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Building the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, Part 2

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, authors of Building the Perfect PC
10/12/2004

Introduction

In our last article, we detailed our component selections for the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. In this article, we'll actually build the system and find out if we can make it work. (Yes, we know we're not supposed to admit that.)

We promised a bleeding-edge system, and that's exactly what we're building. For example, as we began writing this article, we got mail from our editor at O'Reilly, who pointed out that we hadn't mentioned the brand of the nVIDIA 6800 GT PCI Express video adapter that we recommended in the first article. We responded:

Um, the problem is that we can't specify a brand yet because you can't actually buy a PCI Express 6800 GT card yet, although that should change by the time the article runs. All the 6800 GT cards available now are AGP. The card we have is an engineering sample/prototype. (We did say "bleeding edge.")

And bleeding-edge it turned out to be. Not everything worked out as we expected, and we ended up having to replace one hardware component. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. As you read this article, you'll follow us step by step as we build and test our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC.

Building the System

We don't have enough space to detail every step of construction, so we'll focus on the unusual aspects of building this system--Socket 775, Serial ATA, PCI Express, and other facets that may be unfamiliar to many readers. Still, we've provided enough detail for anyone who is comfortable working on PCs to follow in our footsteps. So let's jump in and start building the system.

Assembling the Power Supply

Now that's a section title we never expected to use. Every other PC power supply we've seen simply slides into position, no assembly required. The Antec NeoPower 480 is different: you have to assemble it before you install it. The NeoPower provides only three permanently connected cables: the main ATX power cable, the ATX12V supplementary power cable, and a control cable that connects to a fan power header on the motherboard. Those three standard cables are visible in Figure 1, extending from the right front of the power supply.

Antec NeoPower components
Figure 1. Antec NeoPower 480 power supply components

All other cables are optional, and Antec provides a plethora of them. Each optional cable has a proprietary six-pin plug on one end that connects to one of the four matching six-pin jacks visible on the front of the power supply. The other end of each optional cable provides various standard power connectors, including Molex (hard drive), Berg (floppy drive), Serial ATA, and so on. The advantage of using optional cables is that you can connect only the cables you need, which minimizes the rat's nest of cables you have to deal with when assembling the system.

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Our project system required only the three cables shown to the lower left of the power supply. Nearest the power supply is the S-ATA power cable, with the PCI Express power cable immediately below it. The fan-only cable at the lower left is used to power supplemental case fans, and it has a special two-pin proprietary plug that mates to a special fan-only jack on the power supply. That jack is not visible in Figure 1, but it's located immediately beneath the permanently connected cables on the right side of the power supply.

Alas, the S-ATA power cable has connectors for only two drives. That's a problem, because our project system has two S-ATA Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 NCQ hard drives and an S-ATA Plextor PX-712SA DVD burner. We looked for a second S-ATA power cable but didn't find one. What we did find was a plastic bag with two crimp-on S-ATA power connectors, visible at the top left of Figure 1. These crimp-on connectors can be placed anywhere along the length of the S-ATA power cable to provide a third (and fourth) S-ATA power connector.

We thought that was an odd decision at first. Why not simply include a second S-ATA cable or put three or four S-ATA connectors on the existing cable? After all, crimping on connectors is not something most PC builders do often, and if the wires are crimped in the wrong sequence it's possible to damage the power supply and/or the drives. As we thought about it, though, we realized the benefit of this method. Rather than add the third connector now, we'll wait until we've assembled the system. We'll use the two existing connectors for the hard drives, and then run the cable up near the optical drive. We can then mark the cable in exactly the position at which the third S-ATA connector needs to be for neat cable routing, with neither too much nor too little slack. Because the cable is socketed at both ends, it will be easy enough to remove it temporarily, crimp on the third connector at the previously determined location, and have what amounts to a custom-made cable that fits our case exactly.

We installed the fan-only, S-ATA, and PCI Express cables, as shown in Figure 2, planning to crimp on the extra S-ATA connector after we assembled the system. Other than the two-pin fan-only cable, which has a dedicated jack, the cables simply plug into the keyed six-pin jacks on the power supply. You can connect any of the optional cables to any of the six-pin jacks.

Connecting Antec NeoPower cables
Figure 2. Connecting cables to the NeoPower 480 power supply

With the cables attached to the power supply, we slid the power supply into position in the P160 case and used the four screws provided with the power supply to secure it. Unlike many power supplies, the NeoPower 480 uses automatic voltage sensing rather than a manual switch to set input voltage. If you are using a different power supply, make sure it is set for the proper voltage.

As we finished installing the power supply, we noticed that Antec had not mounted the standard 120mm case fan. Instead, it was strapped to the case using a twist tie. It took only a minute or two to mount the fan, using the soft plastic pull-through connectors supplied with the fan. Once we snapped all four of the connectors into place, we nipped off the excess length using our dykes.

With the power supply and supplemental fan installed, the final case preparation steps are to install the I/O template provided with the motherboard and to install brass standoffs in each position required by the motherboard mounting holes. Although the P160 case has a removable motherboard tray, we generally find it no more difficult to install the motherboard without removing the tray. We used a 5mm nut driver to install brass standoffs at each of the 11 positions used by the D925XCV motherboard, snapped the I/O template into place, and set the case aside for the time being.

Note: The Antec P160 case has many nice touches. For example, while brass is a soft metal, it is still harder than aluminum. Many aluminum cases provide drilled and threaded holes for the standoffs in the aluminum motherboard plate, which makes it too easy to strip the threads. The Antec P160 provides threaded steel collars at each standoff mounting position, embedded in the aluminum motherboard plate.

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