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Building the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, Part 2

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, authors of Building the Perfect PC
10/12/2004

Introduction

In our last article, we detailed our component selections for the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. In this article, we'll actually build the system and find out if we can make it work. (Yes, we know we're not supposed to admit that.)

We promised a bleeding-edge system, and that's exactly what we're building. For example, as we began writing this article, we got mail from our editor at O'Reilly, who pointed out that we hadn't mentioned the brand of the nVIDIA 6800 GT PCI Express video adapter that we recommended in the first article. We responded:

Um, the problem is that we can't specify a brand yet because you can't actually buy a PCI Express 6800 GT card yet, although that should change by the time the article runs. All the 6800 GT cards available now are AGP. The card we have is an engineering sample/prototype. (We did say "bleeding edge.")

And bleeding-edge it turned out to be. Not everything worked out as we expected, and we ended up having to replace one hardware component. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. As you read this article, you'll follow us step by step as we build and test our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC.

Building the System

We don't have enough space to detail every step of construction, so we'll focus on the unusual aspects of building this system--Socket 775, Serial ATA, PCI Express, and other facets that may be unfamiliar to many readers. Still, we've provided enough detail for anyone who is comfortable working on PCs to follow in our footsteps. So let's jump in and start building the system.

Assembling the Power Supply

Now that's a section title we never expected to use. Every other PC power supply we've seen simply slides into position, no assembly required. The Antec NeoPower 480 is different: you have to assemble it before you install it. The NeoPower provides only three permanently connected cables: the main ATX power cable, the ATX12V supplementary power cable, and a control cable that connects to a fan power header on the motherboard. Those three standard cables are visible in Figure 1, extending from the right front of the power supply.

Antec NeoPower components
Figure 1. Antec NeoPower 480 power supply components

All other cables are optional, and Antec provides a plethora of them. Each optional cable has a proprietary six-pin plug on one end that connects to one of the four matching six-pin jacks visible on the front of the power supply. The other end of each optional cable provides various standard power connectors, including Molex (hard drive), Berg (floppy drive), Serial ATA, and so on. The advantage of using optional cables is that you can connect only the cables you need, which minimizes the rat's nest of cables you have to deal with when assembling the system.

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Our project system required only the three cables shown to the lower left of the power supply. Nearest the power supply is the S-ATA power cable, with the PCI Express power cable immediately below it. The fan-only cable at the lower left is used to power supplemental case fans, and it has a special two-pin proprietary plug that mates to a special fan-only jack on the power supply. That jack is not visible in Figure 1, but it's located immediately beneath the permanently connected cables on the right side of the power supply.

Alas, the S-ATA power cable has connectors for only two drives. That's a problem, because our project system has two S-ATA Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 NCQ hard drives and an S-ATA Plextor PX-712SA DVD burner. We looked for a second S-ATA power cable but didn't find one. What we did find was a plastic bag with two crimp-on S-ATA power connectors, visible at the top left of Figure 1. These crimp-on connectors can be placed anywhere along the length of the S-ATA power cable to provide a third (and fourth) S-ATA power connector.

We thought that was an odd decision at first. Why not simply include a second S-ATA cable or put three or four S-ATA connectors on the existing cable? After all, crimping on connectors is not something most PC builders do often, and if the wires are crimped in the wrong sequence it's possible to damage the power supply and/or the drives. As we thought about it, though, we realized the benefit of this method. Rather than add the third connector now, we'll wait until we've assembled the system. We'll use the two existing connectors for the hard drives, and then run the cable up near the optical drive. We can then mark the cable in exactly the position at which the third S-ATA connector needs to be for neat cable routing, with neither too much nor too little slack. Because the cable is socketed at both ends, it will be easy enough to remove it temporarily, crimp on the third connector at the previously determined location, and have what amounts to a custom-made cable that fits our case exactly.

We installed the fan-only, S-ATA, and PCI Express cables, as shown in Figure 2, planning to crimp on the extra S-ATA connector after we assembled the system. Other than the two-pin fan-only cable, which has a dedicated jack, the cables simply plug into the keyed six-pin jacks on the power supply. You can connect any of the optional cables to any of the six-pin jacks.

