Spectralcat's Blog

August 8, 2009

The English Major’s Guide to Building a Quiet, and Powerful, GNU/Linux Desktop Computer: Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — spectralcat @ 2:17 am

The hardest part of building a computer is selecting the right parts (and getting a good deal on them). In the following post, I recommend some parts and provide links to the ones I recently installed in my girlfriend’s computer. Take your time and read the specs on the parts you select (especially the motherboard, CPU, and RAM) to make sure they will work together. Try to find credible reviews of each piece and do not believe manufacturers who claim that their parts are “quiet.” They lie.

Part II: Buying Parts
Step 1: Select a Computer Case ($30 – $120):
You may have an old computer case laying around that you can re-use. Otherwise, you will have to get a new one. A good computer case should have the following features :

1) It should be made of steel. Aluminum cases transmit more noise than steel ones and they are flimsier. (They are, however, often cheaper. It is possible to reduce the amount of noise aluminum cases transmit by applying adhesive vinyl floor tiles to the interior sides of them. The tiles make the case more dense; denser cases = less vibration. You can get the floor tiles at Home Depot.)

2) It should be ATX-compliant. Both ATX and Micro-ATX cases are fine, but Micro-ATX cases will force you to use a Micro-ATX motherboard. (Especially avoid ITX cases unless you know what you’re doing.) Non-standard cases will force you to buy special parts (slim dvd drives that designed for laptops etc.) that will cost you lots of extra money. You can find more information on the ATX standard here.

3) It should have space for a 120 mm exhaust fan at the back of it. It doesn’t really matter if it comes with an exhaust fan because the fans that come with most cases are garbage. 120 mm fans move air more efficiently than 90mm fans and are thus easier to quiet.

4) Ideally, it will have lots of open space at the bottom-front of the case. On most cases, air is sucked into the case in the bottom-front; having empty space here will allow you to hang (“suspend”) a hard drive in an high-airflow part of the case. This will help keep your hard drive cool. Many cases fill the front-bottom up with a non-removable 3.5 hard drive cage; if possible, avoid cases that do this. If this cage is not removable (and only the nicer cases have easily removable cages) you will have to take a hacksaw to the case in order to remove the cage and create the space to suspend the hard drive. (Alternately, you can suspend your hard drive in a 5.25 drive bay, but these bays tend to be located near the top of the case in lower airflow areas and doing this will also deprive you of a place to put another dvd burner.) The Antec NSK3480 and 4480 II are good examples of cases with open front bottoms.

5) The best cases will allow indirect air flows at the front bottom of the case. Instead of entering the case directly, air will move into the case from the front sides. This reduces the noise the air makes as it enters the case. The Antec Sonata allows for indirect airflow.

6) It’s probably a good idea to avoid cases that are full of extra holes. The case helps keep noise from getting to you and those holes may make it easier for noise to seep outside of the case.

7) Make sure that your case is wide enough to fit a large heat sink. The best kind of heat sinks are big heat pipes that are sometimes as tall as 7 inches. Be especially wary of cases that have removable mother board trays. While this extra “feature” may make it slightly easier to install a motherboard, it will also reduce the width of the case as it will force the motherboard (and thus the heat sink) to sit an inch or so closer to the opposite side of the case.

8) It should look nice. You are going to look at it aren’t you?

You can find more information on good cases here.
The Case I Bought:
Antec Sonata III 500 (power supply and 120 MM case fan included): $100

Step 2: Get an Energy Efficient Power Supply ($30 – $50):
Many cheap cases come with cheap power supplies. These power supplies are pieces of garbage that sound like blast furnaces; avoid them. If you aren’t doing crazy video gaming (and because this guide is addressed to open-source software users, I’m assuming that you probably aren’t) you don’t need a power supply that gives you a lot of watts. A 300-350 watt power supply is fine for almost anyone. What you really want is a power supply that will be high efficiency and that will have a quiet fan built into it. A good power supply should only need one small fan sitting at the back of it; avoid power supplies with extra fans in them. Sometimes you can get a good efficient 400 or 500 watt power supply for less than a 300 watt one; that’s fine, but don’t spend extra money for watt capacity that you will never use.

