Electronic Design

EiED Online>> Best Computer Of 2005

What do you get when you put together the best of everything? The Best Computer of 2005 of course. This system is based on AMD’s dual-core Athlon and ASUS’ A8N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard (see Fig. 1). It delivers the kind of performance needed to make it a top gaming machine as well as a multimedia delight.

Yes, this project will definitely break the bank, especially with all the necessary peripherals, so you might want to check out some individual components if you are on a budget.

This system will have you seeing double, and not from just the price tag. The dual-core Athlon started things off, and even the motherboard has some interesting pairs. It supports the Athlon’s dual memory-channel architecture, hence two Platinum PC3200 400MHz DIMMs (see Fig. 2) from OCZ Technology. The 1-Gbyte DIMMs mean the system has 2 gig of RAM. The motherboard has two IDE controllers, two pairs of 3-Gbit/s Serial ATA II (SATA II) interfaces, two Fast Ethernet interfaces, and dual SATA RAID interfaces. Last but not least, the motherboard has two x16 PCI Express sockets to handle the two NVidia video cards.

You read correctly. The ASUS motherboard can take two of NVidia’s top-of-the-line 7800GTX video adapters that support the nForce4 Scalable Link Interface (SLI). SLI requires motherboard support, and ASUS delivers. It has a special heat-pipe system to cool them, and the PCI Express slots have two PCI slots between them. This provides the better airflow and space necessary for video cards like the 7800GTX that pack extra cooling onboard.

NVidia’s 7800GTX is available from a range of vendors. Our 7800GTX (see Fig. 3) came from MSI Computer, who also supplies motherboards like the A8N32-SLI Deluxe. Likewise, ASUS has its own version of the 7800GTX. Using two boards doubles system video capabilities with either two boards driving one monitor very fast or up to four monitors with less individual performance.

High-performance video calls for a top quality display like Viewsonic’s 19-inch VX924 LCD display (see Fig. 4). In the past, CRTs delivered the fastest performance that the 7800GTX can crank out, which is necessary for gaming video. Now Viewsonic delivers the fastest response time with the VX924.

For your video viewing pleasure we have Hauppauge’s WinTV-PVR-350 (see Fig. 5) and MediaMVP (see “Making More Of Your PC’s Video”). The WinTV-PVR-350 provides television viewing as well as PVR (personal video recorder) support, and the ability to provide multimedia output to a remote TV via the MediaMVP box. The MediaMVP plugs into the TV and an Ethernet network.

Movie viewing is also possible with Hewlett-Packard’s DVD 740i LightScribe drive (see Fig. 6). More on this later. It handles double-layer media and the LightScribe technology prints directly on LightScribe media.

The other major components in the system include a giant Seagate 7200.9 500-Gbyte SATA-II hard drive. The system itself is housed in an Antec Performance TX1088 AMG (see Fig. 7) with a TruePower 2.0 550-W power supply. This is definitely a cool case, speaking temperately.

The keyboard and mouse combination comes from Logitech. So did the Z-5450 digital speaker system that incorporates a set of wireless speakers for the rear speakers.

Finally, SanDisk supplied external USB support along with flash memory for data exchange because there is no floppy disk in the system. A Sansa e140 MP3 player (see Fig. 8) provides portable multimedia support. HP’s Photosmart 475 (see Fig. 9) portable printer and R817 (see Fig. 10) digital camera bundle rounds out the mobile peripherals.

There are sidebars covering the features of each component used in this project. See the list of sidebars at the top of this article.

Putting It Together
The first job on the list was to install the AMD Athlon and OCZ memory on the ASUS motherboard (see Fig. 11). The CPU fits in a ZIF socket and the dual-channel memory snaps in place. The hard part is putting on the CPU’s heatsink (see Fig. 12). Don’t forget to plug in the power connector and put the grease in between the heatsink and the CPU. The grease significantly improves the metal-to-metal conduction that will be especially important if you try overclocking the CPU. The ASUS motherboards are well known for supporting this feature that gamers love. Of course, really pushing the envelope means moving to a water cooling system, but that’s for another project.

