Last week I ordered a bunch of components for building a new computer. The main reason is that I want to be able to use triple screens with Eyefinity, and my current setup can’t handle that. I’ve been using dual monitors for about 7 years and never looked back, but I would like some more screen estate, especially when working in Photoshop and the likes, and playing 3D games. Games like Dragon Age (I/II) etc works fine with dual screens, but I find it annoying that all texts etc are split in the middle between two screens. For better vertical resolution, I will use my three 21″ Dell screens with IPS panels with extreme viewing angles and a lot better color depth than “normal” computer screens. And they can pivot, meaning I can place them vertically. The full resolution will be 3150×1680 with an aspect ratio of 15:8, slightly wider than standard 16:9 widescreen. And since my current computer is 5 years old, I thought it was about time to buy a new rig anyway.
The thing I enjoy most about getting a new computer is to build the case. To be able to fit the 3-slot wide, passively cooled graphics card alongside the CPU cooler, I could not go with a 17x17cm Mini-ITX motheboard this time as I have for my last two builds, but had to step up a level to a 24x24cm Micro-ATX instead. The size for the components are perfect for a case that I will build out of a small wooden chest. I will try to make the chest to look as close to the original as possible, not revealing that it actually contains a computer until you get a closer look at the sides and the rear.
Since everything but the CPU is passively cooled, even the PSU, the case will require some airflow as to not overheat. I will go for a silent 12cm fan on each side with adjustable speed that you can turn up if needed while playing heavy games or during a hot summer (Or I can just open the chest lid). The big problem will be to have air vents in the chest without it looking too strange. Right now I’m in the decision process on whether I will cut a 12x12cm hole on each side and place a fan grill above them, or if I will simply cut a lot of smaller holes in the chest around where the fan will be placed on the inside.
Two days ago I downloaded Google SketchUp, a free 3D modeling program, to do a design draft and make sure all components will fit. It was quite easy to learn, and after about a total of 8 hours learning and designing, I’ve come up with this. All done from scratch:
The lid in the model is semi transparent in order to actually see the parts inside the chest. Everything is made with millimeter precision, and I’ve used my slide caliper plenty to measure everything correctly. To be less then modest, I’m quite impressed with the progress I’ve made in this short time. I do have previous 3D modeling experience, but that was back in 1995-96 in Autodesk 3D Studio for DOS. I can tell you this: SketchUp is a lot easier to learn.
The computer components are all top notch, and it’s hard to get better components than these without a major step up in price:
After scrapping the Typewriter Project, I’ve been searching for a new case to house my new HTPC/NAS/Web server. I first bought a 50’s Centrum radio at the Tradera auction site. Unfortunately, when I got it the glass front was cracked and beyond salvation due to either bad packaging or bad handling by the delivery firm (or both).
I decided to replace it with plexiglass in front of a custom background printed on photo paper.
After having gutted the radio, cut and filed the plexiglass, measuring everything to a precise fit and ordering the parts, I browsed in to Tradera again. And almost fell in love. By that time there was 2 hours left with only one bidder for the auction of a Bakelite-cast Philips radio with room enough to fit everything I need for it. I won the auction paid 315 SEK for it, plus shipping.
Now I have received all parts for the computer except the radio itself and a slot-in DVD-drive that I ordered from eBay.
If you are not interested in technical mumbo jumbo, you can stop reading now.
AMD ATHLON 64 X2 5050E which I got almost 300SEK cheaper due to an error on the distributor’s part. I talked with the seller and he told me I would get the lower price anyway since I had already paid for it when the error was discovered.
2 x Western Digital 1TB Caviar GP (I already have 2 x 500GB drives which I will add at a later time)
Kingston HyperX DDR2 2GB 800MHz CL5. Only one memory slot on the board, and it doesn’t seem to support more than 2GB-
LIAN-LI EX-34 drive cage/cooler. Since I am going to use a total of 4 HDD’s in a custom case, it is way easier to use a pre-built drive cage than build your own.
FSP AC-DC 200W SFX12V PSU. Since both the PSU, motherboard and the drives all have very low power consumption, this should be more than enough. Plus, it’s way smaller than a normal ATX-PSU which wouldn’t fit in the radio.
Slimline slot-in USB-powered CDRW/DVD drive.
First I tried to install Windows XP (Professional N Edition). Since I am using the drives in a RAID-1 configuration, I pressed F6 when asked to provide the needed drivers.
If you didn’t already know, SCSI and RAID configurations in XP requires that you before installing insert a floppy with the needed drivers. The problem is that the motherboard (where the RAID controller is located) doesn’t have a floppy connector. To get around that, I prepared a USB stick using HP Drive Key Boot Utility, making the USB stick appear like a floppy (and only holding 1.44MB). Unfortunately, XP’s installation procedure refused to recognize the USB stick as a floppy and would not read the drivers from it. This ment there was no way for XP to find the drives where the installation should take place.
