An Intel i7 based Development Machine: The Hardware and Build

Monday, May 4, 2009 – 3:00 am

Was all this packaging really needed?A lot’s been going on in the world of PC hardware recently, manycore processors and massively parallel graphics cards. More importantly the software is now available to make use of this. Microsoft’s Parallel Extensions to .NET 3.5 and Nvidia’s CUDA parallel computing architecture both allow developers to leverage the full power of the cores on their desktops. All this seemed like a great excuse to buy some new hardware and do some more playing around with N-body models and technical computing in general.

Given that The Susan’s PC is now pretty much antique it seemed like a good excuse to give her my “old” Dell XPS 410 and upgrade with a custom built machine. I briefly considered upgrading the XPS with a quad processor but Dell really don’t build their machines with this degree of upgrade in mind so it was time to start from scratch. A couple of evenings of research and some surfing of Tom’s Hardware resulted in a shopping list and an order on NewEgg.

A few days later a series of box boxes arrived via UPS, because Santa wears brown at our house. Now it was time to play Bob the (PC) Builder…

Hardware

So here’s my initial NewEgg shopping list (see Fans and cooling for additional fans I added later).

I used the a couple of other components from my old machine:

The system is built around the Antec P182 case and ASUS P6T Deluxe V2 motherboard. Both these items are built with the serious hobbyist in mind without breaking the bank to get the last ounce of performance. Oh and they both have blue LEDs on them, and we all know how important that is.

This system’s graphics card is a little more that you really need to run Visual Studio. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly there’s really no point spending all that money unless you get to spend a bit of quality time shooting bad guys in the head… a lot. I also wanted a CUDA capable card so I could try and vectorize the N-Body code I’ve been writing.

Potential downgrades

I could definitely downgrade the graphics card and still run Visual Studio just fine. I could also replace the VelociRaptor with a 7200rpm HDD but the 10000rpm drive makes a noticeable difference to Visual Studio startup and build performance.

Possible upgrades

I’m not a big believer in buying the latest and greatest bits. You tend to pay another 80% for the last 20% of performance.

While the i7 920 processor isn’t much more expensive than a comparable quad core CPU the Intel X58 chipset motherboard and DDR3 memory are but it seemed worth it to get onto Intel’s new socket/chipset offering with room to upgrade over time and hopefully prolong the overall system life. In addition the i7’s numerical performance is a significant improvement over the previous generation of quad processors which matches nicely with my technical computing “hobby”.

I’m figuring that most of these things will drop at least 30% in price over the next 12-18 months and I can consider some of these things as possible upgrade.

An SSD – “I/O performance that is 10x to 25x higher than what you can get from the latest 15,000 RPM server hard drives” (source: Tom’s Hardware review of the Intel 2.5" X25-E Extreme Internal SSD). But at $400 for 32Gb that’s a tad too much. There are cheaper options but a SSD of comparable size to the VelociRaptor still runs at $500. The SSD market is still shaking itself out although Samsung and Intel have some impressive devices I’m prepared to wait for the technology to mature and prices to drop.

SLI’ed GTX 260 – Adding a second GTX card would be an interesting upgrade, especially if the CUDA thing works out although a second card would be a pretty tight fit in the case and would probably mean cranking up the fans to keep the case cool. By the time an upgrade looks on the cards it might be as easy to replace the existing card. Something like a GIGABYTE GeForce GTX 295 GV-N295-18I-B Video Card runs about $500 and is basically two GTX processors SLI’ed together (Tom’s Hardware compares two SLI setups: 2 x 260 vs. 3 x 285)

6Gb (more) memory – DDR3 memory isn’t cheap and most software isn’t really expecting to make use of much more than 4Gb even though the motherboard will handle up to 24Gb. Buy six now and add another six later if you need it.

i7 940 – The i7 920 is the entry level processor on the latest generation of Intel processors. The 965 Extreme gives performance gains of about 20% for arithmetic benchmarks but the cost difference today is a frightening $700. For real world applications and games the gains aren’t as significant.

The build

P6T motherboard with the processor and cooler installed.Building the machine turned out to be pretty straightforward. The ASUS motherboard comes with all the cables you’ll need including a bunch of SATA cables for your drives so I wasn’t left chasing around looking for connectors. It also comes with a pretty reasonable manual, although after my Windows Home Server “practice build” with cheaper parts I was pretty comfortable putting this together.

