Building Your Own CG Workstation: Part Two

Building Your Own CG Workstation: Part Two

Assembling the Parts

The actual assembly of your computer is a slow and careful process, but not nearly as difficult as it seems. Many excellent YouTube videos show this very detailed process, so I'm not going to do a step-by-step on how to put a new computer together. But, I will cover the basics and note any problem areas you might encounter along the way. One good thing to have (in addition to basic tools) is another computer or laptop that has internet access. Being able to look something up on the net has saved my butt many times during a system build.

I'd also highly recommend picking up a copy of Upgrading and Repairing PCs by Scott Meuller, which not only covers the process of building a new system in detail, but discusses all of the technology as well. Highly recommended for new system builders (it comes with great DVD which takes your through the process of building a new computer piece by piece).


Basic toolset for building your computer

The basic tools you'll need for a new computer build are mostly common sense items, like a Philips-head screwdriver, tweezers, a clean cloth, etc. Two items might be new to a beginner: the anti-static wristband (to keep static electricity from damaging the computer circuits) and small tubes/cups to hold the variety of screws you'll be using for the build. I also add a small flashlight which, because of my failing eyesight, comes in handy as you work in dark corners of your case. A clear area to work in, free of distractions and plenty of light are also things you'll need for the build

I can't stress enough how important it is to read the motherboard manual before you begin to assemble the computer. ASUS makes an excellent manual which goes over how to install the CPU and all the other parts on to the motherboard. Reading the manual in detail will keep you from making mistakes which could ruin your computer, so take the time to read the manual thoroughly before you begin. Really.


Intel i7 920 CPU

The basic elements of a computer a fairly simple: a CPU, a Motherboard, Ram memory, a PC case, Power unit and CD rom are all you need to start with. Once these items are assembled correctly, you'll be able to load the operating system of your choice (in my case, Windows 7 64-bit).

The CPU I have chosen is an Intel i7 920 quad core. This CPU has a lot of head room and can easily be overclocked. It is also well documented and widely used by gamers and CG artists alike. Great care must be taken in handling the CPU, installing it onto the motherboard and in adding thermal grease to the CPU, which will help the heat conductivity between the CPU and the heat-sink.


CPU interface open and ready for installation

The ASUS p6T Deluxe motherboard makes it very easy to install the CPU. I usually remove the mobo and stand it on top of the box with the anti-static bag underneath in order to install the CPU with lots of room to negotiate. A simple lever releases the main device that secures the CPU into place. You then very carefully align the CPU so that it fits the socket and slowly lower it into place. Once done, you re-secure the lever and proceed to adding thermal grease.

There's much discussion on the net about which is the best way to add thermal grease. Most opt for a small line of grease at roughly the center of the CPU, but I like to spread the grease around using the finger of a plastic glove covering my forefinger (cleaned with alcohol first). The point of using thermal grease is to improve conductivity between the heat-sink and the CPU, which leads to more efficient cooling. This is important, because if your CPU gets too hot it could become damaged and unusable.

Once the thermal grease is correctly applied to the CPU, I prepare the heat-sink. I'm not using the provided stock Intel heat-sink, but a custom one which cools better and makes overclocking much easier (overclocking makes your CPU run much hotter). I chose the Prolima Megahalems which is supposed to be easy to install...Not.

Why do heat sink manufacturers make such awful manuals? The Prolima manual, while correct, is useless as it doesn't show direction and it lacks detail. It took me a good hour just to make sure I knew what I was doing. This is why you need the net to do research if you are stuck. Prolima actually has a much better guide on their website, which I wish I would have sought out sooner.

The problem came in figuring out how the the back-plate fits onto the rear of the motherboard. Since the heat-sink is so large, you have to have a strong back-plate to keep the unit securely fastened to the motherboard. I couldn't figure out which side of the back-plate fit on to the back of the ASUS board. Finally, after finding a picture on the Prolima site, I was able to figure out the orientation and it installed fine. Still, most back-plates have a small adhesive pad which sticks to the back of the motherboard and holds it in place. The Prolima unit does not, or rather it does, but apparently it's only used for another type of CPU which was not the one I was using.

[Scratch head several times]

Finally, after assembling the backplate and supporting clips separately, I understood how it worked (along with watching a few YouTube vids) and got it attached to the motherboard pretty quickly. Another problem cropped up when I realized I hadn't spread out the clamps which hold down the heat-sink enough and had to re-install them again. But this was a minor problem.

Interestingly, this heat-sink requires that you add thermal grease to the metal head that sits on the CPU. Usually, you only put grease on the CPU. So, I used the finger-in-glove method again and added only the slightest cover of grease to the head. Once this was done, it was a simple matter to install the heat-sink and screw it down tight to the CPU and motherboard.


