Roll Your Own

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in October 1998, contributed by then Contributing Editor Pete Leoni. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

You know your way around a computer don’t you?

You’ve installed a modem or two, hey, you’ve even slapped in a new hard drive or two, and just maybe you’ve upgraded your processor as well.

In that case, what are you doing on the phone calling Dell or Gateway? It’s time to cut the technical umbilical cord and roll your own.

OK, you say, I think I can do that but why should I? Why not just phone MegaComp or take ride down the road to the nearest CompuSuperPlus and grab the latest Pentathlon 450 with all of the bells and whistles?

There are a lot of reasons why you should not. Number One being the fact that these machines are not made with the digital audio user in mind, they are optimized for Dad to run TurboTax or Brother to play Quake, And Number two, we can save a lot of money!

What we need is a lean mean audio machine, so roll up your sleeves and let’s get started.

Disclaimer: I will list websites where you can buy some of the gear I mention in my article. This isn’t an endorsement per se, because I have not evaluated all of the companies that sell computer gear – and neither has anyone else for that matter! But I have had reasonably good experience with the companies mentioned….

The Case

Let’s begin with the case. For our purposes we need at least a mid-tower ATX case. These have at least three 5.5 inch drive bays, a couple of 3.5 bays and most important of all, plenty of room for air to circulate.

Most of the items we are going to discuss today I am going to recommend that you purchase on the web, but the case is one that you might want to consider getting locally, as any savings you may have will most likely be eaten up with shipping charges. In any case, (no pun intended), an ATX mid-tower case with a 235 to 250 watt power supply should cost you around $70. One more thing, if the case you find has only one fan (and most do) it would be a good idea to add and additional fan to the front of the case, where you will likely find a port made this purpose

The Motherboard

Here is one item that we never want to scrimp on. If you attempt to save money here you will no doubt lose it down the road when the time comes to upgrade.

Fortunately for us, at this time the choice is rather simple. I wholeheartedly recommend the ABIT BH6. This is a board that is ready for the future for a number of good reasons. The first one is the Intel BX chipset. Even if you didn’t upgrade your processor and only changed to a motherboard with a BX chipset you would still achieve better performance. In addition to a host of other advances (all of which we don’t have time to get into), the BX chipset allows the processor to address more than one page of memory at a time, sorta like holding your fingers in a book to mark your place.

The BH6 has three dimm slots, which can hold over 300 Mbs of cacheable memory, 5-pci slots, 2 ISA and one AGP slot. Consider as well the ABIT Soft Menu. In short we no longer have jumpers to contend with! All parameters of the Bios including CPU speed, (up to 600+ Mhz!) Cpu voltage, multiplier etc. are set in software from the computer screen. No more fumbling around with needle-nose pliers or tweezers. Halleluja!

Another nice feature of these ATX type boards is that all external connectors (i.e. parallel serial USB mouse etc,) are directly mounted on the motherboard itself, thus eliminating the need for cables and one more source of confusion when assembling the computer. The ABIT BX6 is widely available around the web for about $100 to $110 dollars. Not a bad deal at all for a board as advanced as this. I purchased mine @ sunshinestar.com for $107.

The Memory

Another area where it pays to buy the best is memory. The speeds of today’s systems and buses are rapidly increasing to the point where memory is starting to become the weak link in the chain. Therefore always buy a major brand memory that meets or exceeds the PC 100 spec, in doing so you will ensure that the memory will be fast enough to keep up with whatever CPU you choose to install, whether it runs at the 66 or 100 Mhz clock.

Be aware of the fact that future chips are likely to exceed the 100 Mhz clock speed, so it may be a good idea to be prepared. I use ECC type memory, which incorporates error correction algorithms. It may cost a little more, but the extra insurance is worth it. I paid $108 for 64 MB’s at Memoryshippers.com. (you will need at least 64 MB’s)

The Hard Drives

Here again I can make a specific recommendation.

A wise choice for performance and economy is either the Maxtor 2880 or 2500 series drives. The Maxtor 2880 series run @ 5400 rpm and incorporate high-density platters that allow them to achieve sustained transfer rates of 11 to 12.5 Mbs! That is no misprint, and yes, it is almost twice the rate of previous EIDE and even UDMA drives of the same RPM.

