Pimp My Box

So my venerable motherboard started acting up three days ago, again. First it wouldn’t boot. It would turn on, and then just sit there. Then, after reseating the processor, graphics card, doing a CMOS reset, and a BIOS reflash from disk, I got it booting. Then, if my USB keyboard and mouse weren’t plugged in when I booted, they didn’t get found. The PS/2 keyboard/mouse connectors didn’t work the one time I tried it, and USB being plugged in at boot made the BIOS screens take about 2 minutes to finish. Ugh.

Soooo, since this was the second motherboard fuckup this year, the last one being a total PITA, I decided (foolishly, in retrospect) to just get a new motherboard. I figured I could get a simple motherboard with either an AMD-64 chip or a P4 w/ hyperthreading without totally getting screwed on costs. Since I’m going to get a Apple laptop in a year or two, I decided on a P4 w/ hyperthreading. The idea is that it will make more sense to have a pseudo-MP 32-bit x86 desktop and a UP 64-bit PPC laptop than two different 64-bit platforms, to give me a wide disparity in testing platforms for any code I write.

Or at least, that’s how I justified this splurge to myself at the time. 🙂

Unfortunately, I started looking around for hardware. Since I had never purchased a motherboard before, I had no idea what to expect. After being innundated with listings for UV case lights, LED case fans, and more features than one could shake a stick at, I decided to get a Chaintech 9JCS motherboard and a 2.4Ghz P4 (the cheapest P4 w/ hyperthreading and an 800Mhz bus available). Now, since I watch “Pimp My Ride” and secretly long for gull-wing doors, lighted dials, and gaudy paint schemes, it’s hard not to get sucked in. One thing I wasn’t going to spring for was some huge goo-green case with the “Rowsell alien” fan grill. After all, I made intentionally boring themes for Enlightenment.

Anyhow, I also needed a new power supply to handle the P4 (they’ve got this funky 4-pronged square connector on the motherboard now, and the power supply I had was both 5 years old and only 200w, which I wasn’t too confident in), and some new RAM (the PC100 RAM I had was being sqeezed by GNOME already, and appeared to be too old to work with a new motherboard).

So, I ripped the old P2-400 & motherboard out of my box and promptly discovered that the new motherboard didn’t properly line up with the peripherals cutout on the stock Dell case. Some “tweaking” with a pliers fixed that problem, at the cost of the backside of the case. So, I got all the parts in and hooked up, and then discovered problem #2 with my Dell case. It doesn’t use a standard ATX power button, but some propriatary Dell thing. Naturally, the connector was both totally different and undocumented, and the motherboard wouldn’t power-on if a button wasn’t connected.

Back to the web in search of an ATX button, or even some documentation on how to make one. I found neither, though I did discover that you can get a decent, boring case with a power supply for what I paid for the power supply alone. I traded in the power supply for this newer boring case, though I did cave and get a funky new case fan with LEDs and color-changing fan blades (they turn from blue to a bright orange depending on the temperature, so the extras aren’t completely “size related” :-)).

I got all this back home, put it together, and got it working. Unfortunately, when sitting at the BIOS screen, the CPU reported it’s temperature at 43° C and the case itself reports 46°. The new fan glows bright orange constantly, and the hard drives were hot to the touch (as in, “may cause skin burns if you touch the side for more than a few seconds” hot).

Back to the store for the third time, and picked up three case fans and two HDD fans. After jamming two of the case fans into the front (to suck air in), and one more into the back (to push air out), the CPU now runs at 43-45° C when compiling and around 37° C while idle. Not particulary good (which is irritating considering there are now a total of 13 fans in the box), but not “meltdown bad,” either. Ironically, my old Dell Box got by with only 2 fans, without a single meltdown or problem. It even ran OK that time I left my CD burner on top. More importantly, the disks are cool to the touch, and my system no longer feels sluggish.

It was shortly after I got it all back together and working that I remembered my brother’s old Compaq micro-ATX “tower”. It was actually smaller than my monitor, and was constantly overheating to the point where he had to take the side panel off and point a house fan at it to keep it from seizing up. As I mentioned, my Dell tower never had that problem, even though his box was a P5 and mine was a PII. I’m guessing that had I gotten a larger box, I wouldn’t have had nearly the heat problems I do now.

So, what have I (re-)learned from this little endevour?

  1. Hardware is still expensive.
  2. I need to either control my lust for a “Pimp My Box” TV show and kill the “6-foot wing” side of my personality[1], or go all the way, as I’m an obviously poor judge of when to pimp and when not to pimp.
  3. Spring for a large (tower) case with an ample power supply. You’ve got to have a certain amount of air moving past your gear per second to keep it cool, and when you’ve got a small case all the components are jammed together — which means there’s less moving air to absorb all that heat (the trick is to either get more air or move it faster, and air is free).
  4. P4 chips run really hot (at least compared to my old P2, which got by with just an oversized heat sink positioned near the single case fan).

[1] I still run Debian unstable, so there’s some hope for the Yugo side :-).


One Comment

  1. Justin says:

    All an atx power switch does is short the two pins it’s connected to 🙂 A screwdriver works good in a pinch.

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