My Socket 775 adventures, Chapter 1

So I bought an Intel Socket 775 board to support a crash webserver rebuild project. I present the story in hopes that it might be useful, or entertaining, or both. I don’t know the ultimate outcome of it yet, but all of the decisions made sense at the time.
Typically I buy AMD systems, so I’m more familiar with them. I buy whatever gives me the most value for my money, which occasionally is Intel, but more frequently is AMD. I’ve owned CPUs from AMD, Cyrix, and Intel over the years.

Micro Center offers bundles where they give you an inexpensive motherboard for free with purchase of certain AMD CPUs, but there’s a limit of one one bundle per household every six months. I bought an AMD processor/motherboard bundle back in August, so I’m not eligible to buy one yet.

At times, the load on my web server can get demanding, so I want something of high quality. Right now the only way to get an Asus motherboard in a Micro Center bundle is to step up to an enthusiast-grade board, which in some regards is overkill for this application. A discrete video card provides no benefit at all to a web server that spends its entire life in text mode–it just adds expense and additional power consumption–and I’m pretty sure that by the time I need a web server with 16 GB of RAM in it, that board will be outmoded in other ways too.

There just happens to be a very mature Asus Socket 775 motherboard still in the channel, and Micro Center had a small supply of Celeron and Pentium dual-core Socket 775 CPUs left at a nice price. I opted for a Pentium. While it doesn’t have the cache of a Core 2 Duo, it has a larger cache and higher top speed than a Celeron while only costing $10 more. That’s a pretty easy sell. So for around $150 after tax, I ended up with a good-quality board, a 3 GHz 2-core CPU, and 8 GB of quality Kingston DDR3 RAM. I already had a power supply that I could use, and I have an ample supply of ATX enclosures to slap it all into.

I could have waited another couple of weeks and picked up a 4-core AMD motherboard and CPU for $119, but that would have meant taking a chance on a Biostar or Gigabyte board. I’ve owned Biostar boards in the past and found them adequate, if unspectacular. Gigabyte says all the right things but I’ve never owned a Gigabyte board. I prefer to go with what I know when it comes to a system that I intend to run non-stop for five-plus years.

Another option would have been to buy an off-lease HP machine. Micro Center has a ready supply of HP dual-core machines with 1-2 GB of RAM and 80 GB HDDs right now in the $119-$169 range. The downside is that most, if not all of these machines are limited to 4 GB of obsolete, costly DDR2 memory. These older machines also will chew up more wattage. But for all the downsides, there’s also an upside: I could have taken the machine out of the box, installed Linux, and probably had it up and running in a couple of hours. Although it would be a used machine, the chances of getting five years out of it probably would have still been pretty good.

Do I wish I’d just done that? Yes. But if something had gone wrong in three years, I would have been wishing I’d taken a little extra time to buy a new motherboard and build something with new components (less the case and keyboard of course).

What ended up happening was I got home, unboxed the components, emptied out an old case I had sitting around, tested the fit of the new board in the old case, moved the standoffs, installed a new Corsair CX430 power supply, installed the motherboard, routed all the cables, then tackled the CPU.

Unlike AMD, who still uses a traditional pin-and-ZIF-socket method that’s been common since the mid 1990s, Intel puts the pins in the CPU socket and pads on the underside of the CPU. The tradeoff depends on what you want to protect in the case of mishaps. Intel’s approach protects the CPU from accidental damage at the expense of the motherboard; AMD’s approach protects the motherboard at the expense of the CPU. Given that Intel CPUs tend to cost more than the motherboard and AMD CPUs tend to cost about the same or less than the motherboard, the approach seems to make sense.

I saw right away that I was in unfamiliar territory with the CPU–this was the first time I’ve ever messed with Socket 775–so I read the instructions, both in the motherboard manual and the CPU instruction sheet. So I carefully raised the lever, removed the protective shield, carefully placed the CPU in the socket noting the orientation, double-checked it against the two keys, and lowered the lever, noting that the days of ZIF with Intel are very much over. Lowering the lever required at least as much force as installing a PCI card. Installing the fan was another challenge–it has four pushpins that potrude through the motherboard, but pushing them down requires enough force to flex the board. Having a third hand to support the motherboard while pushing down the pins would have helped.

After about two hours, I had the system assembled. I plugged in the power supply, and the green power LED on the motherboard lit. I hit the power button, and the system came to life for a few seconds, then shut itself down.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I tried everything I could think of. I took the board out of the case and powered it up. I tested the power supply with ye olde paper clip, then with another motherboard, to verify it worked. I double-checked and re-seated all of the cables. I tried it with and without a hard drive. Same behavior.

The only thing I can find online is to remove the fan, double-check that, and replace the thermal compound. But doing that will void my warranty with Intel, who considers the fan a single-use item. So that’s not my first resort.

I contacted Asus technical support. Which is where things stand now.

But this adventure gives me an idea. Back in the Socket 7 days, when I would buy a motherboard and CPU at the same time, the computer store always installed the CPU before handing it to me. It minimized returns. Maybe stores don’t want to do that to avoid accusations of their items not being new. But I think it would be a good optional service. Some people might even be willing to pay a small fee for the service.

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