To get an estimate of you computer’s electricity needs see these computer watt calculators:

Also, see this list of good quiet power supplies at Silent PC Review. While many of these power supplies are quite expensive, the FSP, Seasonic, and Antec Earthwatts (really just Seasonic power supplies with a different fan in them, I believe) can often be found for cheap.

The Power Supply I Bought:
Antec Earthwatts 500. Included with Sonata case.

Earthwatts Power Supply.  Reasonably quiet.  I don't think this computer ever uses more than 180 Watts.

Earthwatts Power Supply. Reasonably quiet. I don't think this computer ever uses more than 180 Watts.

Step 3: Get a Quiet 120 MM Case Fan ($10 – $20):
A case fan is needed to blow air out of your computer case. By blowing air out of the back of the case, the fan also sucks air into the front of the case. Unless you are buying a very nice case by a company that specializes in designing quiet computer parts, the fans your case came with your case are probably noisy pieces of shit. Throw them out and replace them with better quality fans. You probably only need one 120 mm case fan in the back of your computer, although you may want to also pick up a small (say 80 mm) case fan and install it in front of your hard drive (though this probably isn’t necessary). Here is Silent PC Review’s list of recommended Case Fans.

The best case fans are probably the Nexus Real Silent ones.  These also come with rubber mounts that dampen the noise the fans make. You should avoid directly screwing the fan into the case as this will cause the case to amplify the noise the fan makes. Using rubber mounts (and maybe string) to decouple the fan from the case is a good idea. Unfortunately, New Egg does not sell Nexus case fans. You can, however, get them from endpcnoise.  Scythe fans are also quite nice, though, and New Egg does sell them. Scythe also manufacturers a PWM fan in case you want to replace the fan your heatsink comes with. Finally, you many also want to look at Noctua’s case fans.

The Case Fan I Bought:
I just used the tricool fan that was included in the Sonata’s case. I set the fan control to it’s lowest setting (still a relatively high 1200 RPMs) and then soft mounted it during the installation with stretch magic and some rubber grommets that came with the case. I may replace it with a quieter case fan later.

Step 4: Pick a Processor (CPU) ($50 – $200):
There are only two major processor manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Ideally I would like to avoid Intel products as Intel recently lost a massive lawsuit in Europe for engaging in anti-competitive practices, and Intel used to be notorious for fudging the specs on their processors. However, AMD has had a difficult time making multi-core processors that are as energy efficient as the newer Intel ones. When looking at processors, pay attention to the nm and watt rattings on them; in both cases, lower is better. Processors that use a lot of electricity are more likely to run hotter and thus require more cooling which means both a higher electricity bill and more noisy fans in your computer case. When looking at Intel processors, ignore Intel’s nonsensical names (Celeron, Wolfdale, blah!) and just focus on the model number (i.e. E6300) and the specs. Most new processors are either dual core and quad core; the quad cores cost around twice as much as the dual cores. In a year or so they should be a lot cheaper. All of these processors are now 64 bit compatible which is nice because modern GNU/Linux operating systems have very good 64 bit support. (Especially since Adobe has finally released a 64bit Flash plugin for Linux.) The type of processor (its “socket” type) you select will determine the type of motherboard you select. You might want to try and find some reviews on different processors. I found this review at SilentPCreview helpful.

The CPU I Bought:

Intel Pentium E6300 Wolfdale Dual-Core Processor (45 nm!): $88

I wish AMD would make dual core processors that were 45 nm.  I also wish New Egg would have sold me this processor without the stock Intel heat sink and fan.

I wish AMD would make dual core processors that were 45 nm. I also wish New Egg would have sold me this processor without the stock Intel heat sink and fan.

Step 5: Pick a Motherboard ($40 – $90):
The socket type of the mother board you select is determined by the socket type of your processor. Here are the steps for picking a motherboard:

1) Determine whether you want a full ATX motherboard or a Micro-ATX motherboard. The full ATX motherboard is bigger and will have extra features on it that Micro-ATX boards do not have. Do not get a full ATX motherboard if you are only getting a Micro-ATX case as it will not fit in your case. Full ATX motherboards generally have more SATA connections, and they also have more PCI slots. They may also give you more space to allow you to fit larger heatsinks on the processor (see Step 6 below).

