Electronic Design
Building A Cool Core i7 Extreme Edition PC

Building A Cool Core i7 Extreme Edition PC

It is always fun to build a new PC around the fastest technology available. Intel's hex core Core i7 Extreme Edition (Fig. 1) is the fastest desktop processor around. Its six cores can run a dozen threads that are fed by a three DDR3 controllers. Most of the other Core processors have only two channels. The Core i7 Extreme Edition supports the latest technologies like TurboBoost and it can be overclocked to make an already fast processor faster.

Supermicro provided a workstation motherboard that can handle the Core i7 Extreme Edition as well as Xeon processors that fit into the LGA 1366 socket. The Super Micro X8SAX (see Supermicro X8SAX Motherboard For Extreme Workstations) motherboard (Fig. 2) has a mix of slots that include x16 PCI Express as well as PCI-X and PCI slots. This turned out to be handy given the mix of boards on hand in the lab. I have some PCI-based video capture cards that I plan on installing later. The X8SAX is likely to be found in a range of systems include rack mount servers needing a single Xeon processor.

Cosair provided a number of components to this project including the Domintor GT (see DDR3 Memory Targets Gamers And Workstations) DDR3 memory kit (Fig. 3) that includes its own cooling fan. This memory kit is designed for gamers that want to overclock their systems. I actually plan on using the system as a high end workstation since I don't have lots of time for games these days. As such, I included an ATI FireGL graphics adapter rather than one of the high end gaming graphics cards although the X8SAX has two x16 PCI Express slots.

The other two items that Corsair supplied include the Hydro Series H50 (Fig. 4) liquid cooling system and the Corsair Graphite Series 600T (Fig. 5) case. The Corsair H50 (see H50 Cools Core i7 Extreme Edition Silently) is a sealed unit. It is at the bottom end of the series that is designed for quiet or overclocked systems. I plan on taking advantage of the quiet aspect. I have always used lower end systems, often fanless, outside of the lab. Noise is a consideration but I always wanted more performance. I think I have finally found the right combination.

The Corsair Graphite Series 600T was a second choice. I was hoping to use an existing case here in the lab but the placement of H50's radiator is based on the position and size of the openings on the case. It has a 120mm fan and only newer cases like the 600T can handle that. The Corsair cases are designed to handle their liquid cooling systems but other cases can handle these as well. It does pay to check out the combination ahead of time though. Likewise, the location of the processor on the motherboard can be an issue as we will see later.

The last piece to the puzzle came from Seagate. Its Momentus XT (see Hands-on Momentus XT Hybrid Hard Drive) is a 2.5-in hybrid drive (Fig. 6) designed for laptops. It is tiny compared to the 600T case and I had to use a couple adapters to make it fit. On the other hand, I have multiple servers with lots of storage so I tend to minimize the amount of hard disk space on workstations. The Momentus XT seemed like a good combination because its solid state caching provides the kind of performance the processor could take advantage of. I may wind up swapping it out in the future depending upon how the system is used. For now, it works great as workstation storage. If I start using multiple virtual machines remotely I may switch to an SSD.

So that is the cast of characters in this project. From my perspective, it is an interesting mix but one that works quite well.

Assembling the Cooling System

Assembling a PC is straight forward these days and I was wondering how much different things would be using a liquid cooling system. In the past the challenge was one that most would avoid. I can say that this is no longer the case. Corsair's H50 and the 600T actually make the task easier than with an air cooled alternative.

The process starts as usual with the H50 mount placed on back of X8SAX (Fig. 7). The 600T case has openings that would allow this to be done after the motherboard is mounted but the X8SAX does not have the processor in the middle of these so the bracket has to be on before the motherboard is placed in the case. The other difference is that the H50 has a ring mount on the top of X8SAX (Fig. 8). The cooling pump and heat sink combination twists into the mount. The screws around the ring keep the combo mounted on top of the Core i7 chip (Fig. 9). Figure 9 also shows the large 200mm top fan that comes with the 600T. There is another on the front. As you might guess, cooling is a key feature of this case.

The 600T comes with a 120mm fan on the back. The H50 comes with a radiator and its own 120mm fan. Only one is required (Fig. 10). This approach provides plenty of clearance. For my application this would be sufficient.

It is also possible to take advantage of both 120mm fasn in a push-pull configuration (Fig. 11). The fans must both be moving air in the same direction but the results are better than a single fan. Of course, the configuration is very tight but it does fit in this instance. The other Corsair liquid cooling systems are different sizes so the H70 may be a tigher fit. One trick would be putting the second fan outside the case although that exposes the fan.

I picked up a Thermaltake power supply (Fig. 12) from a nearby store. I like its modular cabling approach since only the required number of cables needs to be installed. The final cabling around processor (Fig. 13) turns out to be very clean although somewhat tight. The main power connector is behind the DRAM sockets. The power supply for the 600T is mounted on the bottom near the floor, not at the top like many tower cases. Luckily the Thermaltake unit has long cords and everything fits even when additional cards are added to the mix.

I thought I would mention the additional fan cabling (Fig. 14) for E600T. It has a big knob on the top to manually control any number of fans. These plugs are used if that approach is taken. The motherboard has plenty of fan headers as well so the automatic approach can be taken as well. I decided to run the large fans manually and the H50 fans automatically so I could experiment with the temperature of the system.

Wrapping Up

The last items to add were the Seagate hybrid drive and ATI FireGL graphics adapter (Fig. 15). There are six SATA ports on the motherboard and the 600T has six slots for 3.5/2.5-in drives. There are four 5.25-in drive bays as well. The little Momentus XT is lonely in this big case but it chugs along rather nicely.

A quick install of Fedora 14 and the system was up and running. The fans do make some noise but you have to be right next to the case when it is silent elsewhere to even hear them. The system run very cool even when churning through video filters so I am quite pleased with the results. The X8SAX provides the expansion I will be taking advantage of and the Momentus XT has proven to be very snappy with Linux. It is on par with another system I have that has a seperate SSD and 2 Tbyte hard drive.

The cooling configuration makes sense for applications that need the power of a Core i7 Extreme Edition, Xeon or AMD Opteron while not sounding like an aircraft carrier. Most of the Xeon systems I have here are rather loud. That is not an issue in a computer room but it is when the computational unit needs to be around people.

Liquid cooling is handy for the Core i7 Extreme Edition but it does not take an extreme effort to install it.

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