Connecting Antec NeoPower cables
Figure 2. Connecting cables to the NeoPower 480 power supply

With the cables attached to the power supply, we slid the power supply into position in the P160 case and used the four screws provided with the power supply to secure it. Unlike many power supplies, the NeoPower 480 uses automatic voltage sensing rather than a manual switch to set input voltage. If you are using a different power supply, make sure it is set for the proper voltage.

As we finished installing the power supply, we noticed that Antec had not mounted the standard 120mm case fan. Instead, it was strapped to the case using a twist tie. It took only a minute or two to mount the fan, using the soft plastic pull-through connectors supplied with the fan. Once we snapped all four of the connectors into place, we nipped off the excess length using our dykes.

With the power supply and supplemental fan installed, the final case preparation steps are to install the I/O template provided with the motherboard and to install brass standoffs in each position required by the motherboard mounting holes. Although the P160 case has a removable motherboard tray, we generally find it no more difficult to install the motherboard without removing the tray. We used a 5mm nut driver to install brass standoffs at each of the 11 positions used by the D925XCV motherboard, snapped the I/O template into place, and set the case aside for the time being.

Note: The Antec P160 case has many nice touches. For example, while brass is a soft metal, it is still harder than aluminum. Many aluminum cases provide drilled and threaded holes for the standoffs in the aluminum motherboard plate, which makes it too easy to strip the threads. The Antec P160 provides threaded steel collars at each standoff mounting position, embedded in the aluminum motherboard plate.

Populating the Motherboard

With the case prepared, the next steps are to populate the motherboard by installing the processor and memory. It's much easier to complete these steps before the motherboard is installed in the case. You're also less likely to damage the processor, the memory modules, or the motherboard itself if you keep the motherboard on a firm, flat surface while installing the processor and memory.

We confess that we were a bit nervous about installing a Socket 775 Pentium 4 processor for the first time. Much has been made of the supposed fragility of the LGA775 socket. In effect, Socket 775 reverses the standard arrangement of having the pins on the processor and the holes in the socket. With Socket 775, shown in Figure 3, the socket provides an array of pins that mate to corresponding contacts on the body of an LGA775 processor, shown in Figure 4.

LGA775 socket
Figure 3. The LGA775 socket

LGA775 processor
Figure 4. The underside of the LGA775 Pentium 4 560 processor

As Jerry Pournelle says, we do these silly things so you don't have to ...

Just for the hell of it, we decided to see for ourselves how "fragile" the LGA775 socket really is. It looked pretty robust to us, but there was only one way to find out. So we sat at the kitchen table, dropping our Pentium 4 560 into the socket, clamping it down, releasing the clamp, and removing the processor. Lather, rinse, repeat. After 50 (careful) insertion cycles, we finished building the system. It fired up normally.

We don't recommend you repeat our experiment. The LGA775 socket is, after all, rated for only 20 cycles. But we found that the frenzied criticisms of Socket 775 have no basis in reality. Sure, you have to be careful installing the processor, but that's true of any processor. Use reasonable care installing it, and you'll be fine.

Conspiracy theorists claim that Intel, tired of replacing processors with bent pins under warranty, decided to move the fragile pins to the socket, offloading the warranty headaches onto motherboard manufacturers. In fact, that makes no sense. Intel itself is the largest motherboard manufacturer, and replacing a motherboard under warranty is more costly than replacing a processor. Various articles have also claimed that Socket 775 is good for only 5 (or 10, or 20) insertion cycles, with the implication that the older Socket 478 is essentially indestructible. In fact, Socket 478 and Socket 775 are both rated for 20 insertions, so neither is more durable than the other. Even on our test benches, we've never worn out a socket or a processor, and we don't expect that to change with Socket 775.

