Tom's New Computer!

I just got a new computer this summer (maybe I should say Summer 2000 since as usual I'll probably leave this up far past its relevance). Here's some information about it.

This time around I decided to build it myself to save money, avoid Dell's week-long lead times, and avoid the value-add crap that's all too common these days. (If you're looking to buy a computer pre-built, I do recommend Dell. My XPS-R400 was somewhat expensive but is rock solid!) After looking around the internet for geek-oriented reviews, I found a great site called ars technica which has nice low-marketing-hype reviews of hardware, among other things.

I used to love Intel a lot. Around the time I bought my last computer, I firmly believe that the Pentium II on a real Intel BX motherboard was by far the best platform available. Unfortunately, Intel has made some bad mistakes recently, including:

- intolerably long delay of their new i840 chipset and Coppermine processors; the processors when available are way too expensive on the high end
- focusing on the proprietary RAMBUS memory format. This ram is extremely expensive and though the mhz figures are impressive, suffers from unacceptable latency (and rarely outperforms standard PC133 SDRAM).

So this time I decided to go with the AMD Athlon. Their previous line of processors ("K6") are not very impressive except in terms of their cost, so I was hesitant to believe in the Athlon. But after reading reviews for a while, I was convinced: Not only are the Athlons cheaper and more readily available in the high end, but they often perform better than Intel chips! In particular, the Athlon's floating point unit is quite powerful. Furthermore, buying and Athlon allowed me to use the new Via KX133 chipset and avoid Rambus memory.

What's awesome about the KX133? AGP 4X, PC133 support, 200mhz FSB, and ATA66 support. Especially cool here is ATA66, which allowed me to get a 7200rpm Seagate 30GB drive for $200 which performs about as fast as SCSI-II (not as good as U160 or fibre channel, but much much cheaper!). AGP 4X is probably theoreticware; nobody so far has been able to show any noticeable speed gain over 2X, but it's still nice to have.

The motherboard I got was the excellent K7V without the onboard audio. I got this from The Chip Merchant, who has a somewhat rudimentary on-line ordering system. Despite the inability to track orders, etc., they shipped my stuff very quickly, and had nice up to date prices and inventory. If you know what you need, check out this place for sure. Among its nicer features are 5 PCI slots, 2 Serial, and 4 USB! Since I am a peripheral freak, this is nice news.

Other stuff I got from the Chip Merchant:

- two 128MB PC133 DIMMs. Memory prices have jumped about 50% since I bought these two weeks ago! (*phew*)
- 6 case fans. My case has room for a lot of fans, and I wanted to add one to my oldest computer which I think may have been overheating.
- Coolermaster two-fan CPU heatsink
- Soundblaster Live! Value OEM. A nice sound card without all the useless extras that make it cost stupid amounts (that drive-bay patch panel is cool, though!)

It turned out that the ram I got from them had latency 3-3-3, which is pretty high. I tried to find some CL2 PC133 ram, but I couldn't. Latency makes a big difference!

From my favorite online loss-leader I bought:

Athlon 800mhz boxed - I couldn't find 900mhz+ available anywhere (except for a $40,000 50-pak from Ingram Micro), and I couldn't justify the extra $120 for the 850. 800 allowed me to double speed from my P2-400, which was my rule for upgrading.

D-Link DFE-530TX - My favorite brand of cheapo network cards. Don't get expensive 3com cards. They don't work any better, but they have all sorts of extra nonsense to deal with. If you want a card that just shuts up and works, get a D-Link anything. This one has support under Linux, too.

D-Link DSS-8+ 10/100 Switch - Replacing my cheapo D-Link 10 megabit hub is their somewhat less cheapo 10/100 mbit switch. This thing is awesome; it lets me talk to my other computers over 100mbit (download/uploads to my web server are about 5 times as fast) and block out most of the useless traffic on my dorm's ethernet (so it doesn't have to waste time being ignored by my network card / OS).

I also bought this stuff utilizing coupons I found on, which saved me about $100!

From my wholesale connections I got:

Supermicro SC760A case. This was pretty expensive for a case, but it's really nice. Note that some of its advanced features only work with a SuperMicro motherboard, though.

Seagate 7200rpm ATA66 30.6GB hard drive. Awesome size and speed from the best hard drive manufacturer. For only $200!!

... strangely, I could get most stuff cheaper from loss-leaders like than I could get them even as a reseller!

When I finally got all this stuff, I had some fun putting it together. I couldn't figure out how to take off the heatsink/fan that comes with the boxed Athlon (and I was too excited to spend a long time trying), so my Coolermaster didn't make it on. Maybe next time! Assembly otherwise was pretty easy with the nice Asus manual. I didn't have to flip any dip-switches thanks to modern autodetect technology (which is great when it works).

Another bump I ran into: My VooDoo 3500 wouldn't really fit in the motherboard when mounted because of its oversized connectors (it has a big plug that goes out to a bunch of other jacks, as well as two coax connectors). I didn't want to put too much pressure on the card and motherboard, so I had to kind of bend the holes on the back of the case. It looks kind of broken now, but it fits and works fine. . Another thing that was kind of weird is the case tampering switch; my bios gives me a warning every time I boot if I've put the face plate on (and triggered the switch). Disconnecting it, though, also gives me a constant warning. I need to find a jumper to place over the connector.

I had kind of a scare the first time I booted, since after the bios screen it wouldn't read my floppy. I always screw up the orientation of the FD connector so I flipped it around again, but it still wouldn't read! After a bunch of worrying, I formatted a new floppy and--surprise--that worked fine.

I installed Windows 2000 professional. (and CMU has a site license for it, so it was 100% legit!) I was worried about what everyone was saying about its inability to run lots of old programs. Fortunately, my two 16 bit programs (Cakewalk 3 and Fontographer 4) work fine! Also, every game I play works fine (including Quake 3, Quake 2, Halflife, and Nesticle). In short: don't worry too much about legacy program support under Windows 2000. It's also quite stable; only once in the past month have I had to reboot it because of an operating system-related problem. I wouldn't use it for any kind of server, but it is probably the best currently-available desktop OS. Definitely an improvement over '98.

One nice thing about my new computer is that with 3DFX's Windows 2000 drivers I can actually now use the TV features of my Voodoo 3500. (On my 98 box, I got a blue-screen-of-death on boot which they couldn't fix! ). This is really fun. Unfortunately, to hook this up you need to use one of those impossible-to-find audio connectors (like the ones you might use to connect your CD rom audio to your sound card). I didn't have any that were the right shape, so I ended up soldering the wires onto my SoundBlaster. This worked. (Potential gotcha to avoid: don't hold the soldering iron above the PCB while you're working, because solder/flux do occasionally drip!) Now I'm using their software's Timed Record feature to record Pokémon while I'm at work; later I recompress to DivX (mpeg-4) with an excellent piece of freeware called "VirtualDub". The result is very reasonable quality 40mb AVIs that I can watch whenever I want!

Anyway, despite some of my fears (AMD's page has quite a lot of propaganda about using an AMD-recommended power supply and motherboard), this computer works great! I highly recommend all of the things I did (maybe not soldering and case manipulations )!

Labyrinthine Macrocosm | Computerbits