What to look for in a motherboard

What to look for in a motherboard

I’ve been building PCs for more than 20 years and I tend to keep them a very long time, so it occurred to me that someone might be interested in what I look for in a motherboard to ensure both a long, reliable life and a long useful life.

Technology has changed a lot but what I look for has remained surprisingly consistent over the years.

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How to roll your own mini PC and potentially save

I’ve talked at length about HP’s new mini PCs, but there are some alternatives in the DIY space. For example, Asrock offers the D1800B-ITX, which sells for around $53. Going the DIY route, you won’t get a discounted copy of Windows, but you also won’t spend money on RAM and an SSD that you’re going to end up replacing and you can get exactly as much CPU as you want.

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What to do when you have more open slots than drive bays

Every once in a while you find something you weren’t looking for, then you wonder why you never thought of it before. That’s what I thought when I saw the Kingwin 2-Bay PCI adapter. It’s a bracket that slides into a couple of empty slots and gives you space to mount a pair of 2.5″ hard drives or SSDs.

It’s brilliant because almost any computer these days has empty slots because all of the essential stuff that used to be on plug-in boards comes integrated onto the motherboard these days. And if you put a micro ATX motherboard into a full ATX case like I often do, you have at least two empty slots that you couldn’t use even if you wanted to.

This is a brilliant way to get a couple of additional drive bays in a desktop computer, so I highly recommend it.

Notes on the Compaq Presario SR2011WM

I’ve been working on a Compaq Presario SR2011WM. It’s a basic, low-end, single-core Celeron D system from 2006 or so. It can take up to 2 GB of RAM, runs Windows XP adequately, and has SATA ports, so you can put an SSD in it if you want. But don’t be fooled by the name–the Celeron in this machine is single core, and has a Prescott-era Pentium 4 core in it at that, not a low-TDP, Pentium D-style core.

In case you’re wondering, the easiest way to get it to boot from USB is to plug in a USB drive, hit ESC as the system runs POST, then select your USB drive from the menu.

Now let’s talk about options for upgrades. Read more

64 bits or bust

I’ve resisted the pull to 64 bits, for a variety of reasons. I’ve had other priorities, like lowering debt, fixing up a house, kids in diapers… But eventually the limitations of living with 2003-era technology caught up with me. Last week I broke down and bought an AMD Phenom II 560 and an Asus M4N68T-M v2 motherboard. Entry-level stuff by today’s standards. But wow.

If you can get one, an AMD Phenom II x4 840 is a better choice, but those are getting hard to find. And if you can’t afford a $100 CPU there are bargains at the very low end too: A Sempron 145 costs less than $45, and a dual-core Athlon II x2 250 costs $60.  The second core is worth the money.
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Farquhar discovers power-sipping AMD Fusion motherboards

AMD just announced its next-generation Fusion CPU/GPU combo. I’m not quite comfortable with AMD’s APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) moniker, because CPU-GPU integration isn’t about speed so much as it’s about reducing price and power consumption. This version of Fusion is intended to compete with mainstream Intel CPUs. Pricing isn’t available yet.

And that reminded me to go look and see what’s going on with first-generation AMD Fusion motherboards. I’m not so much interested in Fusion as a netbook/low-end notebook solution as I am for a power-sipping PC. Looking at the reviews online, it looks like I’m not alone in that. I don’t think I can afford to run multiple 750-watt fire-breathing dragons at home, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Give me a cool, quiet PC that doesn’t get bogged down in Visio, and I’m happy.
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Who made that power supply?

I found a cross-reference for power supply brands and OEM manufacturers. It’s a couple of years old, but still useful.

Way back when, I knew that Sparkle Power actually made PC Power & Cooling Silencer power supplies. Since Sparkle units were cheaper, I bought those, and got good, reliable power from them for years until they were obsolete. That information is obsolete now too; Sparkle was bought out by FSP many years ago.

This chart tells you a whole lot more than that. And it validates that my current practice of buying Seasonic power supplies whenever possible is probably good, since Seasonic is the actual maker for several premium brands of power supplies today.

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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus. Read more

New life for a Compaq Presario S5140WM

I’m fixing up my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM. She bought it about five years ago, a few weeks after her daughter and I started dating. It’s been a pretty good computer for her, but lately it’s been showing signs it might be overheating.

I took the shotgun approach, replacing pretty much everything that I would expect to be at or near the end of its life at five years.Since we seemed to have a heat problem, I picked up a better copper heatsink/fan for the CPU. The copper heatsink promised to lower the temperature by 5-10 degrees on its own. Since I rarely get more than 3-4 years out of a CPU fan, this was pretty much a no-brainer.

I also picked up a Seasonic 300W 80-plus power supply. I doubt the machine will put enough load on the power supply to actually get it to run at peak efficiency, but I also figured an 80-plus power supply would probably be better built and more reliable than a more traditional power supply. Seasonic is hardly a no-name, acting as an OEM for a number of big names, including Antec and PC Power & Cooling.

Finally, of course I replaced the hard drive. Being a parallel ATA model, I was limited in choices. I bought a Seagate rather than a Western Digital, because I’ve had better luck with Seagate through the years, and Seagate has also absorbed Quantum through its purchase of Maxtor. Maxtor admittedly had a couple of rough periods, so say what you will about Maxtor, but every Quantum drive I ever bought still works. I have a Quantum drive I bought back in 2000 still working in my computer downstairs. Yeah, it’s slow and loud, but it’s been ticking away like a Swiss watch for 8 years, in almost constant use! Maybe some of those Quantum engineers worked on this Seagate. To Seagate’s advantage, they do offer a 5-year warranty on their drives, which is really good, considering the conventional wisdom on hard drives used to be that you should replace them every three years because they’d fail soon afterward. Unless the drive was a Quantum, that is.

The question is whether I just clone the old drive onto the new drive, or install Windows fresh on it. I know if I do a fresh installation, the thing will run like a cheetah, free of all the useless crud HP installed at the factory. The question is how lazy I am.

After buying a new hard drive, power supply and CPU fan, I’ve sunk nearly $120 into this old computer. But it’s an Athlon, faster than 2 GHz, so it can hold its own with a low-end computer of today. The onboard video is terrible, but I solved that with a plug-in AGP card. It has 768 MB of RAM in it and tops out at a gig, but since she mainly just uses it for web browsing, 768 megs ought to be enough. I’ll keep my eye out for a 512MB PC3200 DIMM to swap in just in case.

And besides all that, since this Compaq has a standard micro ATX case, if 1 GB starts to feel too cramped, I can swap in a new motherboard/CPU that can take however much memory I want. And the power supply is already ready for it.

But as-is, I think this computer has at least another three years in it.

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