system assembly

System assembly
 

All the parts I had ordered finally arrived, and one week ago, on Monday, 05 March 2007, at 13:00h I unpacked the boxes.
 

System assembly
 

First things first. The case I leave aside and carefully unwrap the mainboard, an Asus M2R32-MVP. The included documentation is excellent, reading it gives me a lot of confidence. Next I open the box of the CPU, an AMD Athlon X2 5200+. I bought the boxed edition, meaning a matching cooler and fan is included. The “documentation” boils down to instructions how to insert the CPU into the socket on the mainboard, and how to correctly place the cooler with the attached fan on top of it. Well, that exactly are the two tasks I fear. My mainboard has an AM2-socket, but I heard and read stories of horror about placing an AMD-chip on a socket A. Broken dies and everything. Courage! I switch the lever at the socket into vertical position, and … leave my office for once again painstakingly washing my hands. It’s about the fifth time since I started to handle the mainboard. Hands clean I for the thousandth time repeat the ritual of touching the heater to get rid of every single bit of imagined static charge contaminating my body. My slightly shaking hand grabs the CPU, hovers it over the socket, aligns the tiny golden triangle in one corner of the CPU with the matching triangle at the socket and lets go. Smoothly the chip glides down, every pin into the correct hole. Gently I rotate the lever back to horicontal. The chip gets sucked down a bit and is secured. Relief immediately gets mixed with tension, because now comes the hardest part, the challenge, the risk. At least they say so.
 

System assembly
 

There is no tube of thermally conductive paste to be found in the box. Between the top of the chip and the bottom of the cooler there has to be a faultless layer of heat-conductive paste. Faultless means, it has to be without enclosed bubbles of air, so that the heat generated by the CPU can be given to the cooler. Normally the trick plays like that: Right into the center of the chip you place a medium-sized blob of paste. Don’t smear it around, the idea is that it gets spread, without generating them dreaded bubbles, by the pressure of the cooler when the latter is set into place. But there is no paste to be found. “Documentation” says nothing. Before running downtown and buying a tube, I consult the AMD website … the paste already is applied to the underside of the cooler. You only have to pull away a protective plastic film. Ah, ok. Close examination of the geometry of the socket and the cooler, comparison to the drawings in the instructions. Obviously the whole thing only fits in one orientation. So I choose that very orientation and gently place it on the CPU. Fits snuggly, but now it has to be secured. I place the right latch over the according nose. Easy. Now I try to place the left latch. Hell, I’ve got to apply pressure. Pressure which goes right through the cooler and straight upon the precious CPU. I press down a little harder, but there still is resistance. Well, yes, it’s futile, the resistance, I know, but in that case? I feel tremendously uncomfortable, but now the thing is on the nose. The cooler has a lever, too—I rotate it ninety degrees into horicontal position and can see how the whole package gets firmly pressed down on the chip. Secured, but the slight feeling of maybe already having ruined the die doesn’t go away. No way to tell right now. I put away the mainboard into its plastic bag, into its box, and out of my mind. Now for the case.
 

Out of several reasons I opted for a Lian-Li PC-G70B. First of all I didn’t want a plastic case, but an aluminum one. Secondly in my opinion there are only two possibilites for a case: a) a completely custom- and self-made artefact which looks like nothing else on this planet b) an off-the-peg case featuring classic design and understatement. I’ve got neither time nor at the moment easy access to an according workshop and tools for option a), so I went b). Thirdly I wanted a big tower in order to have enough space for more drives eventually, and enough space for the air to revolve and get sucked out. I shy away from water-cooling out of the same reasons I voted against building an own case from scratch. Fourthly the Lian-Li cases always get positive reviews and feature sensible inside architecture and gadgets. Fifthly it comes not only in polished aluminum silver, but in matte black, too. Convinced? No? Have a look:
 