Next put the backpanel supplied with the motherboard in the back of the Antec case. The motherboard can now be put into the case. Make sure all the screws are installed (see Fig. 13). Tighten all screws only after the motherboard has been properly positioned.

Connecting the power cables is next. This motherboard has three power supply connections, not just one, so don’t miss one. There are more power-hungry chips on this motherboard than most non-gaming motherboards.

I like to install the case cables next. These are the ones connected to the LEDs and switches on the case. The cables connect to a header in the front corner of the motherboard. It helps to have the documentation unless you can read the tiny letters on the motherboard around the header.

Connect the IDE cable for the HP DVD drive and the SATA cable for the Seagate Barracuda to the motherboard. The IDE connector is a little hard to access with the motherboard installed, but the SATA header is easy to access. Make sure the DVD drive is jumpered as the primary IDE drive. The HP DVD drive is inserted from the front of the case after removing the drive bay panel. Bolt in the drive and connect the power and IDE cables. I also connected the audio output of the drive to the motherboard’s audio support with a cable supplied with the drive.

The internal bay for the Seagate drive was easier to get to, so it was possible to connect the cables before installing the drive in the drive bay (see Fig. 14). SATA still uses two cables, but they and their connectors are much smaller than the conventional IDE drives.

Next was time to install the video cards. It is best to do things incrementally, so I started with just one adapter and left the case open. The video adapter snaps into the PCI Express socket that has a latch that gives the board a three point mounting system versus the two point system that PCI cards have. You also need to attached power for the PCI Express interface. You can use the standard power supply connections and the Y adapter supplied with the card (see Fig. 15). You must plug in power to BOTH connectors on the Y adapter. I actually used the PCIe connectors that the Antec power supply has. This is much easier and it provides better power distribution so go with a new power supply if you can.

I had to plug in the Bluetooth adapter that supports the mouse and keyboard. Add in the monitor and the system is now ready for its initial test.

Firing up the system for the first time was uneventful. The BIOS indicated that the installed drives and peripherals were working. I did not install Windows XP Pro yet because of the additional boards that needed to be installed. It was time to power down and disconnect the power cords. It’s best to install or remove hardware with the power cord disconnected.

The SLI cable connects the two video cards after the second video card is installed (see Fig. 16), but first I installed the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-350 between the two cards. This leaves the video boards’ cooling fan area open. The SLI cable goes over the Hauppauge board. There is still two PCI slots and an additional x4 PCI Express slot not used in this system.

I installed two of the three slot-based backpanel connectors (see Fig. 17). One provides access to the IEEE 1394/iLink video connections typically found on MiniDV camcorders. The other provides additional USB ports and a joystick port. The latter is handy for game controllers you may already have, but most new controllers plug into USB. The third connector was for an additional serial port.

I also connected one of the Ethernet ports to my local network before reconnecting power. I booted the system to make sure the hardware was installed properly. It was. I could now install Windows XP Pro. The installation was rather involved since Windows XP recognizes all the hardware. Luckily it was just a matter of having the installation CDs handy. I took enough time to make sure everything was working correctly including adding the PC to the domain server. The final interior photo (see Fig. 18) shows that cabling is still a dominant portion of the system. It also shows off the large, adjustable speed, cooling fan on the rear of the case.

It was then time to install the rest of the peripherals. I started with the SanDisk 12-in-1 Card Reader/Writer (see Fig. 19). This includes a resident application that reacts to the button on the unit. Insert a card and press the button to transfer files. I was able to test the 1-Gbyte SanDisk Ultra II SD memory card that was destined for the HP camera.

The HP R817 digital camera was the next obvious choice to install. This is another USB device. The USB cable plugs into the platform on which the camera is placed. A power plug provides access to the power brick charger for the camera’s rechargeable battery. The installation CD handles the basic drivers and extras like the American Greeting Card package.

The HP PhotoSmart printer can operate as a standalone device, so I checked that out first. I did not have a battery for it so I could not go completely mobile, but I could transfer pictures from the R817 camera to the printer via the printer’s built-in flash memory slots and the SanDisk flash memory card.

Once I was sure that the printer worked I plugged in the USB cable and installed the drivers and support software from the installation CD. It is possible to transfer images between the PC and the printer’s tiny 1-Gbyte hard disk and flash memory cards.