Attaching heat-sink to CPU

Another problem came up when I realized I hadn't decided which fan orientation I wanted for the heat-sink. You see, I'll be adding a fan or two to the body of the heat-sink to make it work more efficiently. I chose an upward orientation, with the logic being that the fan will "push" air across the blades of the heat-sink and into the fan on top of the case, which is "pulling" hot air out of the case. Setting up the fan orientation requires you to change the direction of the heatsink fins, so it's an important decision.

After the entire heat-sink was installed, I added the 3 sticks of RAM to the board, making sure to place them in the correct RAM slots (read the motherboard manual). You do this because it's much easier to do it outside of the case. Now it's time to place the motherboard into the case.


Motherboard, heat-sink, CPU and Ram installed

With the PC case on it's back, the first thing you do is install metal stand-off's (eight of them) provided by the PC case manufacturer (Coolermaster HAF 932). This is done so that the motherboard sits up a bit from the metal backing of the case. If it sat on the metal it would short out. Once done, the faceplate for the side of the motherboard should be installed. I had a hard time figuring out how to do this as the faceplate provided by Coolermaster seemed much too small for the opening in the case. Another half hour spent checking the net and reading the HAF 932 manual (fairly well-written, except on this part). Eventually, I realized that the faceplate needed to be installed on the "inside" of the case and not the outside. It snapped right in perfectly and I slapped my forehead (doh!).

Placing the motherboard in the case is a little tricky as you don't want to force anything or bend any of the clips on the faceplate, but with a little finesse it went in fine. Some corners of the board are hard to see, and here's where the little flashlight comes in handy. I try to be very, very careful with my screwdriver, so as not to slip and damage any of the traces on the motherboard.


Using flashlight to screw in the mobo

One of the main obstacles for me in building a new computer is the size of my hands. They are very large, which makes it difficult to work in tight spaces inside of a PC case. The worst part has been installing all of the small headers that connect your power switch, reset switch and any front panel items (audio, usb, etc) to the motherboard. That is, until now.


Remember to ground yourself when working around the motherboard

ASUS has finally come to the rescue of big-handed people like me with a new device that allows you to plug all of the connections into a single plastic container, which you then plug directly into the motherboard. No more endless squeezing of tweezers and peering into the dark recesses of your case to push a tiny female plug onto an equally tiny male header on your motherboard. In the past, it would take me hours to get the headers attached; with this build, because of ASUS ingenuity, I had it all done in about 15 minutes.Thank you, ASUS Tek.


Finally ASUS makes installing case headers easy

At this point, I make sure all of the case fans are plugged into the motherboard. This system has 6 fans: three large ones on the top, front and side panel, two fans attached to the heat-sink in a push/pull configuration, and a rear fan. The idea is to bring cool air in from the front and sides of the case, then blow the hot air out of the top and back of the case. The two fans attached to the heat-sink are specially designed to be low noise, but will push a high volume of air through the heat-sink on one side and pull out air on the other side.

I was highly influenced by a great post at overclock.net by ShadowClock, who outlined the basic ideas behind case/system cooling and provided working links to everything. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to have another internet-ready computer handy while you are building. At one point, I wasn't quite sure which way to orient my heat sink and which direction a fan was blowing air (one way to check is to simply plug in your PC power unit and try the fan out live; easy to see which way it blows then).

You won't find this many fans in an off-the-shelf computer by HP, for example, because they haven't over-clocked their GPU or CPU, which produces plenty of heat. Since HP runs its units at standard speeds, there's no need for anything more than just basic cooling. But I plan on pushing both the graphics card and the CPU a bit, so I need the extra fans. And in the southwest during the summer, our apartment can get very hot (even more reason to have extra fans), not to mention running an overclocked CPU.

Once the fans are all set and the DVD-rom drive is inserted into the front of the case and secured, we are ready to add the power cables for everything. Since our Thermaltake PSU is modular, we add only the cables we need, which will reduce clutter inside the case and improve airflow.

All of the cables (plus some nifty cable ties) come in a nice pouch. All cables have multiple sockets on them and are very clearly labeled. It's a simple job to pull out SATA power cables, figure out how to run them from the PSU to the drive, and then tie the cables off so they are out of the way. I was worried that the cable for the DVD drive might not reach, as it's all the way to the top/front of the case, but it was not a problem.

The SATA data cables (red, flat cables) plug into each drive (2 hard drives, a front of case SATA port, and a single DVD drive) and into SATA inputs on the motherboard. I've labelled each one with a note so I can remember which drives they are attached to. It's very important that these connections are secure and tight. I triple-checked these to be sure.


SATA cables plug into the motherboard

Once all of the cables are tied off and out of the way (an important process that is often neglected), it's time to start on the huge FirePro v8750 graphics card. I'll install it to the PCI Express slot, secure it, and then add 2 power cables (this is a hungry beast).

I chose the HAF 932 case because it had enough room for this large GPU. It takes up two spaces on the motherboard and runs almost all the way to the end of the board. Fortunately, the HAF is a match for it and there is plenty of space. Attaching the two 6-pin power cords was easy. Be sure to pay attention to how you route the power cables, since you want them to be out of the way.

