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Building the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, Part 1
Choosing Components

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, authors of Building the Perfect PC

The old saw says the cobbler's children have no shoes, and that's also true for us. When we finished writing Building the Perfect PC, we had half a dozen new systems sitting on workbenches, but our primary desktop systems were showing their age. Robert's main desktop was an antique Pentium 4/1.7 with single-channel SDR memory. Barbara's main desktop, although more recent, was much slower than any of the systems we'd built for the book.

It was tempting simply to move one of the new systems into each of our offices and be done with it. After all, they were already built and ready to roll. In fact, that's what Robert did at first, replacing his old desktop with the small form factor PC we'd built for the book. The SFF system was certainly fast enough for Robert, but Barbara still needed a new system. Unfortunately, none of the project systems were really ideal to replace her primary desktop system. (The mainstream PC we'd built for the book would have been perfect, but it was already committed to another task.)

Barbara coveted the SFF system, so we decided the best plan was to build a new system for Robert and move the SFF system to her office. Besides, we'd received many new hardware samples since we finished Building the Perfect PC, and using all of them together in a new system would give us a chance to give them a real workout. So we set out to design and build the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC for Robert.

Component Selection

Robert runs Xandros Desktop OS on his desktop systems, so Linux compatibility is important. He also boots Windows occasionally to run shoot-'em-up games (but never during working hours). Our goal, therefore, was to choose high-performance components that would run both Linux and Windows flawlessly.

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Not long ago, component selection for a Linux PC was difficult because many components had limited or no Linux support. Things have improved a lot in the last couple of years. Current mainstream Linux distributions have much better hardware support, although Linux drivers are sometimes a step or two behind Windows drivers in functionality and performance. Even so, building a bleeding-edge system still raises concerns about hardware compatibility, particularly for a conservative Linux distro like Xandros, which is based on Debian Stable. We wanted to find out just how good Linux could be as a desktop OS running on the ultimate hardware, so we decided to plow ahead with a no-holds-barred system. We resolved to keep a close eye on Linux compatibility issues.

Here are the components we chose:

Processor: Intel Pentium 4 560

We wanted the fastest possible single-processor system, so the choice was between the Socket 939 AMD Athlon 64 FX53 and the Socket 775 Intel Pentium 4 560 desktop processors. The AMD FX53 is a screamer--as one would expect of a processor that sells for more than $800--but the Intel P4 560 is about as fast overall and costs about $300 less. In fact, the improved architecture of the 90-nanometer Prescott core really begins to strut its stuff at 3.6GHz. Our tests showed that the P4 560 was faster overall than the 130-nanometer Gallatin-core 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, with its massive 2MB of Level 3 cache.

The AMD FX53 is faster than the P4 560 for 3-D gaming, and it might be our choice if we were building a money-is-no-object system dedicated to Windows gaming. On the other hand, the Intel P4 560 is faster than the AMD FX53 for multimedia encoding and other tasks that use the Hyper Threading and SSE-3 features unique to the Intel processor. For general computing tasks, there is little overall performance difference between these two extremely fast processors.

The AMD FX53 supports 64-bit operating systems and applications, while the Intel P4 560 is 32-bit only. We discounted this factor because, although 64-bitness is important for some server applications, it is not yet a consideration for desktop operating systems and applications. Buying "future-proofing" by choosing a 64-bit processor is an attractive illusion, but no more than that. By the time support for 64-bit desktop software becomes an important consideration, we'll want a faster processor anyway.

Based on these factors, we chose the Intel Pentium 4 560 for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, but we certainly have no argument with anyone who wants the AMD Athlon 64 FX53 and is willing to pay the price.

Motherboard: Intel D925XCV

A top-notch processor deserves a top-notch motherboard. We chose Intel's flagship P4 motherboard, the D925XCV. Intel motherboards set the standards for the build quality, stability, and reliability by which we judge other motherboards. Enthusiasts' web sites often look upon Intel-branded motherboards with disdain because they lack adjustable FSB speeds, tweakable voltages, superaggressive memory timings, and other options so beloved of the overclocking crowd. They miss the point. Intel omits these options because using them is a very bad idea. Intel motherboards, including the D925XCV, provide the highest possible performance consonant with the legendary rock-solid stability for which they are known.