One important point: Note that all Maxtor 2880 series drives are not created equally. The 5.7, 8.4 and 11.5 GB drives are the drives that meet the proceeding specs, the others are older drive models that are still being sold under the 2880 banner. I suspect that you will see less and less of these in the future as stock diminishes, but a heads up is in order.

If you still want to squeeze a few more Mbs of throughput, go for the Maxtor 2500 series drives. These are also UDMA drives of some what less density per platter but they run at the higher speed of 7200 rpm, and are capable of 12 to 14 Mbs. All of these drives are truly screamers and rival or exceed SCSI performance at a fraction of the price. You can find these drives around the web for about $150 to $300 depending on the size. I would recommend buying the largest you can afford. Remember, 24 bit recording is here, and it is quite a bit more “drive hungry” than 16 bit recording is.

The CPU (My favorite part)

Ahh – the CPU, the Brain, the heart of the system.

I for one don’t care to be tied down to a proprietary DSP card that may, or may not support my choice of software in the future. I want to run all of the Direct-X software effects I can get my hands on. Therefore I want all the CPU power I can get. As everyone knows, if you want super speed you have no choice but to go and get yourself a high-speed Pentium II and spend megabucks right?
Well. Err. No! Not anymore! Intel has been waging a war against its competitors for control of the CPU market. In the midst of this war, Intel in their infinite wisdom launched a chip known as the Celeron. The original Celeron was essentially a Pentium II without the L2 cache and clock locked to run at lower speeds. The Celeron was made to fit in Intel’s ubiquitous “slot 1” and the general idea was to make life hard for the other chip manufacturers who still were using the older socket 7 technology.

The only trouble was the chips couldn’t hold their own against the socket 7 competitors and all of the PC mags dutifully reported this shortcoming. Thus, it was head-scratching time at Intel. How was Intel to get back that lost market share? What then occurred, in my opinion, was the quick release of an advanced technology that was actually slated for later production.

Voila! The “New And Improved” Mendecino core Celeron “A” series. Intel’s new “socket 7 fighter”. The new Celeron A series chips *do* incorporate 128k of L2 cache, but here is the big difference, this cache runs at the same speed as the processor itself, and even better it is incorporated into the same slab of silicon as the main processor. Bottom line? (Pssst! Intel does not want you to know this) the Celeron “A” series chips will slightly outperform even the full blown Pentium II chips of an equal speed, because the L2 cache on the Pentium II, though a larger 512K, runs at a much slower speed.

The Celeron A chip is currently available in 300 and 333 speeds, with higher speed chips slated for the future. At this point you may be saying to yourself, self, I already have a Pentium 2xx or so and a 300 or 333 Mhz chip just isn’t that much faster.

Not necessarily! A 300 Mhz Celeron A chip in combination with the Intel BX chipset is probably gonna smoke your current setup, even if you are running up to a PII 266 or so on one of the older motherboards. Remember that the motherboard itself is a large contributor to the total speed of the system. The Celeron A chips are available around the web for around $165 for the 300 Mhz. And around $195 for the 333 Mhz chips.

Word of caution: Make sure you get the Celeron “A” series chip, not the older Celeron chips without L2 cache, this is a new item, and there may be some confusion. Word of caution number 2: This chip is so new and was rushed into production so quickly that at the time of this writing, relatively few motherboards have bio’s that can detect the chip. My advice is buy the ABIT BH6, it will recognize the chip out of the box, and no tricky bios flashing is necessary.

Overclocking

Are you the adventuresome type?

Do you have balls err, nerves of steel?

Well in that case I have good news for you. There is every probability that the Celeron 300A in combination with the ABIT BH6 motherboard chip will reach 450 Mhz, and even somewhat exceed the performance of the Pentium II 450.

Before I go an inch further let me state clearly, Proceed at Your Own Risk! You are taking a chance of destroying your $165 or so investment in the chip.

That being said, I am currently running my Celeron 300A chip at 450 Mhz with absolutely no problems at all.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Tom’s Hardware Guide, and Anandtech web pages. On these sites you can find just about everything that you need to know about these chips and overclocking in general. I strongly suggest that you surf on over and absorb everything you can about overclocking before attempting it.

There are many issues to consider. One such issue is heat. Overclocking a chip generates higher heat, which in turn can lead a shorter lifespan for the chip. If you do decide to try overclocking, read all you can about these issues at these sites.

