The Mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it...
I have never had an original idea in my entire life. I explain this fact by another fact: I was born in Germany. It is not my fault I tell myself, but the fault of my parents; neither of which are German. But obviously the Germans were putting something in the water back in 1973 -- so necessity has to be my mother of invention; didn't someone one say something similar? Anyway, a colleague of mine needs a big machine for little bucks. "I want the Pentagon to pay me for my spare CPU cycles." - sounds almost like some famous last words...
Well, thats always a tough act to come through on if this person is looking to spend maybe $1,750 at the very most and does a lot of graphical and video editing work. We are looking at a good 512MB 1024MB of RAM, 100+GB of HDD, DVD Drive, CD-RW Drive and a lot of CPU power. It also needs to be 100% rock solid stable and compatible with a lot of, probably quite bizarre, hardware.
The light at the end of the tunnel
After using more "Build Your Own PC" web-applications and badly designed e-shops than I care to remember, I realized that consistently a dual AMD-rig seemed to offer by far the most performance for the buck -- in the high-end performance range at least. Curiously enough, these machines may not only be the cheapest, but also the most powerful.
I always attempt to buy quality components, preferably from manufacturers that have a good international presence as they usually honor RMAs themselves if your dealer is less than reputable, goes bust or has troublesome technical staff. There is nothing more annoying than buying a component that doesnt work and then being sent in circles by a dealer that doesnt care and a manufacturer that only has an address in Taiwan. If you prefer to focus on price only, then you could probably buy an equivalent system for even less money, but with an increased risk.
After many, many hours of searching high and low, I came up with a basic idea of what would be needed:
- Dual CPUs
- RAID 0
- At least 512MB of RAM
Anything else that is high-performance is, of course, nice, but not absolutely required. In the end I opted for a moderately decent 3D video card in case this guy's son wanted to play some games.
Here is what I came up with:
|Number||Description||Unit Price||Position Price|
|1||Chieftec Dragon DA-01DB, with 351W Enermax PSU||135.00||135.00|
|2||AMD Athlon XP1900+ CPU||107.00||214.00|
|1||MSI MS-6501L, K7D Master-L, AMD 760MPX, LAN, Dual (reg DDR)||257.00||257.00|
|1||Corsair DIMM 512MB PC2400 DDR CL2 (CM64SD512) (PC300)||230.00||230.00|
|2||Thermaltake A1239/A1267 Silent Viking (Copper Core)||18.50||37.00|
|1||MSI MS-8866 G4MX440-T, GeForce4 MX440, 64MB DDR, TV-out, AGP||105.00||105.00|
|1||SoundBlaster Live 5.1 Player||36.50||36.50|
|1||Aopen 1648Pro (Pioneer Drive), 16x DVD, 48x CD-ROM, Slot||55.00||55.00|
|1||LiteOn LTR-32123S/LTR-32125W 32x/12x/40x, Smart-Burn, Retail||65.00||65.00|
|3||Maxtor DiamondMax D740X 60GB (6L060J3)||105.00||315.00|
|1||Promise FastTrak TX2000 ATA133, PCI 66MHz, Bulk||131.00||131.00|
|1||Mitsumi 1.44MB FDD||11.00||11.00|
|5||Pabst 80x80mm Adjustable Fan (750 - 2250 rpm) (14 - 23Db(A))||12.00||60.00|
|1||Enermax 92mm Adjustable Fan (15 - 27Db(A))||15.00||15.00|
|Excluding Sales-Tax (rounded a little)||1,425.75|
A good question to ask now would be "Why did he choose those components and not different ones?". Thats a good and valid, question. Allow me to elaborate:
I chose dual AMD because their CPUs are quite powerful -- more powerful than Intel CPUs at the same clock-speed and about the same if you compare their rating to Intels clockspeeds, and also because of the simple fact that they are cheap. The Chipsets for AMD XP and MP have been around a little while now and have matured enough to be genuinely useful.