To install the processor, first remove the plastic pick-and-place cover that protects the socket. Inspect the socket to verify that no pins are bent, no foreign matter is present, and that the socket is otherwise ready to receive the processor. Disengage the load lever and rotate the load plate up past vertical to get it out of the way. Align the processor over the socket as shown in Figure 5, with the two notches in the processor circuit board mating with the keying tabs in the socket (visible to the lower left and right of the processor). Once you have it lined up perfectly, simply drop the processor gently into place.

Installing the Pentium 4 processor
Figure 5. Dropping the Pentium 4 processor into place

With the processor seated fully, rotate the load plate back down until its upper surface is flush with the upper surface of the heat spreader on the processor body, as shown in Figure 6. Verify that the load plate is seated fully and that the locking tab is positioned correctly to be engaged by the cammed portion of the load lever.

Closing the Pentium 4 socket
Figure 6. Lowering the load plate into position

Once you're certain that everything is aligned properly, pivot the load lever back down to horizontal and lock it under the hook that extends from the body of the socket, as shown in Figure 7.

Securing the Pentium 4 processor
Figure 7. Clamping the loading plate to secure the processor

For retail-boxed processors, Intel supplies a premeasured amount of thermal compound in a syringe. Press the plunger to deposit the full load of thermal compound in a small pile at the center of the heat spreader, as shown in Figure 8. If you are using an OEM processor, you must supply your own thermal compound. (We generally use Antec Silver, which is widely available online and in retail stores.) Use about the same amount of compound as shown in the figure. If you use too little, the processor will run hot. If you use too much, the excess will squish out around the socket, making a mess.

Applying thermal compound
Figure 8. Applying thermal compound

The next step is to prepare the heat sink/fan (HSF) unit. Intel supplies an appropriate HSF with retail-boxed processors, shown in Figure 9. (We named this one Godzilla, for obvious reasons.) If you're using the bundled retail heat sink, make sure to strip off the plastic that covers the copper contact surface. Robert seldom reads instructions, so he almost missed the plastic, which is more evident in the photograph than in real life. We shudder to think what might have happened had we installed the HSF without removing the plastic. Our expensive new Pentium 4 560 would have been covered in melted plastic.

Fortunately, Barbara reads instructions.

Preparing the heat sink/fan unit
Figure 9. Preparing the heat sink/fan unit

Unlike older sockets, which use cammed clamps to force the HSF tightly into contact with the processor, Socket 775 uses simple fastener caps to secure the HSF to the motherboard, placing very little pressure or stress on the socket or the processor itself. To install the HSF, place it gently in position, with its four fastener caps aligned with the corresponding holes in the motherboard. The HSF is symmetric, and it doesn't matter which fastener cap mates with which hole. Once you have all four fastener caps aligned, press down gently on each one until it clicks into place, as shown in Figure 10.

Securing the heat sink/fan unit
Figure 10. Securing the heat sink/fan unit

Once the HSF is secured, connect the fan power lead to the four-pin fan power header next to the processor socket, as shown in Figure 11. Be very careful about routing the wires. Unlike most HSF units, which enclose the fan blades in a cage, the stock Intel HSF uses exposed fan blades, visible in Figure 10. Intel recommends running the four fan wires down through the body of the heat sink and securing the excess wire length to ensure that the wires can't foul the exposed fan blades.

Connecting the CPU fan
Figure 11. Connecting the CPU fan

With the processor installed, the next step is to install the memory modules. We're installing two 512MB DDR2 DIMMs rather than one 1GB DIMM because the D925XCV supports dual-channel memory operation, which greatly increases memory throughput. A DDR2 DIMM closely resembles a standard DDR DIMM and is installed the same way. The only visible difference is that most DDR DIMMs have 184 pins, while DDR2 DIMMs have 240 pins.

The D925XCV provides four memory slots, two for Channel A labeled 0 and 1, and two for Channel B, also labeled 0 and 1. To enable dual-channel memory operation, we need to install one DIMM for each channel. Slot 0 for each channel uses a blue socket, and Slot 1 a black socket. As a matter of good practice, we installed our DIMMs in Slot 0 of each channel, leaving the black slots unoccupied and available for later expansion.