I was lucky enough to get a chip which runs very cool and I was able to use the standard heatsink with it, but there are some reports of Celeron 300A chips which required raising the core voltage from the standard 2.0 volts to as high as 2.3. It is my understanding that most of these chips are running fine at normal or slightly higher voltages, but again let me stress, it can be crapshoot. One more item: It is the Celeron A 300 Mhz chip, *not* the 333 Mhz chip that is the overclocking candidate, due to the way Intel clock locks the chips.

How to put it all together.

For the purposes of this article I am going to assume that most of you have a fairly good knowledge of computers in general and know how to perform tasks like f-disk and format. If you don’t, I’ll bet you have a friend that does. Invite him over, order a pizza, make him some coffee, offer him your significant other. No wait a minute that’s going too far. At the least have someone on the hook that you can phone to bail you out if you get in over your head. In any case, my intention here is to outline the basic procedures for assembling a bare bones, but high performance audio computer from the components that I am using and recommend, not go into the finer details.

1. Attach the motherboard to the case using the standoffs that are included with the case.

2. Insert your memory in the proper slots. (Always start with the lowest number memory slot first) Consult the schematic in you BH6 manual.

3. Attach the heatsink to the CPU (you’ll figure it out) and push the CPU chip firmly, but carefully into the motherboard. Be sure it is all the way in, I have seen many reports of trouble associated with this simple mistake.

4. Attach the floppy drive (You did buy a floppy drive didn’t you?) to the case and run the cable from the board to the drive, remember the end with the twist in it goes to the floppy and the red stripe always goes to pin 1. You may have to look closely, but pin 1 will be indicated somewhere on the drive. On the motherboard pin 1 will be indicated by a mark in the schematic in the BH6 manual ( A pretty good one, with only few humorous translation problems)

5. Attach your hard drives. Remember that your boot drive needs to be set as the master (look on the back of your drive for proper jumper settings) on IDE channel 1, again per schematic in your manual. Remember that pin 1 always goes to the red stripe on the cable. (Note that in many cases this will be determined automatically by keys on the cables, but just in case, chant this mantra to yourself over and over: RED STRIPE TO PIN 1, RED STRIPE TO PIN 1 RED! *Note* I had to place both of my hard drives on IDE channel 1, as master/slave and put my CD-ROM on IDE channel 2 as this was the only way I could get busmastering to work.(more on that later) You may find a different arrangement is necessary.

6. Put your monitor card in (BTW I will make another recommendation here, get a 4 Mb AGP display card with theTrident chipset, they are sold under various brand names (Mine is a Daytona) and are very reasonable at about $40 or less. They are quiet, dependable and do not hog up the pci bus, while having more that enough performance to run audio graphics at any resolution.

7. Get your glasses (if you are an old fart of 40 or more like me) and hook up all of those tiny little connectors that go to the switches and LED’s. Interestingly, although it is not noted in the manual, the white wires are usually the ground and the multi-colored ones are the positive leads, it does make a difference with LED’s. Consult the schematic in your manual.

8. Assuming that you got this far, and everything is hooked up correctly, it is time to set the bios. Plug your keyboard, monitor and mouse in the proper holes, plug in the AC and push the switch. As soon as you see the screen push Del and make the proper adjustments to the Soft menu section of the BH6 bios, that is, tell the bios what type of cpu you have installed and what speed etc. (This may be a good time to consult your friend the guru)

9. Go to the proper section of the bios screen and set the drives to auto.

10. Use a Windows 98 Startup disk to boot up F-disk and format. Even if you are going to use Windows 95b use a Windows 98 startup disk to F-disk and format. It is an amazing program that automates the f-disk and format procedures, and automatically places dos drivers for your CD-ROM in a virtual hard disk that it creates in memory (thus allowing you immediate access to your CD-R. Using F-disk partition your drives, format using the Z-64 switch so you will get the largest block sizes available. (look elsewhere in this webzine for details)

11. Install the Windows of your choice from the CD-ROM, check the DMA box in the hard disk section of device manager, install the standard busmastering controllers in the hard disk controller section of same, install your soundcard, software and get ready to Rock and Roll cause you just put together one hell of a fast computer for a fraction of what it would cost you in at Mega-Comp-U-House

12. Pat yourself on the back and sleep peacefully knowing that not only have you built one screamin’ audio machine you’ve saved a lot of cash.

Special thanks to David Alvarado systems engineer extraordinaire for offering all of us his advice and for pointing all of us More-For-Less club members in the right direction.

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