Intel D925XCV motherboard
Figure 1. Intel D925XCV motherboard (image courtesy of Intel Corp.)

The D925XCV provides a full complement of modern features. It supports a 533MHz or 800MHz FSB LGA775 Pentium 4 processor with as much as 4GB of dual-channel 400MHz or 533MHz DDR2 memory in four 240-pin sockets. In addition to four conventional PCI expansion slots, the D925XCV provides one PCI Express x16 slot for a video adapter and two PCI Express x1 slots for additional PCI Express expansion cards. There is no AGP slot, so this board requires a PCI Express video adapter.

The D925XCV provides all the expected ports and connectors, including eight USB 2.0 ports, four Serial ATA interfaces, and one Parallel ATA interface. The D925XCV also provides the standard legacy connectors, including a diskette drive interface, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, a serial port, and a parallel port.

The embedded Intel High Definition Audio subsystem provides top-notch 7.1 audio, and the embedded PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet LAN subsystem provides gigabit performance without the risk of saturating the PCI bus. In addition to the expected Windows drivers, Intel supplies Linux drivers for the audio and network components. Those drivers are certified only for specific versions of Red Hat, SuSE, and Red Flag Linux, but we don't expect any problems using them with other Linux distros, including Xandros.

If we had chosen the AMD Athlon 64 FX53 processor for this system, we would have been hard pressed to select an ideal motherboard for it. We prefer ASUS motherboards for AMD processors, but ASUS does not offer a Socket 939 motherboard based on an nVIDIA nForce3 chipset. The ASUS A8V Deluxe Socket 939 motherboard provides the high performance and top-notch build quality typical of ASUS, but it uses the VIA K8T800Pro chipset. We've had enough problems with VIA chipsets over the years that we avoid them whenever possible. In particular, we were concerned about Linux compatibility issues with the ASUS A8V.

The AMD Athlon 64 FX53 is available in both Socket 939 and Socket 940. Because we'd ruled out motherboards based on VIA chipsets, we had only two real alternatives. We could choose the ASUS SK8N motherboard, which is based on the nForce3 Pro 150 chipset but uses the older Socket 940, or we could choose a non-ASUS Socket 939 motherboard that uses an nForce3 chipset. A Socket 940 FX53 running in an ASUS SK8N is a bit slower than a Socket 939 FX53 running in an nForce3 motherboard, but not by much. The ASUS SK8N is well-supported under Linux, so we have few concerns on that score. For a Socket 939 nForce3 motherboard, we'd probably choose the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum and hope for the best, because MSI does not provide Linux drivers. On balance, we'd be inclined to give up just a bit of performance to get the reliability and compatibility of the ASUS SK8N.

Memory: Crucial PC2-4200U 1GB Kit (Two 512MB)

A high-performance system should have 1GB or 2GB of memory. At the time we built this system, the DDR2 memory used by the Intel D925XCV motherboard was still expensive and hard to come by, so we decided to install two 512MB modules for a total of 1GB. That leaves two free memory slots, so we can later expand total memory to 2GB or 3GB. This was the first system we'd built with DDR2 memory, so we had no experience by which to judge. Based on more than a decade of good experience with other types of Crucial memory modules, we elected to install a pair of Crucial 512MB Intel-validated CT16HTF6464AG-53EB2 PC2-4200U modules.

The ASUS SK8N motherboard requires registered DDR-SDRAM DIMMs, which are both more expensive and slower than standard unbuffered DDR-SDRAM DIMMs. If we used the SK8N, we'd install two Crucial CT6472Y40B 512MB PC3200 CL3 Registered DIMMs for total system memory of 1GB, or four of those modules for a total of 2GB. Alternatively, if we wanted to have 2GB initially but leave slots open for future memory expansion, we'd install two Crucial CT12872Y40B 1GB PC3200 CL3 Registered DIMMs.

Video Adapter: nVIDIA GeFORCE 6800 GT PCI Express

Although Xandros Linux is our primary desktop OS, this system will dual-boot Windows for gaming. Accordingly, we needed a PCI Express video adapter that provided excellent 3-D gaming performance under Windows and was also well supported by Linux.

