Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Assembling a home theatre PC

I've wanted to build an AMD-64 for some time and I finally got started with the following parts. All items were located on Pricewatch. For some items, I did not automatically choose the cheapest vendor if the vendor had less than best ratings.

The general plan is to have a media box such as this.

ItemPrice (w/. shipping)QtyAmount
AMD Athlon 64 939 3500+ $262.701$262.70
Asus A8N SLI skt939$194.001 $194.00
Ahanix D4 $229.58 1 $229.58
Zalman CNPS7000B-CU Cooler $52.00 1 $52.00
Samsung PC3200 512MB $82.00 2 $164.00
HITACHI 250GB SATA $120.00 2 $240.00
Hauppage WinPVR-250 $128.00 1 $128.00
PCI express eVGA 6600 256MB $129.00 1 $129.00
Arctic Silver 5$6.00 1 $6.00

In addition, I bought some Everclear 95% grain alcohol from a liquor store for cleaning the computer parts. (Never use anything other than pure grain alcohol!)

In general, stores where shipping is free tend to ship via snail mail, so when looking at the price, factor that in.

Most items were packed perfectly. I was impressed with the packing of the hard drives and the Ahanix case. Other items were packaged adequately. The only exception was the Zalman cooler, which had some copper cooling blades bent because they did not seal the box. Copper is a soft metal and bends easily. the fan also looked very slightly scuffed. I straightened out the fins of the Zalman carefully. Then I verified that the fan ran silently and decided not to ask for an exchange.

First impressions:

The Ahanix D4 case looks like a stereo component device. The front metal face is about a quarter inch thick and feels luxurious. A hinged door that covers the 5.25 inch bays is held together by magnets and impresses quality. The entire case is aluminum and is very well constructed. The included power supply is silent and the case is designed to be kept cool. I wont review the case fully here since its been reviewed elsewhere, but suffice to say this is the best case you can get that holds a full ATX board and worth every penny. The D5 is cooler looking, but does not seem to have front USB/firewire ports and has an infra-red remote control sensor that is plugged to the USB port. I was not sure how it would work with lirc, so I did not buy it. The only negetive about this box is that smudges can be easily seen when you touch it.

The AMD Athlon 64 CPU looked like it had some extremely thin layer of gunk on it (returned item?) but I washed it with alcohol and it evaporated.

The Zalman CNPS7700-Cu cooler is a thing of beauty. It looks like a copper flower. The fan is large and silent. It comes with a fan control device, some thermal grease and various brackets. I cleaned its bottom with alcohol too.

The Asus A8N SLI deluxe motherboard truly deserves the Deluxe tag. It comes with every imaginable cable and fixture including a SATA fixture that allows you to plug in SATA drives at the back. The chipset fan is reasonably silent. The optical SPDIF out makes this board attractive to Home Theater projects. The 8 SATA RAID interfaces don't hurt either. The most important feature however, is Nvidia chipset, which has good Linux support from the vendor.

The Arctic silver 5 compound comes in a tiny syringe with a rubber dome top.

The Hitachi SATA hard drives run great, but are not as silent as their IBM counterparts (before IBM sold their hard drive division to Hitachi). It could be because I have 2 SATA drives in raid config (more on that later) and they make the seek sound simultaneously. I need to investigate into silencing the drives a bit more.

The eVGA GeForce 6600 with 256MB seems to be the fastest card at the price. This card comes with a shrouded fan. If you are a serious gamer (I'm not), its a good idea to go with the 6800 GT and get the Arctic cooler for it.

The RAM looked like ... RAM. The DIMMS had Copper heat spreaders on them and the word RAMSES printed. I complained to the vendor that he had sent me Ramses brand when I had requested Micron. He told me that the heat spreader was Ramses and the RAM was actually Samsung, which was allegedly better than Micron. I decided to keep the RAM if it ran stable. Fortunately, it did.

I had an old Plextor 712A DVD Writer, which I plugged into the system.

Hardware installation:

First, I removed the motherboard backplate provided by Ahanix. The items simply did not match my motherboard. I replaced it with one included by ASUS. The motherboard comes with a bracket and baseplate for the stock CPU cooler which I removed and then attached the baseplate that came with the Zalman cooler (using the nipples provided). I placed the motherboard on a flat surface and lifted the ZIF socket's lever and then aligned the CPU's golden triangle with the triangular mark on the ZIF socket. It fell into place easily. Placing the CPU on the ZIF socket and pushing the lever back to horizontal position is about the easiest thing to do.

