New home PC

I think I was a tinkerer even before I encountered computer programming or computer science. And even though my research is pretty theoretical, I still enjoy breaking out the screwdrivers and anti-static wrist strap.

Our main home PC was a midrange Dell Optiplex that Art bought when he started med school in 2000. About two years later he switched to a Mac laptop and I converted the PC to a GNU/Linux workstation. We mainly use it as a home file and backup server, but it's also my desktop when I'm working at home. Over the years I added substantially more disk capacity, bought a DVD writer, swiped a video card from an older machine for a dual-head display, etc. By this summer, I was itching for a more substantial upgrade. Software builds are pretty slow, firefox was struggling with memory limitations, and occasionally I had trouble helping out friends with USB backup drives because the system didn't support USB2.

One of the great things about the PC architecture (as opposed to laptops and small form-factor consumer systems like the Mac mini and iMac) is that it's entirely possible to upgrade it piecemeal. I had two high-capacity disks and an optical drive that were newer than the base system – no point in replacing those. So I went onto Newegg and did some research on the latest specifications. I generally don't like buying the very latest stuff because the price/performance ratio is too high. The economical sweet spot on the curve is usually a generation or two back.

I went for the AMD Athlon 64-bit X2 dual-core processor. I got a compatible ASUS mini-ATX motherboard, 2G RAM, and a new mini-tower case. One thing I knew I needed out of the motherboard was two IDE (PATA) buses: one for the optical drive, another for the two legacy disks. The newer I/O bus is called SATA. The prices on drives are so good that I bought a 320G SATA disk too. The new PC will have well over half a terabyte of storage over the 3 disks.

Putting it all together went okay. I scraped my fingers to bleeding twice. :( The case seemed roomy – I chose it because having four hard drive bays was fairly rare for inexpensive cases – until I started putting the components inside. Before installing the disks, I booted an Ubuntu live CD to check that all the other components would work.

It turns out that three disks in a case this size is not ideal, even though it physically would hold four. After a few days of use, the disks were running hot. Really hot – the SMART temperature sensors reported 54°C (129°F)! Manufacturers are not always very precise about max operating temperatures. According to some numbers I was finding, this was on the high end, but not out of range. Also, the lifetime of the drive seems to depend more on the ambient case temperature, and ACPI was reporting 40°C on the motherboard.

Ultimately, I found a small fan in an older, unused system that I've been too lazy to take for recycling. I managed to secure it in between two of the drives and bring some air across them from the vents in the front of the case. Now the drive temperatures are in the range 45-47°C and reach 50°C only during heavy use (such as backups with rsync). I guess I'm satisfied with that, for now. But next time I think I will choose a case with more drive space, and with better front cooling facilities.

This is the first time I built a PC from the motherboard up, and overall, it has been a good experience.

©20022015 Christopher League