The Noctua processor cooler represents a pretty significant piece of engineering and getting it installed before putting the motherboard in the case is definitely a good idea. The cooler will only fit one way on the MB without getting in the way of the Corsair SDRAM and comes with two fans (one is shown installed here) to push pull air through the heatsink. Basically get everything on the MB except the graphics card and then install it in the case.

Wiring the back of the P182 case.One thing I really liked about the P182 case was how easy it was to wire. You can run the majority of cables behind the motherboard so the airflow within the case isn’t disrupted. The lower half of the case is partitioned to give a separate airflow through the drives and power supply. This isn’t a gaming PC case but it’s garnered a lot of good reviews and seems to handle this setup just fine (see Fans and cooling below).

Fans and cooling

As usual the most difficult  bit of the build was getting the fans to play nice and quiet. The Asus motherboard only supports CPU fan speed control using 4 pin PWM fans and the Noctua fans are 3 pin… Doh! The three system fan headers are 3 pin and ASUS seems to have wired them together… Doh! Finally, SpeedFan currently doesn’t support the P6T chipset… Doh again!

In the end I bought a couple of Arctic Cooling 4 pin PWM fans to put on the cooler and used the original Noctua fans in place of the Antec fans in the top and rear of the case. I also added a Scythe S-Flex F to the front of the case to drive more air across the GTX 260 as it was getting a tad warm playing games. The S-Flex model F can push a lot of air and to some extent makes up for the imbalance of having two fans and the GTX 260 taking air out of the back of the case.

Additional items from NewEgg:

Hopefully SpeedFan will add support for this and ASUS will upgrade some of their software to work with Windows 7. In the meantime the BIOS supports some simple fan speed control and I’m using that.

What would I do differently?

GTX 260 installed. Note the limited space for another card.The P182 case has been sitting happily on my desk running various builds of Windows 7 x64. It’s given me no problems once I’d got the latest Nvidia drivers installed a few weeks back. If there’s one criticism I’d have of the P182 its that the airflow is unbalanced. The design lends itself to a system that can suck more air out of the back of the case than is being pushed in at the front.

This isn’t much of an issue for most builds but probably is going to make running higher end boards that support more than two SLI graphics cards. Even two cards is going to be a tight squeeze (see picture right). If you want a serious gaming or dedicated CUDA compute box then you might want to consider a larger case and even more fans.

Software

I’m currently running this as a dual boot machine with Windows XP 32 bit on one partition and Windows 7 64 bit on the other. I actually spend almost al of my time using the Windows 7 instance except for playing games where I encountered some driver issues on the build of Windows 7 I was using and some older games. I’ll be upgrading shortly to see if these are resolved in the Windows RC and the drivers people ship for that.

Currently the biggest issue is that many of the ASUS utilities and drivers don’t install that well on Windows 7. Some of them can be persuaded to work but some just don’t want to play at all.

  1. 4 Responses to “An Intel i7 based Development Machine: The Hardware and Build”

  2. Hello Ade,
    I am seriously considering a ‘high end’ laptop. Thinking of Malibal’s D900F (using the i7-920 processor) that you’re using in the above ‘rig.’
    I not a gamer of any sort. I want a ‘fast’ machine for development. I, too, don’t have to have the latest and greatest…
    I want a laptop that I can move easily from room to room (if I have to). I will not be traveling with the machine.
    I am taking a ‘hard’ look at your advise about moving to a ‘fast’ machine and not breaking the ‘bank.’

    Than(x),
    John

    By John Spencer on Sep 10, 2009

  3. John,

    Provided you don’t want a really portable laptop then the i7 isn’t a bad choice. Remember it’ll drain the battery quickly and run pretty hot so using it unplugged on your lap for long periods probably isn’t going to work well.

    Another thing to seriously consider is an SSD. I have a new Del E6400 for my work machine which has an SSD and feels very snappy. Not as fast as the i7 desktop at home for actual processing (running mathmatical models) but pretty much as fast for anything else.

    Ade

    By Ade Miller on Sep 14, 2009

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