We gulped when we checked the prices of the fastest ATi and nVIDIA PCI Express graphics adapters. We're building an ultimate system, but it still seemed ridiculous to use a $650 video adapter. Fortunately, excellent high-performance video adapters are available for much less. Although we were tempted to use a midrange adapter such as a ATi RADEON X700-series adapter or the nVIDIA 6600, new-generation games such as Doom 3 demand everything a video adapter can give, and then some. In the $350 to $400 price range we decided was reasonable, the choice came down to the nVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT versus the ATi RADEON X800 Pro.

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Both are superb video adapters, with excellent image quality and 3-D performance only slightly behind the fastest current-generation adapters. For example, while only a few months ago the ATi RADEON 9800XT sold for $500 and up and was the fastest mainstream video adapter available, the current sub-$400 X800 Pro and 6800 GT adapters are both nearly twice as fast. Choosing between the ATi X800 Pro and the nVIDIA 6800 GT was difficult.

nVIDIA adapters have a huge performance advantage for OpenGL games like Doom 3. In fact, a $400 nVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT adapter outperforms a $650 ATi X800 XT Platinum in most Doom 3 benchmarks. Conversely, ATi has the edge for most DirectX games.

Either one would be a good choice, but we eventually decided on the nVIDIA 6800 GT based on its higher performance for the games we play and the better reputation of nVIDIA Linux drivers. If you run Windows and play mostly DirectX games, the ATi X800 Pro may be the better choice. Regardless, these two adapters are more similar than different in both performance and video quality. You'll be happy with either.

Audio Adapter: Embedded

The Intel D925XCV motherboard includes the excellent embedded Intel High Definition Audio 7.1 audio subsystem, which more than suffices for most people's needs. Although Intel officially supports only Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, SuSE Linux 9.0/9.1, and Red Flag Linux 4.0/4.1, the Intel HD Audio Linux drivers should work properly with any current Linux distribution. If you build an Athlon 64 system on an nForce3-series motherboard, you'll find that the embedded audio is excellent and well-supported by Linux.

If you need even more audio features and better sound quality than embedded audio provides, choose the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 audio adapter. Based on the superb Envy 24HT chipset, the Revolution 7.1 provides top-notch audio quality, 7.1 speaker outputs, and a coax SP/DIF connector. The Revolution 7.1 is good enough for anyone except those who work with audio professionally. M-Audio doesn't provide Linux drivers directly, but the Revolution is well supported by the free ALSA and commercial OSS drivers.

Hard Drives: 160GB Seagate ST3160827AS Barracuda 7200.7 SATA NCQ (Two)

One of the new features of the 925X chipset is support for NCQ (Native Command Queuing). NCQ allows a hard drive to queue incoming requests and execute them in the most efficient order, regardless of the sequence in which they are received.

NCQ uses the same algorithm as an elevator. For example, an up-bound elevator stops in sequence at each floor for which a button has been pressed, regardless of the order in which the buttons were pressed. In the same way, an NCQ drive queues requests and acts upon them according to the current position of its heads and their direction of travel, rather than fulfilling requests in the order in which they are received. In contrast, a standard hard drive fulfills requests in the order they are received, which is analogous to an elevator that is programmed to respond to button presses in the order they are received rather than stopping on intermediate floors.

NCQ provides two major benefits. First, because NCQ uses a more efficient scheduling algorithm, an NCQ drive is considerably faster than a standard drive. In our tests, the 7,200-rpm Seagate Barracuda NCQ hard drive matched and often exceeded the performance of a non-NCQ 10,000-rpm Western Digital drive. Second, the more efficient scheduling of the NCQ drive minimizes head movements, which contributes to greater reliability and longer life. SCSI hard drives have long used NCQ, which is one of the major reasons for their better reliability and higher performance under load relative to standard ATA drives.

Implementing NCQ requires both an NCQ-compliant ATA interface and an NCQ-compliant hard drive. The Intel D925XCV motherboard provides NCQ-compliant Serial ATA interfaces. We decided to install two hard drives in this system because we intend to use RAID 1 mirroring. For NCQ-compliant drives, we chose the 160GB Seagate ST3160827AS Barracuda 7200.7 SATA.

Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 hard drive
Figure 2. Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 hard drive (image courtesy of Seagate Technology)

Note: Although we used Barracuda 7200.7 drives in our project system, you'll probably want to use Barracuda 7200.8 drives. Our sources at Seagate tell us that Barracuda 7200.8 drives will soon be shipping in volume, with capacities of 250GB, 300GB, and 400GB, in PATA and SATA NCQ models, with 8MB or 16MB of cache. As is true of earlier Barracuda models, the Barracuda 7200.8 drives are cool running and very quiet, producing as little as 20 dB at idle.

We've used and recommended Seagate Barracuda ATA hard drives for seven drive generations now, and our opinion hasn't changed. Barracuda drives are fast, cool-running, very quiet, and extremely reliable. We'd choose the same drives for an Athlon 64 system, although existing Athlon motherboards do not support the NCQ functions of the drive.

DVD Writer: Plextor PX-712SA

Our data is crucial to us. We'll back up this system using the DVD writer, so it's important to choose a reliable model. Over the last decade, we've used optical drives from dozens of manufacturers, and none of them is as reliable as Plextor. Like Intel motherboards, Plextor optical drives aren't always the fastest or most fully featured models available, and they do cost more than lesser brands. But Plextor drives are rock-solid reliable--both the drives themselves and the discs they write. Over the years, we have burned boatloads of discs in Plextor drives. We have never had a Plextor drive fail, and we have never written a disc in a Plextor writer that later turned out to be unreadable. We can't say the same for other brands we have used.

We didn't want to install any old-style parallel ATA devices in this system, so we chose the Plextor PX-712SA DVD writer, which uses the Serial ATA interface. The PX-712A writes DVD+R discs at 12X, DVD-R at 8X, DVD+RW and DVD-RW at 4X, CD-R at 48X, and CD-RW at 24X. It reads DVDs at 16X maximum and CDs at 48X max. The PX-712SA supports lossless linking, background DVD+RW formatting, the DVD+VR format, and just about every other CD- and DVD-writing feature imaginable, with one exception: It does not write dual-layer DVDs. We considered that only a minor disadvantage, because dual-layer discs are still hard to find and expensive, and they are useful primarily for duplicating commercial DVD-Video discs, which we have no use for.

Plextor lists the PX-712SA as compatible only with Windows 2000 and XP, but the PX-712SA works perfectly on our Xandros Linux boxes using the excellent K3b burning software. In fact, DVD writing under Linux with K3b is noticeably faster than with Nero or Roxio software under Windows, particularly when writing many small files rather than a few large ones. Whether you run Windows or Linux or, as we do, both, the Plextor PX-712SA is the drive to choose. Be sure to read Part 2 of this article, which will be published next week, before you buy the PX-712SA drive.

If we were on a tighter budget or if we needed dual-layer DVD burning, we'd choose the NEC ND-3500A, which we've seen in OEM versions for as little as $85. With 16X DVD+R writing and dual-layer support, the ND-3500A is hard to beat for the price.

Case: Antec P160

This system will be a barn burner, so we wanted a case that looked the part. Vanilla beige just wouldn't cut it, and even black is becoming a bit too common. We wanted to use an aluminum case for its high-tech appearance. There were numerous candidates to choose among, but we settled on the Antec P160 for its combination of features, build quality, and low price (for an aluminum case).

Antec P160 Case
Figure 3. Antec P160 case (image courtesy of Antec, Inc.)

The Antec P160 provides all of the features we wanted in a case for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. It's constructed of heavy 1.2mm aluminum stock with an attractive anodized finish. There's plenty of expansion room, with 10 drive bays, including four external 5.25" bays and two external 3.5" bays. Antec provides aluminum bezels for optical and floppy drives.

The P160 accepts any motherboard up to standard ATX and includes numerous convenience features such as a tool-free removable side panel, a removable motherboard tray, and a washable air filter. Antec obviously engineered this case for quiet operation and effective cooling. The hard drive trays include rubber shock-mounting grommets to reduce drive noise. One quiet, low-speed 120mm fan is supplied with the case. There is a mounting position for a second 120mm fan, although the second fan shouldn't be needed in any but the most heavily loaded configurations.

We also like the unique swiveling front control panel that can be rotated from vertical to a 45° upward angle for improved visibility. It provides the usual front-panel connectors, including two USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE-1394 (FireWire or i.Link) port, and two audio ports, as well as an LED temperature display with two built-in temperature sensors. If there's a better case for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, we don't know about it.

