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Computer #8 (Franken-Powerspec-stein; 2013-????)


Computer #8 is my current workhorse workstation; an awesome muscle-bound top-of-the-line workstation made from the shell of Computer #7. I kept the E360 chassis, the Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS video card, the LightScribe CD/DVD-RW, and the 8-in-1 Media card reader, and added an Asus Sabertooth Z87 LGA 1150 ATX motherboard with a 4th Generation Intel Core i7-4770K 3.5GHz LGA 1150 processor, a Corsair Enthusiast Series TX850M 850 Watt power supply, 16 GB of Kingston HyperX blu 16G (2x 8GB) DDR3 1600MHz CL10 240-pin memory, two Western Digital Black 1TB 7,200 RPM 6.0Gb/s SATA internal hard drives, two Topower EZ-Racks for Internal SATA Drives (Model TOP-MRA200B), an IOGear 4-Port powered USB 3.0 Hub, and an AOC E2243FW 22” LED Monitor (1080p, 50M:1) with DVI-D and VGA connectors.

 

I use two computers on a regular basis; a 4-year-old Dell Latitude E6400 laptop that I bought used (sans OS and with a smaller hard drive than it has now) for slightly over $100 at one of my company’s thrice-yearly computer auctions (their way of helping to fund the continuous replacement of older laptops with new ones while avoiding the hassle of having to dispose of older laptops responsibly), and a more powerful workstation that had been the PowerSpec E360 desktop workstation from MicroCenter, bought new in early 2008 (computer #7).

The E360 workstation was an aging beast. It has been slowing down as more and more "stuff" got installed and deinstalled and more and more patches to Windows 7 and applications got applied.

The E6400 laptop suits me well for writing, web surfing, email, genealogy work, image downloading from my digital SLR, light image processing, and presenting PowerPoint-based talks about genealogy and other topics on the go. The serious graphics processing, video processing, email archives, word processing, family financial tracking, etc. gets done on the workstation in my basement office, my E360 workstation, which at 5+ years old was starting to show its age in more ways than one; the Core 2 CPU is almost antique now, and 4+ years of running Windows 7 has slowed the machine down as only heavy use can do. I knew I wanted to upgrade the workstation to Windows 8 to match the laptop, and I had acquired two Western Digital 1TB drives with the intention of replacing the two 500GB RAID-0 drives with the two 1TB drives in a similar RAID-0 configuration to accept the Windows 8 install, but then Intel came out with the 4th Generation processors, and I started thinking bigger...

I decided to go for a new machine, but the Microcenter prices for processor/motherboard bundles were very tempting, so I decided to build my own, using as many parts as I could from the E360.

I knew I couldn't just pull the old C drive out of the old machine and install it as a D drive in the new machine because of the RAID-0 configuration - my "drive C" was actually two hard disks, sharing workload and file space across the two disks. So I had to spool off all the files I may want BEFORE I did any hardware or OS upgrade. In an attempt to be doubly-sure I can get to my data, I backed the files up twice; once in a Windows-Backup-Utility instance, and once in a file-by-file copy to a single hard drive. Either one would be accessible from the new configuration, but because I was backing up more than 800 GB of data (twice!) over a USB-2 connection to a SATA hard drive in a drive dock, it took FOUR DAYS to complete the two backups. As an added bit of insurance, I’ll leave the two 500GB hard disks that made up my original C drive untouched for a period of time, in case I need to reinstall them on a RAID-0 controller to retrieve something that didn’t come across in the two backups. The two new Terabyte hard disks will be installed in a similar RAID-0 configuration on the updated machine for a 2TB drive C to install a copy of Windows 8 on, so the two 500GB hard disks can sit idle for a while until I determine that I don’t need them anymore. Once they are deemed superfluous I can reformat them into stand-alone drives for additional data storage.

Once I decided to add hardware upgrades to my OS upgrade, I bought a motherboard-processor bundle from MicroCenter in Cambridge MA which consisted of an Asus Sabertooth X79 ATX Motherboard paired with an Intel Core i7 4770K 3.5GHz Processor. I had previously acquired two Kingston KHX1600 DDR3 8 GB memory sticks, along with a 500W ATX power supply that I had picked up a while ago. The power supply was of questionable value, since it was a mere 70W larger than the old power supply that came with the E360 chassis, but it was in-hand so I decided to swap the older 430W supply with the new 500W supply and hope it was big enough to handle the larger processor, newer motherboard, and a plethora of SATA drives (potentially up to six).

I also acquired and installed two front-facing 5-1/4” format E-ZRack SATA drive mounts for 3.5" Internal SATA drives that will allow me to connect two additional SATA hard drives through the mounting racks with doors in the front just below the CD/DVD drive. It's not quite hot-swappable, but the machine shuts down and boots up quickly, so changing disks in the bays isn't a hassle.

With disks in those bays, my final configuration could have as many as five internal SATA hard drives (two RAID-0 disks as a 2 TB drive C, a 1 TB data drive D brought over from the old E360 configuration, two variable-sized SATA disks in the swap racks (drives E and F), two external SATA disks in the hot-swap SATA docking station attached as an eSATA device (drives G and H), and the LightScribe CD/DVD reader/writer as drive I. That’s a lot of online storage!

