cool stuff and things

Building the Ultimate Workstation!

April 6, 2016

​​It's been at least four years since my last major upgrade. I've upgraded the video card once or twice, but as far as the motherboard, processor, RAM, etc...I'm running on a machine that, while still capable, is starting to slow me down with a lot of the new gaming stuff and 4k video I'm starting to play with. So, I figured it was time. Since I know nothing about the hardware end of things, I had a friend of mine help out on that end. He spec'd out the components and sent me a list. I clicked the links, put them all in my shopping cart and clicked "Purchase"! EASY! Now...I just have to wait until all the parts are delivered, slap them in my old case and PRESTO! New computer!

Except no. I was mistaken. Of course it couldn't be that easy.

So, I've only really assembled a computer once before. It's a very tedious process (for me anyway) and probably takes me three to four times longer than it would anyone else who actually knows what they're doing. Ultimately, though, I think it's worth it. I end up with a pretty fast computer spec'd out exactly how I want. I'm not forced to spend money on components I don't really want or need and don't get a machine loaded up with all kinds of software I'll spend hours uninstalling. And, I manage to learn a little bit here and there (maybe) as I'm putting it all together too. Last time I ran into a few snags, but managed to persevere. It was a bit of a pain, but nothing I couldn't handle given enough time to sort it all out.

The new components were due to arrive on Good Friday, which I had off from work, so I figured I'd have a nice long three-day weekend to get everything assembled, take care of any trouble shooting, and at least get started getting the OS and all my apps installed. Three days should be plenty. Right? I was mistaken.

First, let me start out by listing the major components:

1 x Noctua NH-U9S 92mm SSO2 U-Type Premium CPU Cooler, NF-A9 PWM Fans

1 x Intel Core i7-6700K 8M Skylake Quad-Core 4.0 GHz LGA 1151 91W BX80662I76700K Desktop Processor Intel®

1 x MSI MSI Gaming Z170A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM EDITION LGA 1151 Intel Z170 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.1 ATX Intel Motherboard

1 x G.SKILL Ripjaws V Series 64GB (4 x 16GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 3000 (PC4 24000) Intel Z170 Platform Desktop Memory

1 x EVGA 120-G2-1000-XR 80 PLUS GOLD 1000 W 10 yr Warranty Fully Modular NVIDIA SLI Ready and Crossfire Support

1 x SAMSUNG 950 PRO M.2 512GB PCI-Express 3.0 x4 Internal Solid State Drive (SSD) MZ-V5P512BW

This was all going into my case, which I was not replacing. When I did the last build, I spent a little more on a nice, big case that could hold lots of stuff, would be really easy to work with, and that I'd hopefully be able to use for a few builds. Behold, the Cooler Master:​

Mine didn't come with a tank inside though. Ok, so it's not as sexy as that Alienware stuff, but it's a good, solid, functional case. Lots of room for lots of hardware. And lots of really big fans to keep it all cool.

Oh, you're probably wondering about the graphics card. I had just bought a new EVGA GeForce GTX ​

​980 Ti, so that was going to be carried over. This card replaced a Quadro K4200. I initially went with a Quadro because I just wanted something fast and reliable. I have since come to the conclusion that the Quadro cards are best left to the big studios. I get as good if not better performance with the GeForce card (actually more RAM and CUDAs than the Quadro) and it was 20% cheaper.

The last piece of hardware, which is not up on the list, I got for free. My friend said he had a backplane (pictured right) he wasn't using and said he'd ship it to me. I have 3 free slots in the front of my case, and this slides right in there, and it will hold 5 hard drives. That sounds like a lot, but I have a Blackmagic 4k video camera, and a ​​Canon Mark III. ​​Between the editing work I do, and the photos and videos I shoot, I fill up a lot of drive space pretty fast. So, I have been using an external drive bay which holds 8 hard drives to store all my media. It's connected via USB3, so it's really not that great as far as speed. The new backplane would connect the five drives via SATAIII. So, that's gonna give me a nice speed boost. But, I know what you're thinking: it would only hold 5 drives, and I just said I was currently using 8 in the external enclosure. Yup. That's a problem. More on that later. Here's another problem: I expected the backplane to just slide right into the front of the case. Easy peasy. Right? I was mistaken.

Turns out the backplane would not fit in my case. You see, each slot in my case has tabs that are meant to hold and support the component (like a cd drive) which you slide in there. The sides of the backplane were hitting those and wouldn't fit. After googling the problem, the answer seemed to be just bend the tabs. With a hammer.

Really.Ok. More on that later... No big deal, since I've still got an entire computer to assemble. I'll worry about it later. Worst case I just hook up the old enclosure.

