My New Shuttle SFF Gaming PC

25 March 2008

Somehow I convinced myself I needed a new gaming PC. Whenever I think about buying a new PC I think about buying a dirt cheap Dell or barebones. But then reality kicks in and I find that I’m far too picky for that.

Here are the primary requirements for my new system:

  • Quiet
  • Small (SFF preferably)
  • RAID-0
  • Gaming (mid/high range video card and processor)
  • Windows XP (I’ll pass on the scam that is Vista-only DirectX 10 for now)

    This is the newegg wishlist I ended up buying.

    And the actual components I went with:

  • Shuttle SN68PTG5 (nForce 630a/7050PV chipset)
  • Foxconn 8800GT-512OC660
  • AMD Athlon X2 BE-2400 45W Brisbane (low-wattage)
  • 2 x Seagate 200GB Hard disk

    I already had 2 Seagate 200gb harddrives (which I was using in RAID-1), so the total price was right around $700. Prices have come down since my purchase in February 2008. I also bought a Foxconn 8800gt as it was cheaper and not out-of-stock at the time.

    The biggest reason I keep saying I’m going to get a Dell is for reliability and ease of setup. I would gladly pay a small difference in a price to save the days of headaches and RMAs typical of trying to mash together PC components with Windows. Unfortunately, Dell only offers RAID in its high-end computers, and doesn’t offer any SFF PCs with room for a graphics card. Shuttle lets you build-your-own, but the same $700 computer in the wishlist costs double ($1400+) when they build it for you. I braced myself, hit the “Buy” button on Newegg, and prepared for the worst.

    As expected, I hit a LOT of snags setting this thing up. Here is a “brief” list of my main problems and the solutions I found:

    1. The bios didn’t support 8800gt without being flashed. After much fussing with the graphics card and onboard-video, and failed attempts to flash the bios from a windows boot cd, I ended up doing a full install of XP just to flash the bios and install the video card. (this is with full knowledge I would have to reinstall again once I got RAID-0 working)

    2. XP can’t install to a RAID-0 array without slipstreaming drivers into a xp boot disk. I found nLite to be the standard easiest-to-use 3rd party software for installing Windows XP on modern computers. Note that if you aren’t using a RAID array, most modern bioses have an IDE-compatibility mode that works around XP’s failings.

    3. nLite, as the standard and “easiest to use” solution for slipstreaming RAID drivers into Windows, still required insane voodoo and artistic interpretation of some wall-of-text forum post. I went through at least half a dozen coasters before getting the nLite CD to boot at all, let alone with the correct drivers. This was an extremely time consuming process, easily the biggest time sink of the whole project. The solution had something to do with slipstreaming two raid drivers as textmode and a third as pnp, whatever the hell that means.

    4. The onboard audio drivers didn’t work. I reinstalled them several times before finding an unrecognized device in device manager. I removed the unrecognized device, THEN reinstalled the drivers, and it finally worked.

    5. Windows thought audio was working, but no sound would come out! After much searching I happened upon a deep sub-menu of the audio drivers which made me realize it was set to turn off the speakers if headphones were plugged in. I leave my headphones plugged in all the time in my current system, so never considered this might be default functionality. So really sound was working the whole time, the software had intentionally turned off my speaker output.

    6. After setting everything up, I disassembled the entire computer to swap GPU molex power connectors. The internets “strongly recommend” pulling a molex from two different power supply rails for dual-molex GPUs.

    7. I clicked on “fan speed” in the Nvidia control panel. This told me to download the Ntune app to from Nvidia. In the meantime I was installing other software updates, etc. Several hours later I figured out that Ntune was the reason my computer was now constantly rebooting within seconds of booting. I didn’t figure this out until I did another full install with careful reboots between each driver install and software update.

    8. Finally, after 3 reinstalls, 1 weekend, and 3 week nights (but who’s counting…) I started playing games. The first night they all ran fine. The second night, the computer would “crash” (video stopped working) after a few minutes in-game. I tracked this down to the 8800gt incredibly bad default fan speed settings – ie: it would overheat instead of taking the fan above 30%. The only way to solve this? More intense voodoo with difficult-to-use 3rd party software. This time, Rivatuner.

    9. Using Rivatuner comes down to 2 primary options. The first is to manually create speed steps (eg. 40%, 60%, 80%, 100%) in 4 different menus and link them all together. The second step (which I chose) is to change some random variable in a list of hundreds to “3”, so that you can edit the “automatic fan control” settings. These settings consist of 6 or so variables that basically make no sense. Every time I thought I had figured them out, I tested them, and found that they definitely do not work in any sane way. In the end I fudged and tested until I found sufficiently aggressive fan control settings to keep my 8800gt from blowing itself up.

      End result, it works! Pix below! Thinking back to all these ridiculous issues – it probably would have been worth paying Shuttle to do it for me.

      Shuttle SFF Kawaii Kitty UpgradeSFF to Mid-Tower Comparison

  • Mages in WOW

    01 March 2008

    I’m not the only one with a love-hate relationship with the mage class. Check out these great mage videos:

    Big Blue Dress: This one is pretty self-explanatory. “Why I Ask, This Doesn’t Make Much Sense, That A Man Of My Stature Should Have To Wear a Dress??!!”

    A Mage in Action: This video sarcastically shows off the role of the Mage in WOW as a vending-machine-slash-taxi to the tune of some badass music. Check out the food line in Orgrimmar at the end :)