?

No worries. Kubuntu booted as if it had run that system a hundred times. It didn't ask me anything or even let on that anything was different--it just booted right through. It recognized all the new hardware and simply loaded the drivers without missing a beat. I'd say it was amazing to watch, but there was really nothing to see--just normal operations.

Everything worked...well, almost everything. I knew that it would have trouble with the e-GeForce 8800GTS card because the GeForce 8 chipset is so new. Linux assigned the open source driver set for a VESA card. That worked and got me to the graphical interface without complaint, but it wasn't optimum. For one thing, the vertical scan rate was limited to 56Hz, which caused the screen to blink rapidly. I could see everything, but I was getting a headache!

I came prepared. After some false starts with Envy 0.8.2, I updated to and used Envy 0.9.1 to load NVidia's proprietary driver, which works perfectly although I had to add my non-standard display parameters to the xorg.conf file. There's great guidance here on how to make sure everything works. I wasted time playing with the older version of Envy because I forgot to update it before shutting down the old system. Bad on me.

The Vista Out My Windows
You may recall that I had a dual-boot setup with WinXP SP2 on the other hard drive. Well, after I had the 8800GTS purring like a kitten under Linux, I decided to work on the WinXP side. Windows should be easy, right? After all, we're always fed that Windows has tons of seamless hardware support...

Wrong. This was the recipe for disaster. I have yet to get the WinXP partition to boot, even in Safe Mode. Safe Mode should bypass any driver compatibility issues by loading generic drivers. The net result of every attempt comes to an endless loop of reboots. Remember that Linux booted through the very first time without issue or complaint. I'll eventually write a blog entry when I get the WinXP partition sorted out.

And they lived...
Tanker Bob's new PC runs Kubuntu Linux with aplumb. The system multitasks like a bat out of a very warm place. Multimedia programs that took several seconds to load now pop up in less than a second. My WinXP virtual machine seems almost like a native boot now. I haven't used the WinXP dual boot since December, so I'm not in a hurry to get it running again. I hear Beryl coming the front gate. Life is good!
...happily ever after.

UPDATE: Read about the final steps in this post.

Tanker Bob
Tanker Bob's Handheld Computing Page
Reviewer at MobileTechReview

Edited by Tanker_Bob (04/16/07 12:59 AM)

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