System assembly
 

In the top-left corner is the cage for the power-supply. Immediately beneath it you can see an adjustable airduct, which leads the exhaust heat from the CPU directly to a large fan at the backside of the case. One story below is an adjustable side fan, which takes the heat from the graphic-card[s] out through a perforated area of the [in the picture removed] side-panel. Below this fan there is space for a second power-supply, if needed ;-) Behind airduct and side-fan you can see an aluminum plate with seemingly randomly dispersed drillholes. That’s the carrier upon which the mainboard is fixed. The lengthy vertical thing at the top right is the cage housing six 5.25” drive bays for e.g. optical drives. Below it there is a tiny cage which can swallow two 3.5” floppy drives. And finally, at the bottom-right, there is the cage for up to six 3.5” HDDs. My strategy is to install the power-supply and drives before the mainboard. That way you have more space to navigate the parts around inside the case while trying to get them into their proper places, and you do not run the risk of bumping into the mainboard while doing so.
 

System assembly
 

My power-supply is a Thermaltake Toughpower 700 Watts with cable management. Cable management means that you can attach exactly the number of power cables you need, and not one more. It’s not a box vomiting a plethora of cables of which you only need a fraction, leaving the rest dangling around senselessly within the case. No, you only plug in what you need. Efficient, that is. The enclosed documentation is efficient as well. In several ways. The positive thing is, that it really comprehensively covers all issues needed—all but one. The illustrating photographies are matching the text and are quite clear. But the whole thing is a tiny, tiny leaflet. In consequence the illustrations, despite of being matching and clear, are tiny, tiny as well. Come on, Thermaltake, lets spend some bucks more on paper, will you? I mean, the piece I bought from you has so much, and it even comes in … guess what? Yes, shiny jet black. So give it a documentation of decent size which does justice to the device itself. The one thing which is not covered by the itzy-bitzy tiny leaflet is the orientation of the power-supply within the case. Which way can I, shall I, must I place the thing? The itzy-bitzy teeny-weeny tiny pictures alwas show it standing upright on one of its sides. But I can’t place it upright, my case’s geometry doesn’t allow it. Thermaltake’s homepage doesn’t give a clue. Some haunting in overclockers’ forums proof: I can place it anyway I like. Once the research is done, it’s only a matter of minutes to screw the device into its cage. Moving on to the HDD-cage.
 

System assembly
 

The following strategy lead me to buying two HDDs. I wanted an incredible fast one for the operating system, for games, and for applications I oftentimes use. To my knowledge the fastest retail disks on Earth at the moment are the Raptors by Western Digital. The RaptorX “only” has 150GB of storage space, but spins at 10.000rpm. Plus, it simply is a black beauty, sporting a top window allowing to view the spinning shiny disk. For the slave disk I stayed with Western Digital and bought a WD5000AKS, a tanker with 500GB of space and revolving at the “normal” speed of 7200rpm.
 

System assembly
 

A nice feature of the Lian-Li case is the completely removable HDD-cage. You simply loosen two screws and take the whole thing out. Furthermore it allows you to install the drives either horicontal or vertical. As I didn’t want to place six drives inside, but only two, and because I never in my life installed an HDD vertically, I started to place them horicontally into the cage. The fast-spinning Raptor I put on the bottom, as close to the base of the case as possible, in order to have it secure in case of vibrations generated by the disks’ rotations at the speed of light. The slave I put into the top of the cage in order to have as much airspace between them, so that the heat from the Raptor can cleanly be sucked out by the front fan. Once screwed into the cage, you simply put the latter back into the case. “Simply”, well …
 

System assembly
 

Now the time has come to mention the documentation accompanying the Lian-Li case. It’s a great example of pure reductionism, because it consists of one sheet of paper only. Granted, on this sheet there is everything you need. But some of the drawings are reductionist, too. Especially the illustrations depicting the HDD-cage are not clear without ambiguity concerning the orientation of the HDDs inside the cage when using the vertical to horicontal converter. To cut things short, I tried three possibilities of placing the HDDs and the converter until I got it. Sliding back the cage into the case, two screws, done.
 

System assembly
 

I’ve got two optical drives, an Asus DVD-E616A3T to read everything, and a Plextor PX-760SA multiburner to roast everything. Placing them into their cage is easy. Kick out the front blind, slide the drive in, fix the screws, done. The toaster I placed at the bottom of the cage, the reading drive at the very top. That way there is way enough space above the burner, which will generate more heat than the reader.
 