The ThermalTake fans are low-RPM and are quiet, but have a good block that is more than up to the task of removing the heat from these two CPUs. In combination with Arctic Silver II and a good chassis, the Chieftec DA01BD (reviewed here), I can keep these CPUs below 45C, 20C above ambient, at all times.
It is important to note that AMD says XP CPUs are not meant for SMP. In my experience there is no difference between MP and XP for the XP 1500 XP1900 CPUs*. I have not seen an XP1800 not work in SMP, but some mainboards are a little more thorough in their checking than others. I have experienced first hand how XP2000s often woun't work in SMP, even on this board. However, it is easy to modify an XP to work in SMP by making it into an MP, but thats warranty-voiding choice you have to make for yourself. You can buy MPs for 189, which would raise the price from 1711 to 1875.
I choose the MSI mainboard over other cheaper ones because the MPX chipset is somewhat picky. Often after failing to POST due to incorrect settings, the system will hang on subsequent POST attempts for a while. The MSI board has a diagnostic LED which is, in my opinion, absolutely essential when you are new to this game, and is definitely helpful even when you are a seasoned veteran. In addition to the above, I have good experiences with MSI and servers/workstations** -- not always the best performance, but stable.
The Mainboard has LAN and Audio (AC97) onboard but I chose the SB Live! anyway because I do think that surround sound is a very nice feature easily worth the 36.50. In addition, the on-board audio is only of medium quality.
For RAM, I chose Corsair, CL2 and PC2400 because I know from experience that Corsair are good and the MPX chipset is very demanding on memory performance.
The DVD Drive is a very good one - slot-loading, which means that approx 2-3 seconds after inserting a CD, DVD or CD-RW you have access to the files (a tray loader can take up to 10 seconds). DVD ripping speeds depend on the DVD but I usually managed 12x with this drive, so it is more than adequate. It may surprise some of you how a slow CD-ROM or DVD drive can bring your system to its knees while its trying to auto-mount the disc...(plus it gives people a bad impression of over system performance).
The CD-RW drive is cheap, but seems to work well enough. I have the 16x/10x/40x version and I am more than happy with it.
The IBM HDDs are quite a bit cheaper than the Maxtors, but I have had so many bad experiences with IBM HDDs in the last two years that I simply refuse to use them anymore. This even applies to their SCSI HDDs and I suspect there is a very good reason why IBM announced their discontinuation of HDD manufacturing.
The Promise FastTrak series of cards can all run on the faster PCI busses (66MHz, 32-bit) which means it can take advantage of the 66MHz/64-bit PCI capability this motherboard has. In my opinion this was the best choice; the competition either charges 3 times as much or doesnt properly support the faster bus speeds.
The 5 Papst fans are expensive, but extremely quiet and effective. I bought them at a electronic/hardware store becuase they cost half as much there than in the computer shops.
* - 20/9/2002 - AMD only guarantee SMP with MPs. I hinted at this, but the hints are too subtle and I should explicitly mention this.
** - 20/9/2002 - The ever attentive Jim over at 2CPU.com pointed out that this board is in fact a workstation mainboard, not a server mainboard. He is absolutely correct and I am humbled.
Putting all the parts all the parts together was a non-event. Everything basically worked right out of the box. The MSI Master board works in SMP with all XPs up to XP2000 that I have ever tried, and also works with non-registered (un-buffered) RAM in memory-slots 1 and 2. Memory-slot 3 and 4 only take registered modules and the largest un-buffered DIMM my motherboard accepted was 512MB. I got hold of a Kingston 1024MB un-buffered DIMM (would you believe they cost 1500!) and it did not work. The board wouldnt even POST.
One HDD went into the onboard IDE controller as primary master, the DVD and CD-RW into the secondary onboard IDE, and the remaining two HDDs went in RAID0 on the FastTrak controller. The FastTrak TX2000 controller can run in 32-bit/66MHz PCI, so I stuck that in one of the faster PCI slots. The MSI has two 64-bit, 66MHz capable slots. Everything else went in the only places they can go. I set all the fans to their lowest speed and have to say I was quite surprised at how quiet having 10 fans in your computer can be. The loudest fan is on the GeForce4, and even that could be fixed using a ThermalTake blue orb.