Installing a DIMM
Figure 12. Installing a memory module

Installing the Motherboard

With the motherboard populated, the next step is to install it in the case. To do so, lower it into place gently, verifying that each motherboard mounting hole has a corresponding standoff installed and that no extra standoffs are present. Align the motherboard rear I/O panel carefully with the I/O template, and slide the motherboard into position. The threaded portion of each brass standoff should be visible through the corresponding motherboard mounting hole, although you may have to apply slight pressure toward the rear of the case to force everything into alignment.

Note: The P160 includes several types of screws, including two types that appear to fit the brass standoffs. In fact, only one of those types has the proper thread--the one with slots for both Phillips and standard screwdrivers. The other type, which requires a Phillips screwdriver, is intended for mounting optical drives and has a finer thread.

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Install two or three screws initially, but don't tighten them completely. Using the available slack, force the other mounting holes into alignment and drive screws into each of them. Once you have screws in each position (11, in the case of the D925XCV), tighten all of them gently. Don't overtorque them, or you may crack the motherboard.

Once the motherboard is secure, connect the front-panel switch and indicator cables, as shown in Figure 13. Do the same for the front-panel FireWire, USB, and audio cables.

Connecting the front-panel cables
Figure 13. Connecting the front-panel cables

As we finished connecting the front-panel cables, we noticed a loose cable with a Molex connector hanging from the inside front of the case. As it turned out, this cable powers the LCD temperature readout on the front of the case. We hadn't intended to use any Molex devices in this system, so we hadn't installed the optional Molex power cable when we assembled the Antec NeoPower 480 power supply. Fortunately, the jacks on the NeoPower 480 are readily accessible after the power supply is installed, so we simply connected the Molex power cable to the power supply, as shown in Figure 14, and connected one of the Molex plugs to power the front-panel display. Since we were working in the vicinity, we connected the power supply fan control header (the blue and black wires in Figure 14) to a fan power header on the motherboard.

Adding a Molex cable to the NeoPower 480
Figure 14. Adding a Molex cable to the NeoPower 480

The next step is to connect the ATX12V main power cable, as shown in Figure 15. The D925XCV motherboard uses the new 24-pin ATX12V connector rather than the traditional 20-pin connector. You can use an older 20-pin ATX12V power supply with this motherboard, but if you do, you should also connect a Molex connector from the power supply to the Molex alternate power connector on the motherboard, visible in Figure 16

Connecting the ATX main power cable
Figure 15. Connecting the ATX12V main power cable

Whatever you do, don't forget to connect the ATX12V CPU power cable, as shown in Figure 16. If you fail to connect this cable, the system won't boot. When the Pentium 4 was first available, we forgot to connect this cable for the first half-dozen or so systems we built. Now, it's so automatic for us to do so, we search frantically for this connector on AMD Athlon XP and other systems that don't use it.

Connecting the ATX12V CPU power cable
Figure 16. Connecting the ATX12V CPU power cable

Prescott-core Pentium 4 processors such as the Pentium 4 560 run very hot, so providing adequate cooling is essential. As Figure 17 shows, the processor in this system is cooled by three large fans--the CPU fan itself, the power supply fan, and a 120mm supplemental case fan. With all of those fan blades spinning, it's important to make sure that no wires can foul the fans. In particular, the CPU fan uses exposed blades and is very vulnerable to becoming entangled with a stray cable.

The placement of the ATX12V CPU power cable makes it very likely to foul the CPU fan unless steps are taken to prevent it. We considered routing that cable down low, near the motherboard, but there wasn't any convenient way to secure the cable in that position. Accordingly, we decided to secure the cable to part of the chassis frame with twist ties, making sure that the cable was routed clear of the CPU fan and the supplemental case fan. We also tucked in the CPU fan power cable, visible near the bottom of the heat sink, to make sure it couldn't foul the CPU fan.

