Building Your Own CG Workstation: Part Three

Building Your Own CG Workstation: Part Three

No Power

Push the power button as much as you want and everything is dead-o. Yikes!

Don't panic, I tell myself, because here's where one of the most important rules of problem-solving with computers comes in: think the problem through logically, reduce the amount of variables to the problem until you have the fewest, then use the manual (or internet article) to re-check those variables and possible solutions.

Of course, I was nervous, because even after building several computers it's possible to make a mistake that will ruin the build (an unfortunate disadvantage of building your own system). Now, I know that the power cord has power since it's coming from the same outlet that I used for my previous computer, and the new power cord looks fine. Sniffing around the PSU, I didn't smell anything burnt. The inside of the case looks fine once I take the side panel off. Checking the power line from the PSU to the motherboard (2 of them) and they are both tight. It seems like the problem is with the motherboard simply not getting the power it needs to boot, since all the other hardware looks good right up to the motherboard.

Usually, a motherboard will have a few small lights on the board which start up when you plug the power cord into the PSU. In fact, some have small LCDs on them that give you post codes which, when checked in the manual, tell you what the problem is. ASUS doesn't have one of these, but there still should be some small lights that work on the board. So, I undid the power cord, made sure it was securely plugged into it's own outlet, re-checked the switch, plugged it back in and...

Nothing. No Power to the motherboard.

Time to open the case back up and find out what the problem is. Got the monitor and all the rest detached and carried this (heavy) case over to the work table to problem solve.

The first thing to do is to make sure that the two power plugs into the motherboard are correct and secure. For the ASUS P6T, the motherboard manual states that there are two places where you attach power: one is a large 24-pin connector and the 2nd is a small 8-pin (12 volt) connector. No other sources of power (remember “reduced variables”?).

The first connector is tight and looks good. The 2nd one...ah, it's a 4-pin power connector, where the manual says: "Do not forget to connect the 4-pin/8-pin EATX 12 volt power plug; otherwise the system will not boot."


Page in ASUS manual on the power connections

Hmnn, it says 4-pin or 8-pin. If my memory is correct from my last build, it was an 8-pin connector, but when I look at the actual connector on the ASUS motherboard there are only 4- pins available. I grab my little flashlight and look closer.

What the hell? There seems to be some sort of black cover over 4 other pins on the board. A quick Google search on my laptop brings up the problem: ASUS, without mentioning it in the manual, has placed a black cover over 4 of the pins. This must be the problem; the motherboard needs 8 pins in order to boot. So if I remove the black cover and plug in the 8- pin connector instead of the 4-pin, the system should boot.


Left side: closed pins / Right side: open 8-pin connector

It seems that because it was dark in this corner of the case, I was unable to see the dark cover on the 8-pin connector. Tricky getting it off, but a little work with a pencil and a pair of tweezers did it and you can see the full 8-pins in the above picture (right side). After plugging in the correct power connector and making sure the cable was snug behind the motherboard, I closed up the case and brought it back over to my PC table to re-attach the monitor, power cable, and all the rest. Fingers securely crossed this time.

YES! Power on and the machine is booting!

I think I'm taking back my thanks to ASUS because of this odd omission in their manual. They should have stated that the 8-pin connector had 4 pins covered, and if you need the other 4 pins - remove the covering. Strange that they'd have it there in the first place. I couldn't find an answer after a bit of research. Be that as it may, we are onto the last part of our new computer build.

Post Build Testing/Problem-Solving

Actually, I left out a step before you test the computer: you have to adjust the bios and load in the operating system, in my case Windows 7, 64-bit. The testing comes after you have loaded in the operating system.

The bios for a motherboard controls the basic in/out switches and levels for your computer. Think of it as what's under the hood of your car. You interact with your car's engine (the bios) by looking at the panels inside of your car, but the basic controls are under the hood. So it is with your computer.

Accessing the bios is pretty easy as you simply have to hold down a particular keyboard key when the motherboard logo flashes on the screen. You'll see the note at the bottom of the screen to hold down the "delete" key to access bios. In my case, I have the American Megatrends bios, which are excellent to work with.