System assembly
 

Power-supply and all drives are securely in place … it’s time for the mainboard. I’ll go and wash my hands first, I guess. And then I’ll touch the heater several times. That mythical static charge will haunt me in my dreams.
 

System assembly
 

My mainboard has to be fixed with nine screws—the mainboard-carrier plate sports far more drillholes. The best solution to this conundrum consists of several steps: First of all lay the case on its side. Then push out the blind for the mainboard sockets at the rear of the case. Take this metal blind with its enigmatical holes and slots, leave your working space and go out on the street. Run around the city until you find a bunch of workers occupied with repairing the road. Have a cigarette, maybe a beer, and a nice chat with the guys. Then ask them tro run over the blind with the biggest road roller at hand. Now take the perfectly flattened out blind to a shop selling paintings and such and have it nicely framed behind glass. Go back to the place where since several hours you are assembling your new machine. Shoo away the kids who have assembled around your open PC case and are wondering into it, because you forgot to lock the door when you went out in search for the worker guys. Take a hammer plus a nail and hang the flattened out and framed blind on a convenient wall, you won’t need it anymore, because it won’t fit the rear-socket layout of your mainboard. Instead dive into the box wherein the mainboard came and unearth the matching blind. But don’t place it into the case yet! Lay it on the table and leave it there for the moment. Go, wash your hands and then touch the heater. Take up the mainboard—which is as holy as it is mighty, by the way—and gently lay it into the case upon the carrier-plate. Move it in place correctly. Now search the holes in the mainboard through which you have to put the screws to secure it. Take a slim felt pen, reach through the holes and mark the drillholes in the carrier beneath. Go, wash your hands and then touch the heater. Take out the mainboard again. Check if there are as many holes marked as necessary—nine in my case. Screw the distance bolts into the marked holes. Place the rear blind, correctly oriented. For this look at the rear sockets of your mainboard, look at the blind, revolve it, look at the rear sockets, … Now, the dreaded blind has a legion of little metal tongues reaching inside the case. Those tongues are there to touch the socket bodies in order to make the case into a Faraday cage as perfect as possible. Nevertheless, they will drive you insane while trying to place the mainboard. Pry them flat with the blind. Go, wash your hands and then touch the heater. Place the mainboard on the carrier and secure it with the correct number of screws. Go and have a shower.
 

System assembly
 

As a next step it makes perfect sense to place the RAM. Once you have installed the graphic card[s] it’s a little inconvenient to reach down to the RAM-sockets. Go, wash your hands and then touch the heater. Take the RAM-modules out of the package and compare their geometry to the sockets. Usually there is only one way to place them, and that way you should try. Depending on the number of sockets you have on your mainboard, and how much and which combination of RAM-modules you want to install, make sure to place them into the correct ones by referring to the mainboard’s documentation. Gently insert the first one into its socket. Take a couple of breaths to gather courage, braveness, and daring, then press down like hell, until the clamps snap shut. Repeat with the other module[s]. Try to fathom if by your brute force you have broken one or several layers of the mainboard. Don’t ask me how, instead have a beer.
 