​​So, see that Samusung 950 SSD drive at the bottom of the component list up there (and pictured to the left)? Well that was the first major snag. See, that's some fancy new SSD stuff. It's wicked cool, very small and plugs right into the motherboard. So, it's very fast. Only problem is, Windows 7 had no idea what it was. I guess I should note that I will continue to run Windows 7 Ultimate on the new build. I have so far refused to upgrade to Windows 10 because ...well... Windows 10 has been reported to just uninstall things without notice and basically spy on everything you do. I'm sure at some point, for compatibility reason, I'll be forced to upgrade. For now, no thanks. I think I'll stick with Windows 7... no matter how much my machine might argue otherwise ...

Now, I tried installing the drivers which I downloaded from Samsung's site and burned to a CD, but could not get Windows to recognize them as valid drivers. This could have been an issue with Windows, with the drivers, or something I did wrong. I have no idea. But, after Googling the problem, I was relieved that I was not alone in my failure. And I was also relieved to find a few workarounds. The solution I chose was to connect a regular hard drive, and install the OS to that. So, I ordered a new 6TB hard drive. This would solve several problems:

1. Allow me to install the OS.

2. Allow me to consolidate the 8 drives I currently have in the external bay down to 5. (They're all 2TB and 3TB drives, so I can get 3 drives worth onto the new 6TB drive.)

Ok fine. That should solve the problem. But for now I'm dead in the water until the drive arrives. By this point I was fairly frustrated. Everything was finally assembled (took me the better part of the day because of setback like having to install the fan/motherboard twice because I misread the directions), and now I couldn't even get the OS installed and get the machine running. Grrrrr!

Feeling the need to let of a little steam, I turned to the only problem I was still able to solve. Those tabs. Those pesky tabs that were in the way of my backplane. So I got out my toolbox...and…

That's right. Hammer time. I grabbed my hammer and pounded those %^&*# tabs flat until the backplane would slide right in. This was actually a very good stress reliever. And it felt good to be able to make a bit more progress.

Days later when the new drive arrived, I popped it in and installed Windows normally without any issue. Once that was done, I installed all the additional drivers for the motherboard etc and then got online. I downloaded the Samsung SSD drivers again, and this time was able to get them loaded and Windows was able to recognize the new drive. I initialized it, and then cloned the data from the HDD to the Samsung SSD. Samsung actually had their own cloning utility that made this very easy. Then I shut down, popped the HDD out and tried to boot with just the SSD with the OS cloned to it. I crossed my fingers, I pushed the power button...eagerly waited for the machine to boot (or not boot)...and it came up! Everything checked out. Ok great. So now I popped the HDD back in, cleaned it to remove the old install, and was now ready to keep going.

The next problem I had was a shortage of SATA ports on the motherboard. With a CD drive, 2 internal SSD's and 7 more internal HDD's (there already a 2 drive backplane that comes installed with the case + the 5 new ones), I'd need 10 SATA ports. The motherboard only had 6. Ok, nothing more money can't solve. So, I bought an expansion card to give me 8 more SATA slots. Of course now i had to wait even longer for that part to be delivered.

EVENTUALLY, after almost 2 weeks, and many headaches I finally have my system up and running. "Was it worth it", you ask? "In the end, did it all pay off", you ask? "Just how fast of a machine do you have after all that", you ask? Well, let's just take a stroll over to Control Panel\All Control Panel Items\Performance Information and Tools and see:

What does this mean? I'll admit I had no idea. In fact, at first I was kinda angry about a 7.8. Why don't I have closer to a 10??? So I looked it up. This is from Windows' website regarding Windows 7 users and performance scores:

As of July 2010, few people own 7.9-ranked computers. There are only a handful listed on WEI Share, a website where people compare their index scores. But it’s a goal that will grow more attainable as more advanced computer components become the norm.

Microsoft program manager (and blogger) Scott Hanselman attempted to build a computer that was fast enough to reach the 7.9 limit. For his supercomputer (which he dubbed “GOM,” or God’s Own Machine), he set a $3,000 limit and bought a six-core processor, a GTX 285 graphics card, and a low-voltage desktop memory system with 12 gigabytes (GB) of RAM.

Almost perfect

Yet he still only reached 7.8. "Getting to 7.9 is possible, but man, it’s not easy," Hanselman said. "For now, until off-the-shelf things get faster, you’ll need some experience in overclocking, possibly a RAID disk array, and a lot of patience. Truly, if you get over 7.7, you’ve got one of the fastest machines out there.”

Awesome! Right? Well, I'm not really sure how reliable this score is. BUT...we'll go with it. So, yeah. It was totally worth it. Though, it was a lot more trouble than I bargained for, and many times I vowed I would never do this ever, ever again. And there were definitely a few times I came really close to throwing the whole box out the window and just buying a Mac.

​Ok...no, not really. It never got quite that bad. Now that I'm done, and looking at the end result it's easier to justify the headaches. I'm sure several years from now, when it's time to do this all over again, the pain and frustration will be faded memories, overshadowed by the many, many (hopefully) awesome things I'll have created with my new,lightning fast computer!

Which means...now I have no excuse for not making amazing things and filling up this blog with all kinds of amazing images and videos. Stay tuned!

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