Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Leaving Well Enough Alone

The last PC I built from scratch was a Pentium 4 3.06ghz screamer for elder daughter.

I used a Lian Li aluminum case that was similar to the one on my own system, and added the then top of the line ATI Radeon 9700 Pro graphics card to support her gaming needs. The motherboard was the Gigabyte GA-KNXP, and had all the bells and whistles.

Everything worked great when powered up, except for one rather noticeable issue - the thing sounded like a vacumn cleaner on steroids. It was unbelievable. I went through the process of isolating each fan, trying to determine what was causing all the racket. No one device seemed to be responsible, it was just the sum total of a lot of cooling for a lot of heat producing chips.

I tried adding sound damping material to the inside of the case, but to no real effect. And so the situation continued for some time, with occasional pleas to "DO SOMETHING".

As it is now school break, I finally had the time and opportunity to take the offending system apart and try again. The stimulus for action was the announcement that a very well reviewed "silent PC" case was finally available in Singapore. The item in question is the Antec Sonata II, a black monolith of a tower case, supposedly engineered to reduce noise to a minimum.

I purchased the case and set about moving the existing motherboard and components to the new case. Inside, it looks pretty conventional, with the addition of an air baffle that directs cold air directly over the CPU.

The transfer went smoothly, and after a final check, power was applied and the new system fired up. With pretty much the same amount of noise as before. Clearly, the noise was not going to be fixed quickly.

Taking another look at the situation, it was clear that the CPU fan was a major source of noise, rotating at more 6000 RPM. The heat sink/fan combo was the stock Intel kit provided with the CPU which I had purchased retail. Doing some research on the web, I came across the weird and wonderful world of heat sinks, fans, and case modding. Marvellous creations made from solid copper, aluminium, and other exotic metals are available. Water cooling is available. Heat pipes are available. Shapes run the gamut from simple square blocks to circular objects that could happily be shown in a modern art gallery.

As usual though, choice is constrained by the realities of Singapore retail inventory, and so it was off to Sim Lim to see what was in stock. I ended up with a Thermaltake Golf 325 heat sink and a Cooler Master fan to go with it. In the process I passed on a 798gm monstrosity with fins and heat pipes. It looked like it belonged in a nuclear cooling tower.

Back home, it was time to gingerly remove the existing fan and heat sink. The only real danger is that the thermal paste applied between the CPU and the heat sink will have hardened. Luckily, the old rig came off easily, and after cleaning and applying new thermal paste, the new heat sink and fan were attached with some difficulty.

Everything was reassembled and the system fired up. A lot less noise, but still an annoying whine. Checking inside revealed that it was from the fan on the graphics card.


Close everything back up, fire up the machine, and blue screen, then death. Try again. No beeps, no indication that anything was happening. The motherboard was powering up, the drives were spinning, but no boot.

Had I cracked the CPU while installing the heat sink? Had I zapped a chip with static? (With humidity at 80%, static is not a major issue in Singapore...) I don't have another motherboard to test the chip or do troubleshooting. Reluctantly, I decided to remove the heat sink and take out the CPU. I needed to verify where the problem was, and that meant eliminating variables. Quick trip to Sim Lim, and managed to get a repair shop to put the chip into a motherboard and it booted.

OK, so now it was looking more and more like something had happened to the motherboard. Because I had been using the onboard RAID controller to run the hard disks, I was concerned that all data would be lost if a different controller was used.
I made the rounds of the shops to see if the same board was available, but it was not.

I called the Gigabyte distributor who said that the board was no longer available "because it had problems"! Well thanks for telling me, and so much for warranties and recalls. After years of using Gigabyte motherboards, that really stinks.

With no other choice, I bought a new ASUS motherboard that was highly reviewed on the fan sites - the P4P800E Deluxe. Very nicely layed out, and with 8 USB ports and 1 Firewire port, perfect for what we needed. The board went into the Sonata II easily, components were installed, and the system fired up. IT WORKED!

Lesson learned: Electronic equipment rarely tolerates being handled after it has been running for a long time. It is better to replace than upgrade.

First action: Ignore lesson learned.

With the video card fingered as the noise culprit and with the determination to beat the noise demon still upon me, another trip to Sim Lim, and the acquisition of a Thermaltake Schooner II fanless VGA heatsink ensued. This amazing piece of kit is composed of two black finned heat sinks, a copper heat pipe to join the front and back heat sinks, and a copper heat pipe and radiator which sticks out the back of the PC. Assembly was non trivial, but eventually accomplished and the now fanless ATI graphics card inserted.

Power was applied, the system booted, and there was peace. CPU temperature now showing as 38C vs. 46C before. Mission accomplished.

Total damage: PC case, CPU heat sink, fan, VGA heat sink, motherboard - S$551

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