Routing the ATX12V CPU power cable away from fan blades
Figure 17. Routing the ATX12V CPU power cable away from fan blades

Installing Drives and the Video Adapter

This system uses two Seagate Serial ATA hard drives. To install them, mount each drive in one of the removable hard drive trays. To do so, press inward on both of the spring-steel rails that secure a drive tray and pull the tray straight out. Secure the drive to the tray by driving four of the hard drive mounting screws, which have built-in washers, through the tray and into the screw holes on the bottom of the drive.

Once the drive is mounted in the tray, slide the tray into the chassis and press firmly until it snaps into place, as shown in Figure 18.

Installing the hard drives
Figure 18. Installing the hard drives

Unlike standard ATA drives, which must be configured as master or slave, Serial ATA drives do not require configuration because each drive connects to a dedicated interface. To finish installing the drives, connect an S-ATA data cable and an S-ATA power cable to each drive, as shown in Figures 19 and 20, respectively.

Connecting the S-ATA data cable to the drive
Figure 19. Connecting the S-ATA data cable to the drive

Connecting the S-ATA power cable to the drive
Figure 20. Connecting the S-ATA power cable to the drive

Once you have installed the hard drives and connected their data and power cables, the final step is to connect the S-ATA data cables to the motherboard, as shown in Figure 21. The D925XCV motherboard provides four S-ATA connectors, labeled 0 through 3. Good practice suggests connecting the primary hard drive to S-ATA 0 and the secondary hard drive to S-ATA 1. If you have a third hard drive, connect it to S-ATA 2 and the optical drive to S-ATA 3. Otherwise, connect the optical drive to S-ATA 2 and leave S-ATA 3 unused.

Connecting the S-ATA data cable to the motherboard
Figure 21. Connecting the S-ATA data cable to the motherboard

With the hard drives installed, the next step is to install the PCI Express nVIDIA 6800 GT video adapter. The PCI Express x16 video slot resembles a standard AGP slot and is located in the same position. In fact, the first time we saw a PCI Express video slot, we thought it was an AGP slot. To install the video adapter, remove the appropriate slot cover. With the Antec P160 case and the Intel D925XCV motherboard, that turns out to be the slot cover nearest the power supply. Slide the video adapter into position gently, making sure that the connectors on the rear slot cover clear the edges of the slot. When you have the card aligned properly, press down firmly with both thumbs to seat the video adapter, as shown in Figure 22. You should feel the adapter snap into place. Examine the junction between the card and slot to make certain that the card is seated fully and flush. When you're certain everything is aligned properly, reinsert the screw to secure the slot cover to the chassis.

Installing the PCI Express video adapter
Figure 22. Installing the PCI Express video adapter

Like any fast video adapter, the nVIDIA 6800 GT produces a lot of heat. So much heat, in fact, that it uses a built-in heat sink and fan to cool the graphics processor. Some slower video adapters use a small fan powered by the slot itself, but the 6800 GT is a very fast adapter and requires a serious fan for cooling. The PCI Express specification defines a special power connector that is designed to supply the additional power needed by fast PCI Express video adapters, both for processing and for running the cooling fan. When we assembled the Antec NeoPower 480 power supply, we installed the optional PCI Express power cable for just this reason. This cable plugs into a six-pin connector on the end of the video adapter, as shown in Figure 23. Don't forget to connect this cable, or your video adapter may burn itself to a crisp seconds after you apply power to the system.

Connecting the PCI Express power cable
Figure 23. Connecting the PCI Express power cable

We're nearing the end of assembly now. The only thing that remains to be installed is the Plextor PX-712SA S-ATA DVD burner. The first step is to install rails on the optical drive. You have two choices of mounting position for the rails. In the first position, the drive is mounted flush with the front panel of the case. Use this position if you want the drive bezel to be exposed. In the second position, the drive is recessed half an inch or so. Use this position if you want to use the chrome bezel covers supplied with the case. We chose to do the latter, and so mounted the rails in the recessed position. (Figure 24 shows the rails in the proper position for using the bezel cover.)

