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May 6, 2005

Building a 64-bit PC

Posted 4072 days ago on May 6, 2005

From time to time I assemble a PC. Not very often now, since it is normally both cheaper and easier to buy an off-the-shelf box. A qood quality basic PC from the likes of HP or Dell is stupidly cheap, and self-assembly makes no sense. But there are exceptions. I wanted to try 64-bit Windows and Linux, and found it hard to find a suitable box from the usual suspects - though I was tempted by a dual-proc Xeon workstation from HP. In the end though, I figured that the hard drive was too small, and adding the second processor plus registered DRAM too expensive. So I settled on buying some bits - a smart black Sonata case from Antec, a Pentium 630, an Intel D915 board, and 4GB of RAM. I tend to avoid the cheaper cases, because cheap cases mean cheap power supplies and that's bad news for long-term stability.

Why not AMD? There's no doubt that AMD has the edge for 64-bit and offers better value overall. On the other hand, I've learned to trust Intel over the years - not for the best performance, but for well-made and reliable products. As an aside, I suffered recently from duff capacitors on one machine (not one with an Intel motherboard). You may remember the "bad caps" scandal of a few years back. Two years down the line, and I have to disassemble the machine, and remove and replace several dud capacitors - all because the board manufactures saved a few pennies on the cheapest possible components. This sort of thing rarely comes out in reviews, but I was pleased to see Rubycon capacitors on the Intel 915, known as one of the best brands.

All the bits arrived next day and I set to work. In general, assembling a PC is easier than ever. For example, I didn't have to touch a single jumper on this occasion. Most things are either self-configuring or adjusted through software. Furthermore, the Intel motherboard comes with a fantastic sheet of step-by-step instructions, complete with colour photographs. It is hard to go wrong.

Still, there is always something. The worst bit of the assembly is fitting the heat sink - and I reckon the latest effort from Intel is a step backwards from the clip-on device for S478 processors. It's a thing with four pillars. Each pillar has a pin which twists. You have to twist the pin to the locked position, then position the heatsink on the board and push down the pins until they click. Sounds easy, once you work out which is the locked position. There's a handy arrow on each pin, but does the arrow mean "this way to lock" or "this way to unlock"? Hmmm. Anyway, the tricky bit is pushing down until it clicks. There always seems to be a moment when building a PC that requires some measured violence, and this is an example. It is no good applying light pressure - the thing simply does not engage properly. On the other hand, I don't enjoy pressing down hard and seeing my expensive high-precision motherboard bowing and bending under the strain. Maybe there's a knack to it - I think I'll find the next one easier. And I haven't lost a motherboard yet.

One thing that has got more complex over the years is connecting the case to the onboard devices. Along with the usual power switches and LEDs, the Antec has front-panel audio, firewire and USB ports. The Intel board actually comes with a 3.5" panel which you can use instead, but I prefer to use the built-in ports. The snag is that you have to check that the pinouts are correct on the varous connectors, as there seem to be several variations. The firewire block seemed fine, but curiously Antec's USB connector is numbered in reverse, relative to the Intel pins. The actual connections did match however. I only tripped up on the LEDs, which didn't light up on my first attempt - the connectors had to be turned around.

Finally I slotted in a Geforce PCI Express graphics card (having noted that NVidia has 64-bit drivers), closed the case and powered on. Success, and I was soon into the Windows XP x64 setup. Look out for the review in Personal Computer World.

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