2) Avoid any motherboards that have fans on them. Those little fans can make a racket! If you aren’t doing heavy video game stuff you should be fine with a motherboard that has entirely passive cooling (metal blocks and spiky looking heatsinks that suck heat off the motherboard but that do not have a fan blowing on them directly).

3) Pay very close attention to the motherboard’s onboard video. (The type of onboard video is determined by the company that manufacturers the motherboard’s Northbridge. For instance, motherboards with Nvidia northbridges have Nvidia video.) There are five companies that make video drivers: Nvidia, AMD/ATI, VIA, SIS, and Intel. Avoid any motherboards that have VIA and SIS onboard video. Their open-source video support is terrible. Nvidia and AMD/ATI are more difficult cases. Nvidia provides good proprietary drivers for Linux and there is a decent quality open source Nvidia driver, though Nvidia has not been good at helping the developing of open source drivers. AMD/ATI used to have terrible support for open-source drivers, but a little over a year ago, AMD open sourced all of their drivers. AMD/ATI now provides decent proprietary drivers for Linux and there are rapidly developing good open source drivers for AMD/ATI video. Generally, 3-D (for video games and flashy spinning desktop cubes) open source support for Nvidia and AMD/ATI is very limited while 2-D video works fine; 3-D support is available for Linux by using proprietary drivers. Installing proprietary video drivers on Linux is still a bit of a hassle (though nowhere near as hard as it used to be), and if something goes wrong with Nvidia or AMD’s propritary driver, no one in the open source community will be able to help you fix it. Making sense of AMD/ATI’s naming scheme is particularly difficult; to check on open source support for AMD/ATI hardware first determine the R series number by looking here. Then, check the xorg webpage’s information on driver development for that hardware. Generally, older hardware is supported better than newer hardware. I believe AMD/ATI onboard video is only be availabe on motherboards that use AMD processors. Finally, Intel has provided very good open source support for their onboard video. Buying a motherboard with onboard Intel video is probably the safest bet at this stage. Intel 3-D (and of course 2-D) should work fine, though, it won’t be as powerful as using an external video card. (Unlike Nvidia and AMD, Intel does not manufacture video cards.) Intel video is only available on motherboards that use Intel processors. (Another reason to prefer getting an Intel processor.)

4) Determine what kind of extra features you want a motherboard to have. I care about having digital video (a dvi or hdmi) and digital audio (“optical”) outputs on my motherboard. I connect my computer to my stereo so I want my computer to output the highest quality audio signal it can; digital video is also nice. Be sure to check the input jacks on your monitor. Monitors with hdmi input jacks may not be able to receive video from a dvi output jack (even if you buy an adapter for them). There seems to be some kind of copyright protection built into hdmi technology that requires you to have an hdmi output jack; I think this has something to do with preventing you from copying blueray video. Fascists.

5) Pay attention to how many SATA and IDE connections the motherboard has. If you’re using older hard drives or DVD drives, you may need more IDE connections (though you can fit 2 IDE drives on 1 IDE channel). The more SATA connections, the better. I’m currently using 3 of the 4 SATA connections on my motherboard (1 for the hard drive, 1 for the DVD burner, 1 for the e-Sata connection on the front of the case). This leaves me with only one extra Sata port to plug in a second DVD Burner or a second hard drive. Most micro-ATX motherboards seem to come with only 4 Sata ports and 1 IDE port. If you want more SATA or IDE connections, you might want to think about getting a full ATX motherboard.

6) Pay attention to the physical layout of the motherboard. Try to pick a motherboard that will give you enough space to install a large heatsink on it. It may help if the processor is located a little farther away from the RAM channels; also be wary of unusually large heatsinks that are located next to the processor slot. These may (but probably won’t) cause problems for large heatsinks.