I then decided to slipstream the drivers onto a custom installation CD using nLite. This worked fine and the installation went fine. However, upon starting windows for the very first time, I got a short bluescreen followed by a reboot. This happened again and again and Windows simply wouldn’t start. What I didn’t know at the time was that since the RAID drivers wasn’t signed, Windows diecided to replace them with it’s own default drivers during the final stages of installation. These did of course not work with the RAID controller, resulting in the repeating crash.
After much frustration I decided to give up and try Windows 7 RC, which had been released some day before. I had used the WIndows 7 public beta on my Eee 1000H previously, but switched back to Xp after about a month. I convinced myself that the RC would be better and I would feel more comfortable with it. So after some hunting down, I found a good ISO, burned it and installed Windows 7 on the machine. No hassle with drivers were needed, Windows found the RAID array all by itself. However, some time after installing Windows I started to get messages about the RAID array dropping out. Removing and rebuilding the array helped for a while, but the error returned. By this time (around a full day) I was also getting sick of Window 7’s I-will-not-let-you-decide-anything-on-your-own-because-humans-can’t-be-trusted attitude. Since this will be both a web server and a NAS, I want full control of it. Most of all, I want to feel that I am in full control of it. So buh-bye Windows 7!
During this time, I had learned about the fault in my first slipstreamed XP CD and re-did it. Only this time, I instead of only adding my new RAID drivers I also removed XP’s default RAID drivers – Success! Installation went smooth, XP started as it should and no RAID error messages. For a while. Happy that everything was working as it should, I started to transfer files from the existing computers in the home network to the new computer (as this should now serve as file server). Copying some data, moving some. Stupid, stupid Frank. After a few hours, I rebooted the computer for some reason and noticed that the RAID controller during POST blinked red, stating that the array was degraded! I removed and re-added the drives from the array, but for some reason it refused to be rebuilt. What was worse, Windows now refused to start, giving bluescreens and rebooted every single time. I disconnected the drives from the motherboard computer and hooked them up to my other computer. During bootup, Windows wanted to check for consistency on the drives. Fine, I thought. Perhaps this will solve the problem. I went away from the computer and came back a while later, still doing the consistency check. Only the screen said “Deleting index $blablabla from blablabla” or something like that. I got some bad vibes but didn’t want to turn off the computer in the middle of that process. Windows then started, and the drives were almost empty.
Personal data I always keep backed up, so no worries there. What was really sour was that I lost about 250GB of movies and shows that I hadn’t watched yet. Many of them really hard to get, like Green Hornet (a TV show from 1966 starring among others Bruce Lee) or HD versions of various good movies. Plus all programs, games and other goodies. Well, what are you going to do – it’s not going to do anything good moping.
The real problem
After much searching and many, many forum threads later, I learned about TLER.
Apparently, it is quite common that a disk gets a read or write error under disk operations. When this happens on a normal desktop disk, the drive will enter a recovery cycle, attempting to repair, recover and reallocate the data. This cycle can take anywhere from less than a second to up to a couple of minutes. Since RAID controllers are designed to handle these errors by themselves, RAID-specific disks (often costing twice as much) have a feature called TLER, or Time Limited Error Recovery (name may vary with vendor), which prevents the hard drive from entering into a recovery cycle longer than 7 seconds. Without this feature, both the hard disk itself and the RAID controller will try to fix the problem at the same time.
Most RAID controllers will deactivate a disk in an array if it doesn’t respond in 8 to 15 seconds. Since my drives didn’t have TLER enabled, whenever they encountered a problem taking more time to fix than allowed by the controller, it would get thrown out of the RAID array. The remaining disk would keep on working as usual, and I would not be aware of the problem until the disks were completely unsynchronized. When rebuilding the RAID array without being able to synchronize, errors would occur and Windows would not boot.
Luckily, there is a small tool from Western Digital [Google] that enables you to turn on TLER their disks that normally has this disabled. I used the tool, and presto – no more problems! Too bad I didn’t know that before losing all that data and having to reinstall Windows yet another time.
I will hopefully get my radio some time this week so that I can put everything in it (right now the motherboard is mounted on a piece of plexi glass with distances in between. I would like to cut a slot in the top of the radio for feeding discs to the DVD reader, but I am a bit afraid of cutting in bakelite. Anyone have any experience? I don’t want to ruin it completely so I might be mounting the DVD drive under the radio instead, adding bigger rubber feet to it if needed.