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Building the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, Part 1
Choosing Components

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, authors of Building the Perfect PC

The old saw says the cobbler's children have no shoes, and that's also true for us. When we finished writing Building the Perfect PC, we had half a dozen new systems sitting on workbenches, but our primary desktop systems were showing their age. Robert's main desktop was an antique Pentium 4/1.7 with single-channel SDR memory. Barbara's main desktop, although more recent, was much slower than any of the systems we'd built for the book.

It was tempting simply to move one of the new systems into each of our offices and be done with it. After all, they were already built and ready to roll. In fact, that's what Robert did at first, replacing his old desktop with the small form factor PC we'd built for the book. The SFF system was certainly fast enough for Robert, but Barbara still needed a new system. Unfortunately, none of the project systems were really ideal to replace her primary desktop system. (The mainstream PC we'd built for the book would have been perfect, but it was already committed to another task.)

Barbara coveted the SFF system, so we decided the best plan was to build a new system for Robert and move the SFF system to her office. Besides, we'd received many new hardware samples since we finished Building the Perfect PC, and using all of them together in a new system would give us a chance to give them a real workout. So we set out to design and build the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC for Robert.

Component Selection

Robert runs Xandros Desktop OS on his desktop systems, so Linux compatibility is important. He also boots Windows occasionally to run shoot-'em-up games (but never during working hours). Our goal, therefore, was to choose high-performance components that would run both Linux and Windows flawlessly.

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Not long ago, component selection for a Linux PC was difficult because many components had limited or no Linux support. Things have improved a lot in the last couple of years. Current mainstream Linux distributions have much better hardware support, although Linux drivers are sometimes a step or two behind Windows drivers in functionality and performance. Even so, building a bleeding-edge system still raises concerns about hardware compatibility, particularly for a conservative Linux distro like Xandros, which is based on Debian Stable. We wanted to find out just how good Linux could be as a desktop OS running on the ultimate hardware, so we decided to plow ahead with a no-holds-barred system. We resolved to keep a close eye on Linux compatibility issues.

Here are the components we chose:

Processor: Intel Pentium 4 560

We wanted the fastest possible single-processor system, so the choice was between the Socket 939 AMD Athlon 64 FX53 and the Socket 775 Intel Pentium 4 560 desktop processors. The AMD FX53 is a screamer--as one would expect of a processor that sells for more than $800--but the Intel P4 560 is about as fast overall and costs about $300 less. In fact, the improved architecture of the 90-nanometer Prescott core really begins to strut its stuff at 3.6GHz. Our tests showed that the P4 560 was faster overall than the 130-nanometer Gallatin-core 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, with its massive 2MB of Level 3 cache.

The AMD FX53 is faster than the P4 560 for 3-D gaming, and it might be our choice if we were building a money-is-no-object system dedicated to Windows gaming. On the other hand, the Intel P4 560 is faster than the AMD FX53 for multimedia encoding and other tasks that use the Hyper Threading and SSE-3 features unique to the Intel processor. For general computing tasks, there is little overall performance difference between these two extremely fast processors.

The AMD FX53 supports 64-bit operating systems and applications, while the Intel P4 560 is 32-bit only. We discounted this factor because, although 64-bitness is important for some server applications, it is not yet a consideration for desktop operating systems and applications. Buying "future-proofing" by choosing a 64-bit processor is an attractive illusion, but no more than that. By the time support for 64-bit desktop software becomes an important consideration, we'll want a faster processor anyway.

Based on these factors, we chose the Intel Pentium 4 560 for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, but we certainly have no argument with anyone who wants the AMD Athlon 64 FX53 and is willing to pay the price.

Motherboard: Intel D925XCV

A top-notch processor deserves a top-notch motherboard. We chose Intel's flagship P4 motherboard, the D925XCV. Intel motherboards set the standards for the build quality, stability, and reliability by which we judge other motherboards. Enthusiasts' web sites often look upon Intel-branded motherboards with disdain because they lack adjustable FSB speeds, tweakable voltages, superaggressive memory timings, and other options so beloved of the overclocking crowd. They miss the point. Intel omits these options because using them is a very bad idea. Intel motherboards, including the D925XCV, provide the highest possible performance consonant with the legendary rock-solid stability for which they are known.

Intel D925XCV motherboard
Figure 1. Intel D925XCV motherboard (image courtesy of Intel Corp.)

The D925XCV provides a full complement of modern features. It supports a 533MHz or 800MHz FSB LGA775 Pentium 4 processor with as much as 4GB of dual-channel 400MHz or 533MHz DDR2 memory in four 240-pin sockets. In addition to four conventional PCI expansion slots, the D925XCV provides one PCI Express x16 slot for a video adapter and two PCI Express x1 slots for additional PCI Express expansion cards. There is no AGP slot, so this board requires a PCI Express video adapter.

The D925XCV provides all the expected ports and connectors, including eight USB 2.0 ports, four Serial ATA interfaces, and one Parallel ATA interface. The D925XCV also provides the standard legacy connectors, including a diskette drive interface, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, a serial port, and a parallel port.

The embedded Intel High Definition Audio subsystem provides top-notch 7.1 audio, and the embedded PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet LAN subsystem provides gigabit performance without the risk of saturating the PCI bus. In addition to the expected Windows drivers, Intel supplies Linux drivers for the audio and network components. Those drivers are certified only for specific versions of Red Hat, SuSE, and Red Flag Linux, but we don't expect any problems using them with other Linux distros, including Xandros.

If we had chosen the AMD Athlon 64 FX53 processor for this system, we would have been hard pressed to select an ideal motherboard for it. We prefer ASUS motherboards for AMD processors, but ASUS does not offer a Socket 939 motherboard based on an nVIDIA nForce3 chipset. The ASUS A8V Deluxe Socket 939 motherboard provides the high performance and top-notch build quality typical of ASUS, but it uses the VIA K8T800Pro chipset. We've had enough problems with VIA chipsets over the years that we avoid them whenever possible. In particular, we were concerned about Linux compatibility issues with the ASUS A8V.

The AMD Athlon 64 FX53 is available in both Socket 939 and Socket 940. Because we'd ruled out motherboards based on VIA chipsets, we had only two real alternatives. We could choose the ASUS SK8N motherboard, which is based on the nForce3 Pro 150 chipset but uses the older Socket 940, or we could choose a non-ASUS Socket 939 motherboard that uses an nForce3 chipset. A Socket 940 FX53 running in an ASUS SK8N is a bit slower than a Socket 939 FX53 running in an nForce3 motherboard, but not by much. The ASUS SK8N is well-supported under Linux, so we have few concerns on that score. For a Socket 939 nForce3 motherboard, we'd probably choose the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum and hope for the best, because MSI does not provide Linux drivers. On balance, we'd be inclined to give up just a bit of performance to get the reliability and compatibility of the ASUS SK8N.

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