One important point I'd like to make here is that, even though it's obvious, don't plug in the power to your PSU yet. You don't want to run the risk of powering up by accident.


Double-checking to make sure everything is connected properly

Now is the time to go back over your assembly and check to make sure everything is as it should be. Use the list you made earlier for the assembly and check items off: CPU secure, Ram installed correctly, PSU set with all connections to the right place and tight, all of the drives installed correctly, fans connected to the motherboard, etc. You get the idea.

One last bit of fiddling with the cables and organizing them a bit better. Then, it's time to close up the sides of the computer and move it to my work space so I can attach the monitor, keyboard, internet cable, audio and power cable.

Now we are ready to hit the power button and...will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you power-up?


Nerve-wracking when you hit the power button the first time

Next Up in Part Three

Post-build testing, problem solving, and a wrap-up with suggestions...


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 15, 2010

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Member Opinions:
By: nemirc on 2/15/10
Woah, heatsinks seem to get larger and larger as time passes! I've never seen one that big :p

By: gToon on 2/15/10
That's for sure. The previous heatsink I was using was from Zalman and it was about 1 1/2 lbs. They work well though and if installed correctly, do not put undue pressure on the motherboard. However, my next build will be water-cooled as prices have come down and most PC cases are designed with water-cooling options.

Thanks for your comment, Sergio!

Ricky

By: danob on 2/17/10
Very good overview of the trials and tribulations of self building! The heatsink is a bitch to fit!! Water cooling being the way to go for the future build..

By: dharveymi on 2/17/10
Not an expert system builder, but throw those red sata cables away. Buy cables that latch, right angle cables are also helpful for some applications. Thanks for the tip on the FirePro cards. I'ld like to know more about what software will benefit from a FirePro card.

By: kathym on 2/17/10
Wow thats so sweet of you to build me a new system Ricky! LOL One of the things you forgot to include in the tools that you need is bandaids. I can't tell you how many times I've sliced a finger open on the sharp edges while trying to wiggle a wire into a connector.

By: gToon on 2/17/10
Thanks for the great comments everyone. Had a good laugh with Kathym's suggestion to include band-aids: so true. I'll definitely put it in my next tool kit.

@danob. I'll definitely be using water for my next build. This was my second huge heatsink and I just don't like working with them at all. However, they do their job well. Temps are excellent on overclocked CPU.

@dharveymi

Yes, the right-angle cables are better, but I was trying to keep costs down and went with the cables that came with the motherboard. Only a minor inconvenience. And the FirePro card is top of the line for ANY 3D application as the drivers are specifically designed for 3D apps. Unlike standard game-oriented cards.

I'll be publishing part 3 next week which will cover testing and summary. will include update on recent over-clocking of CPU and a couple Windows 7 issues.

The new machine is a dream. Best rig I've very built.

-Ricky

By: Revelation-23 on 2/18/10
Nice set of articles. Helps me out a bit, as I'm looking at parts for myself and for a friend.

Yes, band-aids are a must have in a computer toolkit, but fortunately you don't get cut up nearly as much with stuff now, and most of the time it's because of the case, rather than pins on the motherboard or cards chewing up your palms and fingertips. Ah, the memories. The blood. The swearing. Good times, good times...

I would like to offer up one sugegstion. Before placing the CPU into its socket, clean the heat shield off with rubbing alcohol, the higher concentration the better. Just something I opt to do before adding thermal paste/grease. I also recommend doing the same for the core of the heat sink, unless it has grease/paste pre-applied and you're going to use that instead of apply it yourself.

It should be noted that it takes time for the grease/paste to be spread to its optimal surface area, which is aided by the heat from the CPU and the pressure from the heat sink. After a few days or so, it should be pretty close to where it's going to end up and you can probably start pushing the more demanding tasks on it wihtout worry. Of course, you can do so sooner, but keep an eye on the temperature as best you can.

By: RodS on 2/23/10
I've been building my own systems for a few years, now. I used to work for one of the major computer companies (which shall remain nameless :-D), and saw the 'quality' that went into them. Or lack thereof...

I've been considering building a system devoted to graphics for a few months - actually since buying Poser 8 last August. I have a quad-core with a Q6000 (I think - the memory is the first thing to go...mine, I mean) processor. It should work fine with Poser, but I've had a few issues - probably because I have way to much stuff on this computer. But I digress.....

I've read this article, printed it, read it some more, and will probably read it again at least 3 or 4 more times. You've definitely convinced me that a dedicated graphics system is indeed the way to go. I will probably build it very similar to yours. Everything sounds great, and the information you have provided is priceless. All I have to do is save up/scrounge up the cash! :-)

I've wondered about a water-cooled system for a while, but I don't know...there's just something about combining water with computer circuitry that gives me the willies.... I'll have to do some research on this aspect.

Anyway - great article! Thanks for all the information!!

Rod


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