The motherboard’s built-in audio support is impressive but somewhat useless without the speakers installed, so it was time to plug in the 315-W Logitech Z-5450 Digital Speakers. This is a bit more complicated than the typical two-speaker system. But it will be familiar to anyone that has played with subwoofer and five-speaker systems. This system is a little different as the two rear speakers are wireless and there is a wireless control unit that must be setup as well. There is also a wireless remote-control unit. For the most part, it was a matter of wiring the main speaker to the PC. The default configuration worked well enough to test all the speakers, including the wireless ones that still need to be plugged into a power outlet. Analyzing the control and remote took a bit more time because of the need to read the documentation. It was worth taking the time to do so since tuning the system for the room definitely improves audio performance.

Hauppauge’s PVR was next on the list. The card and software was already installed, but that is only the starting point. The multiheaded multimedia connections out the back include multimedia I/O, so it was a matter of getting a cable in from my antenna as well as a connection to a nearby TV. I used the separate FM antenna instead of trying to bypass the FM trap on my antenna amplifier. I also had to find room for the infrared receiver for the wireless remote.

Exercising the WinTV was a bit time consuming, but that is more a matter of the features than any difficulty in actually doing it. The automatic scan recognized my local stations although I had to prune some that are not received well. I checked out the PVR feature using the keyboard and the remote control.

By the way, I have been running the system power through an American Power Conversion UPS, so the last thing I did was to install PowerChute. This process starts by plugging in the USB cable that connects the UPS to the PC (see Fig. 20). This tends to be more flexible than using the serial port cable that is also included. Installation was as easy as the other peripherals and PowerChute lets you test the UPS from its Windows interface. The unit I used provides plenty of run time so you can continue through short power outages and shut down cleanly even if in the middle of writing an article or playing a game. It has enough power to handle extra peripherals like a network switch and a wireless Internet gateway. Don’t set up a system without one.

Running It Through Its Paces
It has actually taken a bit of time to check out the system. There are so many features that I don’t have the space to cover all of them here, so I will highlight the more interesting ones.

First on the list is Windows XP Pro 64. This version of the operating system takes advantage of the 64-bit architecture, while the standard version of XP Pro just takes advantage of the dual cores. The look and feel of Windows XP Pro 64 is essentially the same as XP Pro. There are few applications that use the power of the 64-bit architecture under Windows at this time, and many are more oriented towards servers. Still, this is the platform of the future and it will likely be better supported under the forthcoming Windows Vista. The biggest problem is coming up with 64-bit drivers. The 32-bit drivers will not work and this is the best reason for setting up the system as a dual boot. I had left enough space on the Seagate hard disk to install XP Pro 64 in its own partition.

It is likely XP Pro will be used most often on this machine since multimedia support and game controllers are going to be used often. Still, this will change as 64-bit drivers become more available.

The Logitech keyboard has so many features that it was worth exploring. Its MediaLife software is designed to handle images, music, and video. This tends to compete with the Hauppauge WinTV support, but much of it can be integrated and it is possible to utilize common directories for stored multimedia data. One LCD display and additional controls were not hard to use once I read through the manual. There are zoom and volume sliders on the left side. These utilize touch panel technology so there are no moving parts. I did program some of the Smart Keys, but just enough to get a feel for matching keys with functions. I will probably take advantage of more once I have used the system on a regular basis.

I wound up using the HP R817 camera to take most of the photos for this project in addition to taking a number of family pictures that I didn’t include here. The built-in red-eye correction is one of the best features. No more editing in most cases. The R817 was fast and has many features that are highlighted on an interactive, online manual. Various modes for shooting sports action or snowscapes adjust the various timing and imaging options such as the f-stop and shutter speed. The button combinations make selection fast and easy. Experimentation helps in addition to providing familiarity with the options.

The panorama mode was very interesting. You take a sequence of shots panning from one side to another. Each shot, except the first, shows a semitransparent skeleton of the prior image that you try to line up when taking the current shot. This speeds up the stitching done by the software on the PC when the files are downloaded. You get the original photos plus the panorama image.