Here's how you provide basic info to the bios and set it up to load your Operating system from the CD rom. Once the computer starts booting and you get to the logo screen, you hit "delete" until the main menu for the bios appears. At this point, you enter the date, time and check to see if the drives and your ram show up. Each bios topic division is at the top of the screen and you access each one by using the arrow keys and the enter key. Instructions are at the bottom of the screen.

The main bios topics for the ASUS P6T Deluxe v2 are: Main, AI Tweaker, Advanced, Power, Boot, Tools and Exit. The bios set up program is under the Main topic. Just use the down arrow keys to get to the section you want. All of the hard-drives, etc. and their names and sizes, along with CD Rom drive, should appear here. Mine are all there, so I'm looking good.


Changing the boot order in the motherboard Bios

Not much to change in the bios for simply loading in the operating system, but I do need to disable the floppy disk since I'm not using one. What I need to do now is to change the boot order so that the machine boots from the CD Rom first. This is pretty easy to do, so once that's done I hit F10 (save and exit bios) and the system re-boots, only this time, it will start with the CD Rom with the Windows 7 disc ready to install.

Sure enough, the Windows disc starts to load in files for the build and we are ready to install the operating system.

In the past, windows would take about 30-40 minutes to format the hard-drive and then load the operating system. In my system with the i7 920 CPU, it took about 15 minutes (or less, because I didn't expect it to be so fast and went to get a cup of coffee).

I decided not to use my old hard-drive as I was just going to have to load Windows XP back on to the drive at some point since I want to use my old computer as a render farm for CINEMA 4D. So, I bought a new Western Digital Caviar Black 640Gb drive and plugged it into the first SATA port on the motherboard. It's unformatted, so Windows asks you if you want to partition the drive (create separate sections like an E drive or an F drive). I generally don't like to partition my drives, so I use the whole drive and it took about 5 minutes. Amazing.

Oh, one little trick you should keep in mind when the Windows install wants to re-boot and continue: go back into the bios and change the boot order again so that you are booting from the hard-drive you just formatted. Be careful that you pick the correct drive, as I had two drives installed: one for the operating system and one for storage. You should be able to tell which drive is which by the size of the drive and the letters in front of the numerical values. In my case, I have Western Digital 640Gb (WD) and a Seagate 1.5 Tb (SG) drive, so it's easy to tell them apart.

Now, when the system starts it will boot into the Windows 7 installation to finish up. And, as I said, it was the fastest install I've ever had the pleasure to witness.

From fear that my install was wonky, to a Windows 7 desktop and a new CG workstation that is purring along very nicely. It's really a good feeling to know that something you put together with care actually works. This is one of the reasons I build my own systems.

Testing the Build


Windows 7 loading screen

While I can heave a big sigh of relief that the computer I've researched and assembled actually works, there is still testing to do to make sure that the system components will function well under stress. I bought a quad core CPU which, when you add Hyper-Threading, kicks the amount of computing threads up to 8, but can they stand up to several hours worth of continuous function at close to 100%? This is where you find out if the components of your build are all that they are cracked up to be.

Most home-builders like myself, either use free programs like memtest or prime9 to test their builds, but I like a more complete system of tests that will also give me information about my system components, as well as testing practically every piece of hardware in my build. For that, you have to shell out a few bucks. I chose PassMark Software's Burnin Test 6.0 and Performance Test 7.0. PassMark is an established software company whose programs have become standard at major review sites like Anandtech.com and Tomshardware.com. I added the Performance Test application because Passmark had a special on both for $44.

But before we get into testing, I want to mention why I chose Windows 7, 64-bit for my new operating system. I've had little faith in Windows since the major screw-up of Vista, but many positive reviews at trusted sites, plus running for several weeks on my new laptop convinced me that it was worth the money. The 64-bit version allows for a higher amount of RAM for the system ( I plan on upgrading to 12Gbs sometime this year). And practically every major CG application runs much better (and faster) on a 64-bit system, so I chose that version of Windows 7.