Power Supply: Antec NeoPower 480

A good power supply is a major factor in system stability. Unlike most cases, the Antec P160 does not include a power supply. That makes sense, because most people who build a PC around the P160 will want to choose a specific power supply appropriate for their system configuration. For ours, we chose the Antec NeoPower 480. The NeoPower 480 is an expensive power supply. It sells for about a 50 percent premium over the superb Antec TruePower 550W units, but we considered the additional features of the NeoPower 480 to be worth the extra $50 or so.

Antec NeoPower 480 power supply
Figure 4. Antec NeoPower 480 power supply (image courtesy of Antec, Inc.)

If you've ever worked with a standard power supply, the first thing you'll notice about the NeoPower 480 is the Advanced Cable Management System, which Antec has patented. The typical rat's nest of cables is absent. Instead, the NeoPower 480 provides only a basic set of permanently attached power cables, including the ATX12V main power cable and the ATX12V processor power cable. All other cables, including drive power cables, are detachable; they connect to one of the four proprietary 6-pin connectors on the side of the power supply. That means you connect only the cables you need, which improves airflow and greatly reduces clutter inside the case.

The NeoPower 480 provides the new 24-pin ATX12V main power connector used by the Intel D925XCV motherboard. Although it's possible to power the D925XCV with an older 20-pin ATX12V power supply, doing so requires providing supplemental voltage by connecting a Molex drive-power connector to the motherboard. We prefer the less cluttered connection available with a 24-pin power supply. PCI Express video adapters have special voltage requirements, for which the NeoPower 480 provides the new 6-pin PCI Express connector. It's possible to power a PCI Express video adapter with an older power supply using a Molex drive power connector to provide supplemental voltage. However, using a power supply with a PCI Express connector provides a cleaner solution.

Unlike many power supplies, which cut costs by sharing control circuitry among two or more voltage rails, the NeoPower 480 provides dedicated circuitry to control each voltage rail. The critical voltage rails use feedback circuitry to control output voltage within very tight tolerances, which contributes to increased system stability. To accommodate the heavy +12V demands of current processors like the Prescott-core Pentium 4, the NeoPower 480 provides dual +12V rails.

The NeoPower 480 is engineered for quiet, cool, efficient operation. It monitors operating temperature and adjusts the speed of its own 120mm fan accordingly. It also provides dedicated fan-only power connectors that can control the speed of supplemental case fans as the temperature inside the case varies, reducing fan speeds for quieter operation until higher speeds are required to cool the system.

The NeoPower 480 is more energy-efficient than many power supplies because it uses Active PFC (power-factor correction) to reduce the maximum amperage it draws. A non-PFC power supply of similar wattage may have a peak current 25 percent or more higher than the NeoPower 480. The Active PFC and other efficiency features of the NeoPower 480 translate to reduced current consumption, lower operating temperatures, and the ability to use a UPS with a smaller VA rating.

Overall, we think the Antec NeoPower 480 is the best mainstream power supply available, so that's what we decided to use.

Component Summary

Table 1 summarizes the components we chose for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. With the exception of the memory, which we priced directly from Crucial, the prices shown for all components were obtained from NewEgg in late September 2004.

Table 1. Component Summary

Component Product Price
Processor Intel Pentium 4 560 $535
CPU cooler <included with retail-box processor> $0
Motherboard Intel D925XCV $195
Memory Crucial CT16HTF6464AG-53EB2 PC-4200U 512 MB DDR2 DIMMs (two at $187 each) $374
Graphics adapter nVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT PCI Express $389
Audio adapter <embedded> $0
Network adapter <embedded> $0
Hard drives Seagate ST3160827AS Barracuda 7200.7 SATA NCQ (two at $115 each) $230
Optical drive Plextor PX-712SA S-ATA DVD burner $155
Case Antec P160 $119
Power supply Antec NeoPower 480 $151

There's only one way to find out whether it all works, so stay tuned. In Part 2 of this article you can follow us as we build the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC around these components.

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson. All rights reserved.

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of "Building the Perfect PC" and "PC Hardware in a Nutshell." She runs her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions.

In August 2004, O'Reilly Media, Inc., released Building the Perfect PC.

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