7) Some motherboard manufacturers give you more control in their BIOS (the program built into the motherboard that controls the computer’s physical hardware) over the computer’s fans. I’ve heard that MSI motherboards tend to have slightly better fan control options in their BIOS.

The Motherboard I Bought:
GIGABYTE GA-EG41M-US2H MicroATX motherboard (digital video and audio outputs, open-source friendly Intel GMA X4500 on-board video): $65 after rebate

Nicely spaced motherboard; the Xigmatek heat sink easily fits over the video heat sink and leaves plenty of clearance for the Ram coolers.

Nicely spaced motherboard; the Xigmatek heat sink easily fits over the video heat sink and leaves plenty of clearance for the Ram coolers.

Step 6: Pick a Large Heat Sink for your Processor ($30 – $60):
Many processors are sold with heat sinks, but they are generally not very quiet. Ideally, you should buy a separate CPU heat sink. The best heat sinks are large heat pipes. These heat sinks use liquid filled copper pipes to suck heat off the processor. The heat is then either passively dissipates as it moves up the pipes away from the processor or is gently blown off the heat sink by a 120 mm fan moving at very low (and thus inaudible) speeds. Ideally, the 120 mm heat sink fan should blow air horizontally through the heat sink drawing air from the front of the case and feeding it in a “push-pull” configuration to the 120 mm exhaust case fan on the other side of the heat sink. Here’s Silent PC Review’s list of recommended heat sinks.

My favorite heat sink used to be the Sythe Ninja, but there are similar better quality heat sinks being made now that are not as wide. (The Ninja’s width makes it difficult to install with ram sticks that have large coolers attached to them.) Currently, the most affordable heat pipes seem to be the Xigmatek HDT-S1283 and the ZEROtherm ZEN FZ120. The Thermalright HR-01 Plus is also a very nice (though slightly pricier) heat sink.

A few words of caution: the Xigmatek HDT-S1283 has nice copper coils and a good PWM fan (PWM fans can be speed controlled by the motherboard), but it does not fit properly on AMD motherboards. On AMD motherboards, instead of blowing towards the rear of the case, the fan blows towards the top. Fucking stupid. The ZEROtherm ZEN FZ120 is probably a better bet for AMD motherboards. The Xigmatek HDT-S1283 also comes with stupid push pins for attaching it to socket 775 Motherboards. Push pins can damage your motherboard. If you’re attaching it to a 775 motherboard, it’s a good idea to also get the XIGMATEK ACK-I7361 back brace instead of using the push pins. Finally, you have to take more care when you move a computer with a large heat pipe attached to it; because of their added weight, these heat pipes put extra stress on motherboards.

The CPU Heat Sink I Bought:
XIGMATEK HDT-S1283 120mm Rifle CPU Cooler(PNM fan!): $30 (after rebate)
XIGMATEK ACK-I7361 (extra screws for attaching the Xigmatek heat sink to an LGA 775 motherboard): $10

Heat sink and extra screws for Intel motherboard (so we can avoid push pin idiocy).  A large heat sink like this is a must for any quiet computer, and the pnm fan that comes with it is fairly quiet, too.  I skipped on getting artic silver 5 and used the white thermal grease that came with the heat sink; it worked fine.

Heat sink and extra mounting clip for Intel motherboard (so we can avoid push pin idiocy). A large heat sink like this is a must for any quiet computer, and the PWM fan that comes with it is fairly quiet, too. I skipped on getting Arctic Silver 5 and used the white thermal grease that came with the heat sink; it worked fine.

Step 7: Select the Computer’s RAM (Memory) ($25 – $60):
To buy Ram:

1) Check your chosen motherboard’s specs to determine what kind of RAM it uses. Sometimes you can download the motherboard’s manual as a .pdf file. If you can, see if the motherboard manufacturer recommends any specific brands of RAM as functioning best with their motherboards. Selecting the right kind of RAM can be a little tricky. When looking at the motherboard’s memory specs, you want to pay attention to the following information: 1. the number of pins the motherboard’s RAM channels have, 2. the total amount of RAM the motherboard can handle, 3. the speed of RAM the motherboard is recommended to work with (this number is generally specified in two different ways either by a number that looks like this: “DDR2 800” or one that looks like this: “PC2 6400.” “DDR2 800” and “PC2 6400” are two different names for exactly the same type of RAM; New Egg tends to refer to RAM by the DDR number while Tiger Direct refers to it by the PC number.) You almost certainly want to buy a Dual Channel Kit (this is a package containing two identical sticks of RAM. The two sticks of RAM work together and the total amount of RAM you have installed is determined by adding together the size of the two sticks. For instance, a 2 gig dual channel kit consists of two 1 gig sticks of RAM. Technically, you could install 2 gigs of RAM by just buying one stick of RAM that is 2 gigs in size. (Dell seems to use this stunt to cut costs on its computers.) For instance, buying this will get you 2 gigs:
or buying this will get you 2 gigs.
It’s generally better, though, to have 2 sticks of RAM working together.)

2) Determine how much RAM you want. I would recommend buying a lot of RAM at this stage. A given type of RAM goes through a cycle in its price; it’s intially expensive, then very cheap, then expensive again. RAM tends to be at its cheapest when there are lots of new motherboards that uses it. If you want to add more RAM to your motherboard in a few years, you will probably find that that RAM you need costs more then (because it’s rarer) than it costs today. I think getting 4 gigs of RAM (a dual channel kit consisting of two identical two gig sticks of RAM) is reasonable at this point in time.

3) Pay attention to the RAM’s Cas Latency. The lower this number, the better.

4) Pay attention to any coolers that are installed on the RAM by default. Before you buy RAM that comes with attached coolers, look at the physical layout of your motherboard and make sure that the fan attached to your CPU’s heat sink will not bump into these coolers. (Technically, these coolers are not necessary. I was afraid that I would have to cut them off my RAM to keep them from bumping into my heat sink’s fan. Fortunately, they did fit as the coolers that came with my RAM were very durable and would have been difficult to cut.)

The RAM I Bought:
Patriot Viper 4GB ddr2 800: $34 (after rebate)

Ridiculous heat sink coolers on the Ram.  I like the green color, but I was scared the heat sink would bump into it.  Not a problem.

Ridiculously large coolers on the Ram. I like the green color, but I was scared the CPU's heat sink fan would bump into them. It did not.

Step 8: Pick a Hard Drive ($40 – $100):
Here is Silent PC Review’s list of recommended Hard Drives:
Since you’re building a desktop, you probably want a very large 3.5 SATA drive. 2.5 drives are for notebooks (though they can be used in desktop computers); they run more quietly, but they are also slower, smaller, and more expensive. Avoid IDE drives, they use outdated and slower connections.

I would avoid the Western Digital Green Power drives as they use some kind of technology that doesn’t play well with Linux and can put a lot of extra stress on the drive. If they don’t make their drives open source friendly, they don’t deserve my business. I’ve had good luck with Samsung’s Spinpoint F1 HD103UJ. This drive is 1 terabyte in size, has an extra quieting feature, uses SATA connections, and seems very peppy.

The Hard Drive I Bought:
1 Terabyte SAMSUNG Spinpoint F1 HD103UJ (Linux friendly and dead silent when suspended): $85

Step 9: Pick a DVD Burner ($25 – $50):
I’m not concerned about getting a quiet DVD burner because when I watch DVDs, I always copy them to my hard drive first. I also avoid Blue Ray drives because they currently cost too much money, and they are DRM nightmares. Fascists. So I look for a cheap DVD burner that does the following:

1) Burns Dual Layer discs (+RDL). These discs are 8 gigs in size (while normal dvds are only 4 gigs). Since many DVD movies are 8 gigs in size, Dual Layer discs allow you to copy DVDs without shrinking the DVD image to 4 gigs.

2) Has a SATA connection. DVD burners that use IDE connections are still common, but SATA connections are faster and SATA cables are smaller than IDE cables. Using smaller cables improves the air flow inside your computer case and lets you turn the speed on your fans down.

3) Burns both +R and -R DVDs. This is standard on almost all DVD burners. These DVDs can be bought in bulk (though sometimes only the +R or the -R is on sale). I use them along with the Linux program Dar to back up my hard drive.