It's usually much better to do a clean install rather than an upgrade (lots of driver issues), and since there really is no viable upgrade from XP to Windows 7 (it's essentially a new installation), I decided to simply buy a new OEM version of Windows 7. The OEM version is cheaper as it doesn't come with a manual, etc., and is essentially limited to one machine, but that's not an issue for me. Newegg.com ships Windows 7 64-bit Professional OEM for around $140. Took me a bit of research to realize that I didn't need the Ultimate version of Windows 7; the Professional version is just fine for my needs.


Passed Passmark RAM and CPU tests

Both RAM and CPU tests crunched for over an hour, and both of them performed flawlessly. I also downloaded Real Temp (a CPU temperature program that reads all 4 core temps in real-time) and an essential application, CPU-Z, which reads all of the information about your CPU you'd ever want to know.

I decided to wait on over-clocking the CPU until I've had a chance to test everything and conduct more research on the best techniques for overclocking an i7 920 CPU. It's more complicated with this CPU and chipset, so I want to be sure I'm fully aware of what I'm doing before I start making changes to the bios. I don't plan on doing a large over-clock, but something more modest like 3.4 Ghz (the CPU standard clock speed is 2.66 Ghz).

Running Real Temp at the same time as I'm testing the RAM and CPU gives you a good idea of how the Prolima Megahalem heat sink is cooling the CPU when it's under stress. The results were good, but a little higher than I expected. At idle, the cores run at about 32 C and under full load (98%) they can get as high as 56 C. Most of the test results I read indicated that the Megahalem heat sinks kept the CPU under 50 C, but many forum posts indicated that my results were pretty standard. Plus, 56 C under load for an hour is well below any kind of overheating, so I'm good here. Still, I decided to go back to the "push/pull" arrangement of 120mm fans on the heat-sinks (I had taken one off and placed it at the bottom of the case pulling in air). Once I did this, I dropped a couple degrees C, so I'll keep it that way.


AeroCool Temp/Fan gauge/controls

Also, I added a cheap Aerocool front fan/temp indicator to keep track of my fan speeds and temps. The touch 1000 adds the ability to control 4 fans and check temps for the PC case, the GPU, the RAM and hard-drives. Installing was a bit of trouble as I suddenly had a lot of new connectors to hide/bundle, but it took about an hour and I was all set. I left the main fan on the heat-sink connected to the mobo so I won't get an alarm from the bios. Plus, you can't really attach a thermal sensor to the CPU once it's been installed and has a huge heat-sink attached, so I just placed a sensor near the center of the case for basic system temps.

Wrap Up & Suggestions

And there you have it. From selecting/researching the components, assembling them, problem-solving, installing an operating system and testing, I've got a very fast machine that's designed specifically to create machinima and computer graphics. From here, it's simply taking the time to load in back-up files and all of my applications. I've designed this computer to be a true workstation devoted solely to animation, so most of my daily emails/etc. will be on the new laptop I got for xmas (and where I'm typing this now). That way the system is kept clean of too many unnecessary software installs, etc.


Ricky and his new workstation

I've mentioned at the beginning of this project that the new workstation is built around CINEMA 4D and MachStudio Pro, but I'll also be loading in Moviestorm, IClone 4, Blender, Steam and the entire HL2 saga + tools, Dragon Age and it's toolset, plus the Torque Engine and Second Life (both of which I plan on learning a lot more this year). I've got plenty of space with a fast 640 Gb hard-drive, so it's onto installing.

Some of you have commented that after reading my posts on building a CG workstation, you'd like to try building your own system. I'm very glad to hear that since that was partially my goal in writing these articles chronicling my process of building a computer. If you are serious, there are several step-by-step guides on the net that would come in handy. GeekTeks has a nice overview of the process and Newegg.com has got a good tutorial which includes a review of the case I used (the HAF 932). If you like written tutorials, here's a nice one that goes into great detail: mysuperpc.com. I'm partial to Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs, since it comes with video tutorials and a written text as well. It's also a great bible for troubleshooting computer-related problems.

I'd also like to point out that choosing the components for your build is a subjective thing. What I'd pick, someone else might not. My choices are based on experience and research, so I'm comfortable. But you might end up with something else, since everyone's computer needs are different. Use this article as a starting point in figuring out what computer components work best for you.