Two different CPUs in SMP
One nice feature about the MSI board, and indeed all MPX boards, is the independent CPU bus architecture. You can put two different CPUs in your system, meaning you can put an XP 1400 in with an XP 1800 CPU. This allows you a more flexible upgrade path. If you currently own an XP system you can use that XP CPU and simply buy a faster one to go with it rather than having to buy two new CPUs. Rather nifty.
Installing Windows 2000 went without a problem, although my ISP decided to be a pain in the butt while I was trying to patch using the Windows-update site. The latest drivers for the mainboard and chipset, as well as onboard AC97 audio are available on the AMD website, an all the other hardware also has updated drivers on the web. The installation took about the usual number of cups of coffee.
Performance vs Price -- The never-ending battle, but an amicable truce can usually be found. I believe I have found such a truce in this system. The system has more than adequate performance for even very demanding users, as the low-level benchmark-scores (SiSoft Sandra) will show.
L1 & L2 Cache Benchmark
The systems that bested this dual XP1900+ system in the Sandra benchmarks cost significantly more than this one did -- a dual Xeon 2.4GHz+ system with all the frills will set you back at least 3500, maybe as much as 5000+ if you buy from a large OEM; DELL wanted 4,528 for a pretty much identically performing system. I decided to have a look around, as to what was available for the same price from some OEMs and local dealerships, just to get an idea of what could be had for 1700.
|Compaq||EVO W4000||Pentium4 2.0GHz, 512MB DDR CL2.5 ECC, 40GB 5400rpm, 16x DVD||1,793.00|
|DELL||Dimension 4500||Pentium4 2.4B GHz, 256MD DDR CL2.5 ECC, 80GB 7200rpm, 16x DVD, nVidia GeForce Ti4600, SB Live! Value||1,632.00|
|IPC||Helios High-End||Pentium 4 2.0GHz, 512MB DDR CL2.5, 60GB 7200rpm, GeForce2 MX-200 64MB TV-Out, 16x DVD, 24x/12x/40x CD-RW, SB Live! Value||1,625.00|
|NRE||PowerHouse||AMD XP2200+, 512MB PC333 DDR, GeForce4 Ti4600, SB Live! Player 5.1, 16x DVD, 48x/12x/48x CD-RW, 100GB 7200 w/ 8MB cache, ChiefTec Big-Tower, 350W PSU||1,879.00|
Getting that little bit extra
Some people can never get enough, so I decided to find out if this system would lend itself to overclocking. A lot of SMP systems are significantly more problematic when it comes to attempting to go beyond their specs, as they are already operating much closer to their physical limits than the average single-CPU system. This is one of the reasons I got PC2400 RAM, but not the main reason, as I shall outline below.
I have assembled a few MPX systems, and I realized quite early on that these systems are extremely picky about what RAM you put in there. Specifications are all nice and cute when written down on paper, but the real world is an ugly and horrible place at times. I, for one, do not recommend putting anything less than PC2400 un-buffered RAM in one of these systems. Registered modules should be CL2, not CL2.5.
As to why, the answer is simple -- for some reason I could never get any CL 2.5 modules to be truly stable in this board. CL 2.5 un-buffered DIMM often wouldnt boot properly, un-buffered CL2 would only really work reliably when set to 2.5 - and that applied to all MPX boards. I suppose in order to make the two completely independent CPU buses work, the bus and memory timings are extremely aggressive.
The bottom line is that un-buffered CL2 PC2400 will work at CL2 up to around 140MHz or so. I can get 138MHz stable, at 140MHz I recently got a funny crash I couldnt explain, so I would be lying if I said 140Mhz was stable. I experienced no problems with registered modules at this speed, however.