With my hardware in-hand and my double back-up of the original RAID-0 C drive complete, I unplugged all the cables (keyboard, monitor, mouse, network, etc.) and pulled the workstation chassis out of its strapped-in position alongside my computer cart in my basement office and started the removal of the old computer innards prior to the installation of the new computer innards. Pulling the old power supply was straight-forward, and disconnecting all the connections and unbolting the old motherboard was easy, but I took the time to tag every plug and wire coming off the motherboard so I could more easily find its new home on the new motherboard later – time well-spent, by the way. I pulled the old RAID 0 drives out (carefully labeling each one so I’d know which was which, in case that was important) and installed the new drives to be configured as RAID 0, but that turned out to be premature as the new drives were better off out of the way to make the installation of the new motherboard easier.

The ATX form factor provided identical mounting points for the new motherboard and an identical back opening for the rear connectors. The LGA1150 processor socket was very user-friendly for processor mounting, and the integral processor cooling fan mounted easily on top of the processor and snapped onto the motherboard with ease. Mating this processor to this motherboard was the easiest processor mounting experience I’ve had (I’ve done a few).

Once the motherboard was installed and the processor assembly mounted, I began the search for new homes for all the loose connectors I had carefully labeled as they were removed from the old motherboard (front panel USB connectors, front panel drive and power light connectors, front panel power and reset switch connectors, front panel microphone in and audio out connectors, chassis fan connector, CPU fan connector, etc.). With the wires labeled and the well-documented new motherboard manual by my elbow, this process was a bit tedious but not hard at all. The only connector left over at the end of the exercise was the IEEE 1394/FireWire connector on the front of the chassis. The new motherboard does not include that connection format, but it was a connection I had never used so I believe I can live without it. If that becomes an issue in the future I can always buy a board to add to the motherboard and enliven that front-panel connector at a later time.

I popped the cover plates out of the front panel for two 5-1/4” slots to install the EZ-Rack SATA drive mounts, and installed the spare 500 Watt power supply I had. Not much of an upgrade, but every little bit counts. Alas, in this case it wasn’t enough, as thirty seconds into the initial boot-up I blew out the 500 Watt power supply. After consulting the Asus web site and finding a tool to calculate how big a power supply to install based on the motherboard, processor, and the number of storage devices used, the calculation for my configuration came out to 650 Watts ("better late than never" doesn't apply here). I decided to bite the bullet and buy a Corsair 850 Watt gamer’s power supply, with the added benefit of it being whisper-quiet!

With plenty of power, I was able to boot into the BIOS menu and tweak some settings, but more importantly I was able to activate the RAID-0 configuration against the two new TB drives. The machine was ready to get its first operating system install.

At this time in the process, I put it aside for a long weekend to head up to the Maine house to finish a deck railing painting project I had started two weekends ago. When I got back Sunday night I found out that my internet connection had died hard while I was gone (thank you Comcast), and it wasn’t coming back without a visit from a technician. That meant that I could not update any installed software over the internet until it got fixed Wednesday morning, and I hate waiting.

Back in January when Microsoft was selling Windows 8 Upgrade downloads (burn them to your own DVD) for $35, I bought two; one for Audrey’s laptop and one for my eventual workstation upgrade. Because it was an upgrade, it expected an existing copy of a previous copy of Windows on the hard drive. I re-installed Windows 7 on the new machine but could not authenticate it because the internet connection was down. I assumed that the Windows 8 upgrade would refuse to install on an unauthenticated copy of Windows 7, but after a day of waiting I got impatient and decided to try it. It installed, and when the internet connection was re-established I went to activate my copy of Windows 8, but I got an error message that the activation codes I got with the software when I bought it in January had expired and I had to call Microsoft. Sheeesh!

The number I called was an automated system (human-like verbal exchanges, but no human involved – except me!). I first had to speak NINE sets of 6-digit number strings, one at a time, slow enough for the voice recognition software on the other end to recognize the numbers. Then it read me back a different set of NINE sets of 6-digit numbers to type into the spaces on the activation form on my screen. Then it asked me how many previous computers had been activated with this software code (ZERO, bunky!), and then I was activated. More tedious than I expected, but successful in the end.

Once activated, I began reinstalling my portfolio of heavily-used software; Microsoft Office Professional (Outlook for email, Word for documents, Excel for spreadsheets, PowerPoint for visual presentations, Access for database management), Intuit Quicken 2013 Premier for financial management, Paint Shop Pro X5 for graphics processing, Pinnacle Studio 16 Ultimate for video processing, Dreamweaver CS3 for web site development, The Master Genealogist V8 and RootsMagic V6 for genealogy research, Evernote for data collection, and a collection of other small programs used on a semi-regular basis.

Then I put the chassis covers back on and returned the tower to it's place on the shelf beside my computer-cart desk. I also wrestled the massive Mitsubishi DiamondScan 200 24" CRT monitor off the computer cart (risking a hernia in the process) and replaced it with the paper-thin 5.5 pound 22" AOC Hi-Deg 16x9-format LCD monitor.

The new machine - nicknamed Franken-Powerspec-Stein - is a delight; fast, quiet, powerful, a joy in every way. Total out-of-pocket cost was $852.93, which got me a machine that would have cost me well over $2000 if I had bought it complete and assembled.

 

Of course, the saga isn't quite over yet. I picked up a $17 bare-bones ATX chassis and am in the process of building another machine out of the parts I took out of the E360 chassis, but that's another story...

 

 

 

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