Cost? My new workstation cost approximately $1000, but I used several parts from my old computer which brought the price down a bit. If I did this entire build from scratch, I estimate it would be about $1400, which is damn good considering the power and speed that this workstation is capable of.

However, I'd recommend that if you want to build your own computer, don't go with the i7 CPU as they are much more expensive than the i5 CPU, and the motherboards/Ram are much cheaper. Tomshardware.com has a nice series of system builds that include an i5 in the mix. And here's an excellent article on building a balanced Game PC from Tom's Hardware that goes over a lot of possible hardware choices.

And that's it for this 3 part article on building your own CG workstation. It's been a lot of fun for me to do and I hope you all have found it interesting.

And here are my final workstation specs:

Ricky's Machinima/CG Workstation Build:

Main Software: CINEMA 4D, MachStudio Pro, Poser 8, Vue Frontier, Adobe Premiere Pro CS4/Audition, Moviestorm, iClone, Blender 2.4, Torque Game Engine, Steam Games (Half Life 2 SDK), Dragon Age Toolset

Misc: Aereocool 1000 LCD temp/fan speed indicator for front panel

And, of course, a basic LCD monitor, keyboard and mouse. I use a 24” Dell monitor, a Saitek keyboard which lights up under the keys at night (and while you are playing games) and a Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse.

February Update: BSOD and Over-Clocking Results

I built this new system in January and have been tinkering with it ever since. In addition to overclocking the computer, I've been using it to do extensive digital audio work, 3D animation and DV editing. I've also recently over-clocked the CPU to 3.46 Ghz and I'm proud to say the new build is purring like a jaguar. Rendering is 3 times as fast, the quickness of the system is noticeable and Windows 7 is everything the reviewers say it is: fantastic.

I won't go into detail on the overclock, but after doing considerable research, I found a superb guide to overclocking the i7 920 written by Clunk at clunk.org.uk. I wanted to overclock this CPU because it would improve rendering speeds, and because the 920 is designed with significant head room, so a medium-level overclock is fairly simple. I was also concerned about heat, so I didn't want to push the CPU so far that the higher heat levels would affect the rest of the system.

Using the ASUS bios it was fairly simple (after carefully reading Clunk's instructions) to overclock to 3.3 Ghz (the default CPU speed is 2.66 Ghz) and the top temps were in the 50 C range. I tried an overclock to 3.8 Ghz (with a slight increase in voltage) and the heat jumped up to the 64 C range. While this is a fairly safe temp (trouble starts coming in at the 70 C range), I wasn't comfortable with this amount of heat and brought the overclock back down to 3.46 where the top CPU temp was a reasonable 52 C. I've been running at this speed for over two weeks now and the system is stable and fast. Looks like the Prolima heatsinks are doing their job well.

According to MAXON's new CINEBENCH 11.5, I was able to improve Open GL rendering and CPU rendering by about 10% with the overclock. Plus, the overall system temperature during testing only rose by about 2 degrees. Not bad for such a simple overclock.


CPU overclocked to 3.46Ghz. Peak temp 53 C

And Windows 7 64-bit has certainly lived up to it's reputation. Easily the best of any windows OS I've ever had and the problem-solving (with one exception) is fantastic. Hooking up wifi with my workstation and laptop was a nightmare with Vista, but I had both working under Windows 7 in 10 minutes. I did find that the sleep function is a problem though. I usually leave my computer on 24/7 and was looking forwad to saving energy with the Windows 7 sleep function, which powers down your computer after a set time period and then springs to life on using your mouse or pressing a key. This all worked fine, except I would get the blue screen of death (BSOD) after every sleep session. A lot of research led me to the conclusion that this is most likely a problem with my ATI graphics card drivers and Windows 7 (it's also been suggested that it's a USB related issue). Tried a dozen fixes, but nothing works, so I'll wait for an update from Microsoft that addresses the problem as it's widespread.

Also, note that all of my non-64-bit programs and games work perfectly. I've got at least a dozen open source programs (including the new Blender 2.5) and they are all running well.