The front panel of the Antec P160 case must be removed to install the optical drive. To do so, locate the recess at bottom of the front panel (underneath the case) and pull firmly until the front panel snaps out. A cable connected to the front panel plugs into a socket on the front of the chassis. Unplug the cable and set the front panel aside. Slide the optical drive into the case, as shown in Figure 24, until the rails snap into place, and then reinstall the front panel. Don't forget to reconnect the cable.

Installing the optical drive
Figure 24. Installing the optical drive

Next we connected an S-ATA data cable to the drive and to S-ATA 2 on the motherboard. The final step was to connect power to the optical drive. Unfortunately, the S-ATA power cable from the power supply has only two connectors, and we'd used both of those for the hard drives. It was time to install one of the crimp-on connectors included with the power supply parts package to give us a third S-ATA power connector.

Figure 25 shows the procedure for installing the crimp-on connector. First, make absolutely certain you position the wires correctly in the connector body. If you crimp a wire in the wrong position, you might easily destroy the drive, the power supply, or even the system itself. Fortunately, the connector body is clearly labeled with the wire color for each position. Check and double-check each wire before you start crimping. When you are sure you have the correct wire in the correct position, use a flat-blade screwdriver to press it firmly into place, as shown in Figure 25. Make sure that the wire is pressed all the way down into the body of the connector so it makes full contact. Once you have crimped and verified all five wires, snap on the connector cap, as shown in Figure 26.

Crimping an additional S-ATA connector
Figure 25. Crimping an additional connector to the S-ATA power cable

Covering the crimped connector
Figure 26. Capping the newly crimped connector

The final step in assembling any PC is to dress the cables. That's particularly important for this system, which uses a CPU cooler with exposed fan blades. To dress the cables, arrange all of them to avoid impeding airflow and to ensure they can't foul a fan. Once you have them gathered, bunched, and routed appropriately, use twist ties, tie-wraps, or other means to secure the bundles together and to attach them to the chassis frame, as shown in Figure 27.

Dressing the cables
Figure 27. Dressing the cables

Conclusion

When we build a bleeding-edge system, things seldom work as expected. That was true of this system, in spades.

We encountered our first gotcha when we carried the system back to our bench to install Windows and Linux and test the system. The nVIDIA 6800 GT video adapter provides two DVI connectors, as shown in Figure 28.

Dual DVI connectors on nVIDIA 6800 GT video adapter
Figure 28. The dual DVI connectors on the nVIDIA 6800 GT video adapter

The nVIDIA 6800 GT does not, unfortunately, provide a standard analog DB15 VGA connector. That was a problem, because the monitor on our bench has only a standard VGA cable. We searched the nVIDIA box, expecting to find a VGA-to-DVI adapter, but none was included. (This card is an engineering sample; a card you buy may well include an adapter.)

So we went off in search of a VGA-to-DVI adapter. Indeed, we found one, nestled in our Miscellaneous Small Parts box. The one we found was an ATi part. We half expected the nVIDIA card and ATi adapter to scream when we mated them. Alas, they refused to mate, as shown in Figure 29. The body of the adapter was slightly too wide to clear the chassis frame. Hmmm.

Insufficient clearance for a DB15-to-DVI adapter
Figure 29. Insufficient clearance for a DB15-to-DVI adapter

Rats. We couldn't move the video adapter to a different slot, because there is only one PCI Express video slot on the motherboard. We didn't want to tear down the system and rebuild it in a different case, nor did we feel like driving off in search of a thinner adapter or an adapter cable.

Fortunately, Barbara had a cunning plan. When we installed the video adapter, we secured it in the usual way, with the screw notch in the card pressed tight up against the mounting screw. Barbara realized that we might be able to loosen that screw and tilt the card slightly in the direction we needed it to go. We needed only a couple of millimeters of additional clearance. Sure enough, when we removed the mounting screw and loosened the screw for the adjacent slot, we were able to tilt the card just slightly, as shown in Figure 30. We tightened down the screw for the adjacent slot, which actually clamped the card into place, and then reinstalled the screw that is missing in the image. With that done, the ATi VGA-to-DVI adapter mated easily, as shown in Figure 31. (We didn't hear any screams, either.)