If you want to modify your XPs to be unlocked or set a new multiplier, then the MSI is a good board. What do I mean with "A good board?". Simply put, some boards react badly to modified CPUs because they are more sensitive to not-quite-perfect modifications. In the days where a pencil was enough to unlock a T-Bird, some boards simply refused to work reliably, whereas others worked just fine.
The problem was that the pencil mark simply didnt conduct electricity quite enough. The MSI is very generous with modified CPUs and I experienced no problems, even when I modded one CPU in a very slip-shod manner. 12.5x is the highest you can go, however, getting the XP1900+ running at 1666MHz was no problem, so stability after a successful modification is pretty much guaranteed. The fastest, stable, speed I managed was 1800MHz (144MHz x 12.5) using Kingston registered DDR modules (the Infineon modules wont even go 138MHz). I didn't even have to increase the VCore -- lucky me.
All in all, I would say that this system is only marginally overclockable -- on one side the FSB cannot be raised by more than 5MHz using PC2400 CL2 and 10MHz using registered RAM. Unlocking the CPUs is easy, but only allows a maximum multiplier of 12.5, which means you can only gain 66MHz from doing this. You could probably buy XP1800s, save $20, and unlock them to 12.5x to make it "more worth your while", but Id rather spend an extra $20 and buy the XP2000s and not have to fuss around with glue, conductive paint and masking tape for an hour or more -- that is if the XP2000 will run in SMP. The best overclock that can realistically be achieved is 1725MHz (138MHz x 12.5), which will be stable pretty much no matter what hardware you have installed, but its going to take some effort.
This board will also work with the latest XPs (XP2400+ and XP2600+), although I only had one CPU and you will probably have to modify these to work in SMP.
At the end of the day
This system packs a mighty punch for a comparatively small price. Competing OEM products, equivalent with this rig, cost in the range of 3250 to 7300, and other dual-CPU products (dual P3-1.4GHz) are in the same price-range but have less power and no upgrade path available to them. By building the system yourself, waiting maybe 3 - 10 days for all the components to arrive via mail and then investing a few hours to assemble it yourself, you are going to be saving at least 1000 and end up with a stronger system.
The performance of this system lends itself very well to intensive graphical work and even gamers will be satisfied with the performance. Hardcore gamers can also invest 200 - 400 more and purchase a GeForce4 Ti 4600, or other high-end video cards, instead of the MX-440 with 64MB DDR and still have a very cost-effective high-performance system. People who really value doing a lot of desktop work can get themselves a decent Matrox dual-head card instead, which adds around 100 to the price.
The AMD CPUs are particularly strong when it comes to rendering 3D, audio compression and business applications. Their weakness is encoding ripped DVDs to DivX, and that is due to most programs being heavily optimised for the Pentium 4 and also in part the memory bandwidth being less than a Pentium 4 with RDRAM.
The base-components of this system are flexible enough to allow the system to be used as pretty much anything - the only component that needs changing depending on the use would be the video card. Whatever you wish to use this system for, for 2000 you can make this a powerful workstation, video editing machine or a gaming machine.
- Low Price
- High Performance
- Good upgrade path for future CPUs
- Picky about RAM and some peripherals.
- Overclocking is difficult
- Might have to mod newer XP CPUs to work in SMP mode.
At the end of the day, this is a server mainboard, and as such is quite strict with compliance to various standards. Quite a bit of hardware on the market doesn't quite stick to these, and you may experience problems if you add an "incompatible" PCI card. I advise you to stick to hardware that you would find in servers and high-end workstations from OEMs, such as 3Com for NICs, Matrox for VGA, etc, if you have any doubts yourself.
Finally, this is what you can expect ending up with. The sleek and stylish casing hides the monstrous power that resides within the beast:
Guts, Glory and 3200MHz of Power
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In case anyone was clever enough to notice the 4th HDD - thats the HDD from his old system.
I hope this has helped illustrating that you can purchase an extremely powerful system for under $2000, and that if you are an enthusiast or a prospective enthusiast, this may have helped you make up your mind to give it a go.