Pleasant Surprise with New System Build & Windows 7 Starter

About three weeks ago, my wife’s old PC started to give up the ghost. I built that system four or five years ago around a low-end DFI socket 939 motherboard with onboard VIA graphics, 100 Mbps Ethernet, two SATA 1 connectors, and DDR memory. The system included an AMD K8 Sempron 3200+ CPU (1.8 GHz), 2 GB of DDR-400 RAM, a Philips SATA DVD burner, and a 300 GB SATA 1 Matrox hard disk in a cheapo no-name Taiwanese case. I added a four-way fan controller, and three very quiet 80mm fans to the case to keep things cool, and it included a rock-solid Seasonic 400W PSU, but this system comes as close to bare bones as anything I’ve ever built. Except for occasional problems with the motherboard finding the SATA devices at boot-up (click the reset button and try again; repeat until it sees those devices) I never had a single problem with this machine over its entire productive life. I think it cost me about $200 to put it togther, because many of its parts were leftovers from other projects or articles. This probably makes it one of my best builds ever — at least from a maintenance, upkeep, and reliability perspective.

But nothing lasts forever, even no-BS systems like that one. I’m not sure if it was the SATA controller starting to fail, or the drive itself starting to go, but my wife Dina reported that she was having trouble with file corruption and running programs. Soon thereafter, the system wouldn’t boot any more. I back all our systems up to an HP MediaSmart Server nightly, so I wasn’t worried about losing anything important, but a quick inspection of the system showed me it was time for a replacement. The hard disk was clearly corrupted, and not even my trusty old copy of SpinRite 6.0 could restore it to full working condition, and I was also concerned that the SATA controller was starting to fail (I had issues running a repair install from the optical drive as well).

As a temporary fix, I set her up with my Asus Eee PC 1000HE (Atom N280, 2 GB DDR2, 160 GB HD, Intel 950 Mobile graphics, GbE Ethernet interface) hoping that she might like it enough to make it her regular PC. After three or four days of use, we talked it over and she opined that the 1000HE — to which I had attached her Dell 2208WFP monitor, her Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 keyboard, and a Logitech V550 Nano mouse to replace her older and no-longer-satisfactory Microsoft wired laser mouse — just wasn’t fast enough to meet her needs.

I decided to build a mini-ITX system for her, in part to keep noise and power consumption levels down, and also because I had lots of parts I could use to finish out such a machine. Visiting my old buddies at LogicSupply I settled on a bare-bones version of a complete system they offer there for sale, because I was able to furnish my own RAM and hard disk. A quick consultation with one of their technical sales guys convinced me to buy the system parts from them, and then to assemble the system myself, to save even more money. Here’s what I ended up buying from them:

  • MSI Industrial 945GME1 Core 2 Duo Mobile Mini-ITX Mainboard   $238.95
  • Morex T-3500-150W Mini-ITX Case, Black   $115.00
  • Panasonic UJ-875-A SATA Slimline Slot-Loading DVD Writer   $76.00
     – Cables: Slimline SATA CD/DVD Drive Converter Cable (+$7.00)
  • Intel Core T2300 Duo 1.66 GHz Processor: 667 MHz Socket M   $106.00

So far, my total outlay was $542.95. I supplied my own Seagate Momentus 2.5″ 5,400 RPM 160 GB hard disk (approximate retail: $55) and a Patriot 2GB DDR2-800 memory module (approximate retail: $25).

The Morex case includes an external 150W PSU that look just like (and probably is) also used for nettop or desktop replacement notebook PCs. The build went together pretty easily, except that I initially mounted the DVD player upside down (it seemed more natural to hook up the SATA cable that way, though I soon realized my mistake once I tried to start using some DVDs). I’m ballparking total costs of the system at around $600 ($622.95 to be precise, not including shipping and tax). The only fan in the unit is on its itty-bitty CPU cooler, so it’s quite a bit quieter than an ordinary desktop case, most of which include a larger CPU cooler plus at least 2 80mm fans (or larger).

I installed Windows 7 Starter Edition on this box, because I knew Dina didn’t care about Aero (she uses the machine pretty much exclusively for Web surfing and e-mail) and she doesn’t really pay much attention to OS look, feel, and behavior anyway. I was relieved that she is happy with the machine and professes herself satisfied with its capabilities and performance. I probably spent no more than two hours putting everything together, and another two hours installing the OS, updating the drivers, and using the Windows Easy Transfer utility to move her files, preferences, and settings from Asus Eee PC to her new mini-ITX machine.

My major learning event for this build was that the Intel system tray utility has to be set to “Single display” to take advantage of higher-resolution monitors like her Dell 2208WFP (native resolution: 1600 x 1050 pixels). By default, this utility was set to “Clone display” mode which automatically limits maximum screen resolution to 1024×768. I had to download the latest set of Windows 7 utilities from the Intel site to gain access to the necessary system tray (or should I say “notification area?”) widget.

The Intel Mobile Graphics Accelerator Utility was the key to proper resolution

The Intel Mobile Graphics Accelerator Utility was the key to proper resolution

Once I got the screen working properly, I had to update drivers for some of the USB devices on the motherboard, at which point I also learned that Intel is releasing chipset drivers for Windows 7 slowly but surely (this motherboard uses an ICH7, so that’s the device for which I grabbed and installed drivers). Once again, Windows 7 scored well in terms of the drivers it supplied during the install. I only had to download three drivers (SetPoint 4.80, the Intel Chipset drivers, and a driver for the Dell 2208WFP monitor) to bring things completely up-to-date.

Once the machine was up and running, it proved to be something of a honey. My Seasonic Power Angel showed power consumption levels for the unit never exceeded 55W. During boot-up most values fluctuated between 30 and 40W; at idle the system consumed 33-38 W; running a full system scan with Norton Internet Security 2010, the highest value I observed was 51 W. Temperatures were likewise fairly balmy (though I could probably bring them down further by replacing the itty-bitty reference cooler that MSI supplies with the motherboard with something a bit more capable) as shown in this screencap from Franck Delattre’s excellent HW Monitor program.

HW Monitor reports for mini-ITX system

HW Monitor reports for mini-ITX system

The unit generally runs cooler than a notebook PC (my Dell D620 with the same processor would typically run about 4-5 degrees Celsius hotter with a T2300 CPU; now with a T7200 it’s more like 10 degrees hotter on the same scale) but a little hotter than a well-ventilated desktop PC (even a quad core). Power consumption is extremely low, however — less than half that for the older DFI-based desktop it’s replacing, and less than a third of that for my two quad core desktops. To me, that makes the system a real winner, especially because it consumes 4-8W in sleep mode (and because Dina uses that machine less than 4 hours a day, sleep mode is basically where it lives). I’ll concede that for the same money you could buy a nice little notebook, and that you could buy a full-size desktop with the same or better specs for about $200 less. I’m not sure that the energy savings will make up that cost difference, but it’s a great-looking, compact machine and everybody whose opinion counts around here seems to like it. I’d include some photos of the build with this post, but it’s going to have to wait: Dina’s busy using that computer right now. Stay tuned!

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