Tilting the PCI Express adapter to increase clearance
Figure 30. Tilting the PCI Express adapter to increase clearance

VGA-to-DVI adapter fitting properly
Figure 31. The VGA-to-DVI adapter fitting properly

Now we had the video connected, so we figured it would be all downhill from there. That turned out not to be the case.

We put our Xandros Business Edition 2.5 CD in the Plextor PX-712SA and restarted the system, assuming Xandros Setup would fire right up. Nope. All we got was an error message telling us no operating system was installed. That surprised us, because nearly all modern motherboards include the optical drive in the boot sequence. This system had no floppy drive and a blank hard drive, so it shouldn't matter what boot order was specified. The system should have tried to boot from the optical drive sooner or later. It should have, but it didn't.

So we fired up BIOS Setup to verify the boot order, and found that it was set to FDD first, hard drive second, and nothing third. We attempted to change the boot order to put the PX-712SA first, but the PX-712SA wasn't listed as an option. At that point we thought we'd forgotten to connect its data or power cable and that the system therefore didn't see the PX-712SA at all. When we checked the list of installed drives, though, the PX-712SA was listed. Hmmm. The BIOS knew the PX-712SA was installed, but it refused to allow us to use it as a boot device. Not good.

Note: While we were in BIOS Setup, we disabled Intel RAID to minimize therbligs during the initial installation of the operating system. Although it is usually thought of as hardware RAID, Intel RAID is in fact hybrid hardware/software RAID, with some RAID functions being performed in hardware by the ICH6R Southbridge and others in software by the main system processor. This complicates matters when installing an operating system, particularly an unsupported one, so we elected to disable RAID at least until we had the system up and running under Linux and Windows in non-RAID mode.

We'd used the Plextor PX-712SA successfully in other systems, including several based on Intel D865PERL and D875PBZ motherboards, so we knew the problem wasn't the drive itself. Both of those other motherboards use the Intel ICH5/ICH5R Southbridge, whereas the D925XCV uses the new ICH6/ICH6R Southbridge, so it seemed possible there might be an incompatibility between the PX-712SA drive and the D925XCV motherboard. In fact, that turned out to be the case. A web search turned up a PX-712SA compatibility list, which did not include the D925XCV.

We had some alternatives to make the system bootable, but none we were happy about. We could have installed a floppy drive, but a bleeding-edge system with a floppy drive is an oxymoron. We eventually decided to replace the PX-712SA Serial ATA drive with a PX-712A Parallel ATA model. We couldn't find a PX-712A in the stockroom, so we ended up instead installing a PX-708A to make the system bootable.

With that done, we fired up the system again and watched Xandros begin its setup procedure. Unfortunately, that aborted quickly. We've installed Xandros 2.5 successfully on many systems with S-ATA hard drives, so we suspect that Xandros didn't know how to deal with the 925X chipset, the DDR2 memory controller, the PCI Express video, or one of the other bleeding-edge technologies in this system. That's not surprising, really, because Xandros 2.5 is based on the aging 2.4.x kernel. Xandros 3.0, which we expect to ship later this year, will almost certainly be based on a 2.6.x kernel, so we should have better luck with it.

But we needed to install some form of Linux for testing, so as an interim measure we downloaded and burned the ISOs for Fedora Core 2 (Tettnang), which uses the 2.6.5 kernel. FC2 detected all the hardware and installed flawlessly. Once we'd established that, we stripped the hard drives down to bare metal and installed Windows XP, which installed successfully but failed to detect some of the hardware, including the network adapter. Fortunately, the Windows XP drivers supplied by Intel solved those problems, and we were able to get Windows XP up to speed quickly.

Over the coming weeks, we'll configure this system to dual-boot Windows XP and one or another of the Linux distros based on the 2.6.x kernel and install and tweak the drivers to achieve the fastest possible performance. Judging only by our preliminary testing, though, we can already say that this is one seriously fast system.

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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