Friday, May 8, 2009

Lucky 7s? GB7, Core i7, and Windows 7

I have a lot of computers in my life, and usually end up working with anywhere from 2 to 10 different machines a day. At home there are 2 computers: an main workstation that serves as a media center and a laptop in the bedroom for when I have to answer the red telephone at 6am. I recently added a Hauppauge WINTV HVR 1600 digital TV tuner card into the media center computer, which combined with GBPVR provides TiVo like features, commercial skipping using Comskip, and the ability to watch live TV. The card has both an analog and a digital tuner, but the computer was too slow to keep up with the high definition format, so I was stuck with basic analog cable channels. Even with analog TV the AMD Athlon XP 2000+ processor could barely keep up.

Since the media center computer was about 6 years old, I decided that it was time to do a complete upgrade. This will be the 7th computer and will be replacing a computer named GB1, so it only makes sense to call it GB7. When purchasing the components from Newegg, I decided that the platform should last at least another 6 years, which meant buying the latest and greatest. I am a big fan of the Intel Core 2 and Core 2 Duo line of processors, but the most recent release from Intel is the Core i7 processor line, which costs a lot more but should be in active development for at least the next 5 years.

The Core i7 line is currently based on a quad core design with hyper threading, which allows for 8 logical threads to be processed on every clock cycle. The CPU also includes a new bus architecture and an integrated 3 channel DDR3 memory controller, which gives it a screaming 25.6 GB/sec throughput bandwidth. The speed comes at a high price tag though, as a 2.66Ghz CPU, a Asus P6T motherboard, and 6GB of ram cost around $630. Throw in an PCI Express 16x video card, a full tower case, and two 250GB SATA drives, and the build costs just under $900 without a monitor or any peripherals.

Since the new machine is suppose to last for a while, I decided to try and use the new Windows 7 as the operating system. Windows 7 is supposedly going to be released later this year, but Microsoft just opened up the Window 7 Release Candidate for public consumption. This means that you can download and install Windows 7 and use it for free until March 2010, at which point the computer will start rebooting every 2 hours. I figure that 10 months is more than enough time to decide if it is worth purchasing a license or not, so I might as well give it a go.

I got all the parts yesterday and, having built 10-20 machines a day when working for a computer wholesaler, I was able to finish the build during my lunch hour. It helps when the motherboard has everything built right in, but also a lot of the old headaches with installing CPU fans and hard drives are much easier now days. It was interesting that just about every single interface has been upgraded since my last build: ATA to SATA, PCI to PCI-Express, DDR to DDR2 to DDR3, 2 channel audio to 8 channel audio now with digital and optical outputs. These were not very popular the last time that I built a machine, which makes me wonder what each of the interfaces will look like 5 years from now.

Sadly some of the old headaches are still there. I spend a few hours trying to get the Windows installation disk to recognize the SATA drives that I had setup in a RAID 1 array. In the old days you had to put the controller drivers on a floppy disk and press F6 to load them into the setup program. Now the setup will prompt you for drivers if no hard drives are found and can load them from a USB flash drive, but the board has 2 SATA controllers and the DVD comes with 4-6 versions of each, so it took a lot of fiddling with cables and drivers before I finally found one that worked. If anyone else is interested, here are instructions for setting up Windows 7 64 Bit on an ASUS P6T Motherboard using an Intel IHC10R RAID array.

I finally got Windows 7 loaded around 11PM last night, but I haven't had much time to play around with it yet. The next steps will be to install the tuner card and start reloading all of the programs that I use, but that will have to wait for the weekend. I have however been very impressed with how quiet the machine runs. There are a total of 4 fans (2 case, 1 power supply, and 1 for the CPU) and all of them are larger than 80mm, which give them great air flow at a whisper quiet speed. I also opted for a video card with a passive cooling design, since the lack of a fan keeps the noise down and is one less moving part that might break. Hopefully that means the system will be running strong for a long time.

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