The DVD Burner I Bought:

DVD DL SATA Burner: Sony Optiarc: $32

Optional Purchases:

Stretch Magic: 1.8 mm 3 meter: Elastic string that’s very useful for suspending the hard drive and/or the exhaust fan, but you can’t buy it from New Egg. I got it from here for $3. Any other kind of sturdy elastic string should work well too. (In the past, I’ve had good luck with little bungee chords).

Thermal Grease:
For the heatsink to work properly, a small amount of grease must be placed between the bottom of the heatsink and the top of the processor. Most cpu heatsinks come with either a thermal pad or some kind of generic thermal grease. The grease that comes with these should be fine, but installing a heatsink for the first time is a little tricky and you might screw things up and need to start over. Many people insist that the best kind of thermal grease is Arctic Silver 5:
(endpcnoise.com sells it for less.)
You might want to pick some of this stuff up in case you botch the heatsink installation. Note: you only need a tiny spec (somewhere between the size of a piece of rice or a pea) of thermal grease. (The exception to this is the Xigmatek heat pipe which seems to require a bit more grease.) Adding too much grease will actually make your processor run hotter and possibly damage your motherboard.

Extra IDE or SATA Cables:
You might want some that are shorter than the ones that came with your motherboard. My motherboard came with two SATA cables. I used one of them and then used this extra 18” SATA to connect to my DVD burner because I liked the plugs on it better.
I wouldn’t recommend a SATA cable longer than 18” because long cables interfere with air flow. If you can get away with it, a 10” cable might be nice.

HDMI or DVI Cable:
If your monitor has a digital jack that you haven’t been using, you may need to buy a cable to connect it to your motherboard. I picked up this one. Note: you may run into problems if you try using a DVI-to-HDMI adapter.

Fan Controller(s):
This is a smart but not totally necessary purchase. If you want to make your computer as quiet as possible, you can buy either one separate fan controller that will sit in your 5.25 or 3.5 drive bay or little individual fan controllers (such as those made by Zalman) for your case fan(s) and CPU’s Heat Sink Fan. These controllers allow you to reduce a fan’s noise by manually turning down the speed at which the fan rotates. It’s fairly easy to figure out what programs heat up your computer so you should be able to safely turn the fans up when you run processor-intensive programs (such as programs that compress video or audio). A good CPU heatpipe (like the Xigmatek) should requires only a very small amount of airflow moving across it; if you buy a good heat sink, you can safely reduce your heat sink fan to its lowest possible speed, but you’ll probably want to install a program that will let you keep track of your processor’s temperature. (There are plenty of GNU/Linux program that display your computer’s temperature readings on your desktop.) I would recommend reading the fan controller reviews at Silent PC Review.

PC Building Tools:
You will need an anti-static wristguard and a couple of different phillips head screwdrivers. (Generally you’ll only just a standard size phillips screwdriver, and a fairly small screw driver to attach the screws that connect the DVD burner.) If you don’t have a good set of screwdrivers, you might want to buy a PC building tool set. An anti-static wristguard should only cost a couple of dollars. Something like this (or an even better one with Velcro) should be fine.

Tape and/or Plastic Ties:
Using Packaging tape to hold down the extra wires or buying ties to wrap up the extra wires from the power supply and SATA cables is a good idea. It will improve air flow.

Tin Snips:
You can improve air flow and quiet your computer’s exhaust fan by using tin snips to cut out the metal grating that blocks the case fan. You will want to cover up the raw metal with some kind of rubber or electrical tape, though, so that you don’t cut yourself. Doing this will also require you to dust out the inside of your computer more regularly. You can buy either left-hand or right-hand tin snips at your local hardware store. I think it will cost somewhere around $15.

Compressed Air Duster:
I needed it to clean off the gunk left by the tape on the bottom of my Xigmatek heatsink.

Rubbing Alcohol:
Needed for cleaning off the bottom of the CPU’s heat sink. Get the purest alcohol you can.

Next, we assemble the computer.


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