This brings me to the HP PhotoSmart printer that was supplied with a range of paper sizes including 5-by-7 inch for large photos and a panorama paper designed for printing the very wide images. The panoramas can be printed on the smaller 4-by-6 inch paper but it leaves a good deal of white space. The image editing software is very nice, especially the ability to crop to paper sizes. The printer can generate borderless prints, just like most photos, but the camera aspect ratio is different. Print a standard image and there will be whitespace around it when you print. Cropping allowed me to make the adjustment where I could see what would get dropped. It does mean that you should not try to fill up the image when taking the photo but to leave at least a little space around it.

The HP ImageZone program that handles the editing was easy to use and understand without having to read all the manual, but you will need to avail yourself of the online help or manual to get to some of the more esoteric features. Things like batch processing of common functions was more apparent and very handy.

The software that comes with WinTV is very powerful and it was relatively easy to use the menu system accessed using the Hauppauge wireless remote. Tying WinTV together with the Logitech keyboard and the Hauppauge MediaMVP took a little time. Luckily, the latter case is rather common so the integration is very good. There is yet another remote for MediaMVP, but it is likely to be located in another room so its remote-control unit is very important. Happily, I have a house wired with CAT5 plus multiple wireless access points so moving the MediaMVP to the far end of the house was a trivial exercise.

Still, I found it best to test the system with the MediaMVP attached to a television near the PC so I didn’t have to run from one room to another. Once this was working it was a simple matter to connect the MediaMVP to another TV in a different room.

The Z-5450 Digital speakers also had their own wireless remote. I have not figured out whether it is possible to get one remote that would handle all the devices like the TV, WinTV, and the speakers, but some of the programmable general remotes may work.

The WinTV can also tune in FM stations. It is possible to record and listen to it later using SanDisk’s Sansa e140 MP3 player. The e140’s gigabyte of flash memory provides more than enough space for an entire library of MP3 files. It has a flash memory card slot but most will use the USB interface like I did. I really liked the way the device installs as a flash memory drive. It is a simply matter of copying files to or from a disk and it means the same unit can be used to store non-media files. Of course, you can also use the bundled software that includes Rhapsody for PC-based music management.

One interesting and essentially undocumented feature of the Sansa e140 is that it can be used as an SD flash memory-card reader. The internal flash memory shows up as one disk drive and the external slot as another. I was able to take the Ultra II card from the HP R817 camera and load it into the PC via the e140. Now all I need to take with me on trips are the MP3 player and the camera.

I am running a bit long here so I won’t cover the games I tested, but the output from the 7800GTX cards is simply unbelievable. Console games have some power graphics but this system is even more incredible. The Viewsonic VX924 was a major part of the success with this system because the blazing frame rate was rendered in crystal clear fashion. It just goes to show that matching functionality is more important than just having the fastest component in one part of the system.

I did take a crack at overclocking by raising the clock speed of the processor and video card, but only to see if it worked. At this point the system is so powerful that it runs rings around anything else I have in the lab, so speeding it up even more was a bit silly. Still, if you are a gamer and trying to tweak out the last bit of performance then overclocking is a vaiable option. The motherboard, OCZ memory, and video card are designed for this. The motherboard BIOS handles much of the configuration. It also provides temperature and cooling information that is critical. Don’t push the limits too much or you will wind up with melted processors that will never run again. The cooling system will handle overclocking to a degree that will vary between systems. If you are going to push the limits then take a look at add-on water cooling solutions. These can handle much higher clock speeds without turning the inside of the chips into lumps of metal and glass.

The system costs a bit more than the standard multimedia PC from Best Buy or CompUSA, but it will run rings around anything except a very high-end gaming PC built by a few specialty companies. In short, it is the Best Computer of 2005.

Related Links
Advanced Micro Devices
www.amd.com

American Power Conversion
www.apcc.com

Antec
www.antec.com

ASUS
www.asus.com

Hauppauge Computer Works
www.hauppauge.com

Hewlett-Packard
www.hp.com

Logitech
www.logitech.com

MSI Computers
www.msicomputer.com

OCZ Technology
www.ocztechnology.com

SanDisk
www.sandisk.com

Viewsonic
www.viewsonic.com

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