System assembly
 

Count how many cards you want to install on your mainboard, then identify the correct slots. Remove the according rear blinds and put them aside. No use in going out, having them flattened by a road roller, and then having them framed, they just look like nothing. I have got two Sapphire Radeon X1950 PRO graphic cards, each sporting 512MB of graphics memory, and a Creative X-Fi Xtreme Gamer soundcard to place. The “documentation” which came with the graphic cards is a joke at best. It simply says: remove the rear blind, place card in slot, connect card to power-supply. Well, I knew that. There’s no layout of the card or anything to be found in the leaflet. Now, the reason why I have chosen that mainboard and bought two identical quite powerful ATI graphic cards, is that I want to use ATI’s CrossFire technology that allows the two cards to share the graphics load. Now the leaflet speaks of CrossFire, but proposes some wierd connection between the cards by means of a special cable which is to be installed outside the case! Good gracious, can’t be! Especially as the weird cable is neither included in the one package nor in the other. ATI’s website delivers some information. Some. There is a table showing whcih card combionations are possible with CrossFire. My two cards are in a special category labeled “internal connection”. The only information on this internal connection is to be found in form of a flash-animation. At some point of the animation a short flat bridge cable is placed on top of the cards, connecting them. All right, I’ve got two of them bridges. And there are two notches on each card. But in the glorious flash animation only one bridge is placed. On which of the notches can’t be seen. Have an hour of searching through various forums first of all informs me that other people are just as much at sea as I am. Then I get more or less sure that I have to place both bridges. But which way? Close examination of the bridges shows that they are perfectly symmetrical. So I place them. Now let’s pause and reflect a bit. Those graphic cards are not exactly cheap. The internal connection of two Radeon X1950 PROs is the best ATI can offer at the moment. By wrongly placing the bridges I may—I do not know it, but I may—damage the cards. Note to Sapphire: Skip pasting stickers showing chromed robot-ladies on your graphic cards, instead invest a bit into writing and having printed documentations of your products. Note to ATI: Fire that guy who so much fell in love with flash animations. Instead hire a guy who keeps your websites up-to-date concerning what you call high-end, top-of-the-heap technology for gaming PCs. Having let off steam, let’s pry in the soundcard. Fair game.
 

System assembly
 

Now every component is in place, but still in need of power and communication. Constantly referring to the documentations of mainboard and power-supply, attaching the power-cables is just a thing of method and order. Mind that I took care to bundle the cables with lacing cords [black ones, of course] once every single one of them was attached at both ends. That way I keep the airspace clean, and the air can flow as unobstructed as possible.
 

System assembly
 

Same thing with all the data-cables. Mainboard documentation plus method and order.
 

System assembly
 

Here’s a more spectacular shot of the fully cabled mainboard—for your pure enjoyment … and mine.
 

System assembly
 

23:00h. Full ten hours—method and order take their time. Everything is in place, the air duct for the CPU heat and the side-fan reattached and adjusted. Now it’s 23:00h, exactly ten hours after I had started to unpack the parts from their cradles in the crates. The system is completely assembled. But, to be honest, I do not anymore have the nerves to connect the power cables and hit ignition. Imagine if I had made some wrong connections with the wiring, or if I had broken the die when I placed the coller on the CPU, or if I had damaged the mainboard while prying in the RAM … or if I haven’t washed my hands and touched the heater often enough. Right now I am perfectly satisfied with my handywork, and I just can not risk to spoil the moment by eventually ruining the system with the first start-up.
 

System assembly
 

Tuesday, 06 March 2007. Just minutes to lift-off. I only connected one of the screens and the keyboard. The case I have put on the table and have left one sidewall open, because I want to see if all fans really are running when powering up. For five minutes or so I lean back in my chair, stare into the case, in my mind retrace and check the steps of assembly, and gather all my nerve and braveness in order to dare to hit the button.
 

System assembly
 

13:00h. Ignition! The whole machine instantaneously springs to life. Because of the fan-control not yet activated, all the fans are running full throttle, generating the sound and ambience of a jet starting of a carrier, turbines howling and screaming. The screen picks up a signal and tells me that the BIOS was found and now is starting up. POST runs at an incredible pace and says that everything is all right, all devices correctly found. The wiring is ok, that means, and nothing is damaged. For a fraction of a second the screen goes black, and then again there are letters, blazing white. The system tells me that it is hungry for information and structure, in order to become able to unfold to full power. It prompts me to insert a boot disk, to install an operating system. Readily I comply and insert the disk. Believe it or not, 31 minutes later winXP Pro is installed. Completely. The rest of the day I spend by installing drivers.
 

System assembly
 

Ah, yes, granted, now the electronics show in my office starts to look a little ridiculous. But the idea is to completely get rid of the desktop, an atrocity of a calculator the university dared to equip me with. And to completely clean up my faithful laptop, which didn’t show a single blue screen in three years, despite of all the things I did with it. In the future I will use it as what it is, a lpatop. And not as an everyday working-horse of a “cyberanthropologist” dealing with the modification of 3D computer games. The rest of the week I will spend by migrating content and whatyouhave for the desktop, the laptop, and an external HDD, and by installing software … and games.

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