Next, I took the Arctic silver 5 syringe and punctured the top with a pin and then squeezed about 1 and a half rice grain lengths on the CPU. I then gently lowered the Zalman cooler and aligned the screw holes with the nipples. Once the cooler sits on the CPU, a suction prevents you from easily picking up the cooler. but you can turn it slightly. I then screwed in the cooler tight alternating each screw.

I then lifted the motherboard with the CPU and cooler into the case and screwed it to the base. (Some folks prefer to attach the board first and then install the CPU and heatsink, but given that Arctic silver is slightly capacitative, I needed to be absolutely sure that not a single particle would fall onto the motherboard.)

Next, I installed the Samsung 512MBx2 PC3200 RAM which had copper heat spreaders on them into the appropriate banks (A1 and B1) to make best use of DDR feature.

Next, I installed the Hitachi SATA hard drives. You only get access to one side of the bay, so I screwed them in.

Next, I installed the PCI-Express eVGA card into the blue PCIe slot (as recommended if using a single slot)

Last, I connected all the case connections such as the power and hard drive LEDs

Linux Installation: Most folks would do well to just install the KnoppMyth distribution, but I'm a gentoo fanatic, so I downloaded the AMD64 ISO and installed gentoo and installed from stage3. Standard procedure with some hints for raid.

The only things I need to tell you are: For the sound card, I chose snd-intel8x0 (alsa driver) and for the net I chose forcedeth. Although I got nvidia's nvsound and nvnet to work after applying patches, I saw no advantage over standard kernel provided drivers. For the video, I emerge nvidia-kernel and added nvidia to modules.autoload. I managed to setup SPDIF using instructions here. I see that my SPDIF is properly setup:

# cat /proc/asound/pcm
00-00: Intel ICH : NVidia CK804 : playback 1 : capture 1
00-01: Intel ICH - MIC ADC : NVidia CK804 - MIC ADC : capture 1
00-02: Intel ICH - IEC958 : NVidia CK804 - IEC958 : playback 1
So I should be able to play it like this:
# mplayer -ao alsa:device=hw=0.2 mozart.mp3
But either my receiver has no support for it or I need to do something like this or this. So I went back to analog sound output.

The video was tricky. I finally managed to get the right xorg.conf file but I had two serious problems. The first, the cursor was a transparent square area with a cluster of black dots and second, the icons and text would disappear if the mouse went over them (or sometimes just by themselves). Fortunately, I found a patch on the internet for xorg and recompiled with it. All I did was emerge it, when it said 'Source unpacked' I pressed control+Z, applied the patch and resumed the job. I really should do something like this (go to bottom), but I'm guessing that they will have the bugfix in the next version anyway.

Its important to autoload the nvidia module or you get a "failure to load nvidia" error when you start X.

I struggled to setup the RAID, until I realized that the onboard RAID controllers are nothing more than a place in the BIOS to store your settings. Linux still sees the physical hard drives. Grub probes the BIOS, so it sees the real drives. You cannot install GRUB with fakeraid. The best option was to use mdadm and Linux software raid, which is just as fast if not faster. The utility mdadm was part of the installation cd, so I used it to setup the raid. The trick of course, is to set your boot partition as RAID-1, so that grub will load off it. Install grub in both partitions as shown here. I could probably have used the hardware using instructions here.

I got the Vacuum Fluorescent Display (part of the D4 case) working using these instructions. The VFD displays y with umlaut when the it tries to display a filled square for which I found a patch here

Wealth of info here


In general, I can constantly hear the constant whoosh of the fans at the back (I've disconnected one). The motherboard chip fan was the noisiest and I noticed that it was running at 8000+ RPM. I fixed the fan speed regulator that came with the CPU cooler and attached it to the motherboard chip fan and turned it fully down. The fan now runs at 4000+ RPM, but has almost negligible sound. The hard disks are silent unless there is activity, which I figure is the sound echoing off the case. The activity is occaisional even when compiling the kernel due to the 8MB caches.


I purchased the parts off Radio Shack and soldered my own infra red receiver. I attached the IR sensor off a long wire, so I could squeeze it into the space provided by the D4 case (just above the HDD light left of the VFD).


In general, the CPU runs at 35C with the case open and 43C with the case closed at idle. On heavy load, it goes upto 55C. The motherboard temp and the case ambient temperature is generally about 5C and 15C below the CPU temperature.


All in all, I'm happy with the power and performance of this machine. I aim to install the arctic cooler for my VGA card and I also need to figure out how to reduce the noise of the fans and the hard disks.