The only addition I'll be making in the future to this new rig is a new sound card for advanced audio functions, but that's several months away. As it stands, this is the best computer I've ever built.

Remember: building a computer is not as hard as it seems. If I can do it, you can too!


Be sure to read Ricky's related articles:


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and Machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
February 22, 2010

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Member Opinions:
By: drdancm on 2/24/10
This is just about the best series of articles on putting a system together from a non professional. Also because it is from a non professional, the instruction and explanations are far clearer than from a professional. Congratulations.

What I would add, and I have built hundreds of systems, is that you partition the hard drive into at least 3 parts:

C: for OS and all Applications (but not games)
D: for all of your own DATA
E: for storing Image Backups

Image backups (Acronis, Ghost etc.) make a bit by bit copy of an entire partition (like C: drive) compress it 50% and save it to the E: drive in 20 minutes or less (for a typical 8-15 Gbyte OS w a reasonable number of installed Applications.

If Windows fails for any reason (corrupted, Virus, you erase some crucial file by mistake or localized soft HD problem) you simply restore in under 20 minutes and Voila -your system is back to the way it was when you imaged it. All of the time you spent installing OS, updating security, customizing everything, installing all of your Applications it's all there. Yous simply update anything necessary.

If Windows fails, you won't be able to get at your Data at all (except with BART PE boot CD, or by removing HD and hooking to another machine which is already booted) and you will need to somehow backup your data before you do completely clean new OS install. However if your DATA is happily sitting on your D: Drive you don't have to worry about wiping or over writing your data on Drive C:

To complete your emergency backup/restore strategy, you also need to burn your image backup files to one or several DVD's, or copy it to an external HD.

If you need to swap your old HD for a larger one the Image backup software will also allow you to clone the entire old HD to the new one with proportionate expansion of your partitions.

This is the BEST and most complete disaster recovery method that you can do for the low cost of commercial image backup of your OS and Apps. There are free Image backup programs, but I have not tested any of them.

Backing up your DATA is a different story -you use whatever method works best and simply backup everything on your D: partition. With the right software (such as the free SyncToy) subsequent backups work really fast because you only backup what has changed.

Hope this is useful for you Ricky.

Dan

By: EricNV on 2/24/10
Good article Ricky! Even though I work for a systems builder, and have built many workstations myself, I always enjoy learning about new tips and tricks of the trade.

One thing I would add to this info is the occasional DOA CMOS battery that arrives with new motherboards. First time it happened, it drove me a little batty trying to figure it out. I set up BIOS just the way I wanted it, power down and unplug the power cable so I can add an additional component, power back on and go back into BIOS and everything had reset to factory default.

I booted up after reconfiguring BIOS settings, and everything worked fine. Had me scratching my head for a while because ASUS hadn't mentioned this condition in its product manual. Powered down again, unplugged the power cable from the wall and BIOS had reset to factory default again when I booted up the next time. Figured it out eventually, but the CMOS battery was not the first thing that crossed my mind when trying to figure it out.

Anyhow, for those of you out there who have read Ricky's article and are attempting your first build, add this small tip to your knowledge base.

Eric

By: jhustead on 2/24/10
Thanks for your continuation of this great article. I always wanted to build a workstation to run Maya with but I just didn't think I had the money. Based on your rundown of components and price I think I may have the funds to do so now. Again thanks for the great article!

Regards,
James

By: gToon on 2/24/10
Hey, thanks Dan and Eric for your excellent comments. I wanted to cover backup (I use Acronis myself and rec it highly), but didn't have enough time/room in an already long series of articles.

I have at one time or another used the multiple partitions for applications, etc, but never found them to make much of difference in my own day to day use, but they are recommended by many system builders.

Never came across a bad CMOS batter, but it is something to consider when you are trouble-shooting.

Thank you both for your comments and advice. They are much appreciated. Here's the link for Acronis.

http://www.acronis.com/enterprise/


-Ricky

By: drdancm on 2/25/10
The CMOS battery problem in a new motherboard is extremely rare in my experience (I have never seen it in 18 yrs of system building). However it is a common problem with systems that are over 5-8 yrs old.

Dan


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