Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PVR Build Log #02 (Refinements and Clarifications)

Wow. I came home from some errands yesterday to UPS-delivered hardware. I had Leon along, and I figured it would be fun to install the motherboard into the case, even if that's all we could do for the moment.

Oh, I forgot in the last post. Another part I had on hand to use in the PVR is my Gyration wireless keyboard and mouse set. With a 30 foot range, they're perfect for operating a PVR system from the couch or across the room.

I bought that Intel motherboard refurbished, and it came without an I/O backplate. That's a problem. It's possible to install a motherboard without the backplate, and it will work, but it's a bad idea for a couple of reasons.
  1. Static electricity. The main purpose of the backplate is to provide a grounding surface in close proximity to all of the various ports sticking through it. If you string a headphone cable (just supposin') back there that's carrying a serious static charge, then if you're lucky, you'll fumble around a bit and accidentally touch that backplate with the end of the jack before plugging it in. This will discharge the static to the PC chassis, saving your motherboard from having to deal with the potentially deadly surge.
  2. Fumbling mishaps. Your motherboard is sensitive. The backplate protects you from your own clumsiness by making sure that you don't accidentally poke a connector into the case and short out something sensitive. And believe me, with surface mount components all over your board, there are plenty of opportunities for this sort of mishap.
  3. Finally, this may seem more mundane than the above two answers, but it's almost as important: Having gaping holes in your case really screws up air flow and dust management. Don't shrug; this is important. Your computer hates dust, because it builds up on components, insulating them, which means that they can't shed heat anymore. The heat builds up and the next thing you know, you've let the smoke out of a chip. This is how aging electronics die. It's not the age; it's the dust and heat.
Incidentally, the above discussion of heat problems is also why all of the chips in computers these days are soldered down or, in the case of your processor, clamped down. They used to be secured in cute little brackets that held them in place by friction. But the heating/cooling cycles caused by powering on and off the system, and even just working the system hard and then giving it a break, caused the chips to work their way out of the brackets. It was dubbed "chip creep" at the time, and it was a major headache.

Anyway, I had the backplate that came with the case, and two more kicking around in my spare parts drawer, all of which were roughly the same, and none of which matched up to the motherboard's ample selection of ports and connectors. Time to break out the dremel.

I removed the factory backplate from the case (since I was going to have to anyway) and held it up to the motherboard to see where they did and didn't match. I found that with a little tweaking, all I had to do is get rid of the audio ports area and it would fit the board well enough.

I stepped outside with the backplate and the dremel once for the bulk cutting, and twice more for strategic sanding and ended up with a workable backplate. It isn't perfect, but it's far better than nothing.

I got about three screws into the motherboard, and the doorbell rang. It was FedEx with the rest of my parts! Now we could really build the whole thing.

Leon and I began stuffing the case. I meant to take photographs of the process, but once I get started building a machine, I don't stop until it's done. So I didn't take photos. Sorry. But it's just as well, because the inside isn't quite as neat as I'd like...It's a lot harder to build neatly inside a small case. Don't get me wrong, cables are not all over in there. It's just not something I'd put a case window on.

We assembled the system except for the hard drive, because the 320GB drive was for the server. The drive intended for the PVR was still in my desktop and I had files to move. But on closer inspection, I found that the new drive is SATA, and not PATA like I had thought. The drive it's meant to replace in the server is PATA and the SATA ports in DENTSERVER are already full.

So I ended up installing the new 320GB drive in the PVR anyway. That little box is full of some pretty cool parts.

Time for software. The system POSTed fine on the very first power on. Additionally, the HD and Power LEDs lit correctly on the first try, and my power LED switch works perfectly. That's a pretty bright blue LED, and I'm sure the switch will prove handy.

For the initial few boots, I used a BartPE disc that I recently created. It's a live CD that boots to Windows XP Pro without touching the hard drive, and it also has Acronis Disk Director 9, Acronis True Image, Norton Ghost 9, Nero 6, and a number of other handy utilities (all of which I have legal licenses for) installed on it. This makes tasks like backing up a borked OS and cloning hard drives much easier. BartPE is cool stuff, by the way. Check out the link above for BartPE's main site.

OS Follies

I originally intended to install RedHat Fedora Core 4 as the base Linux OS on the PVR. Fedora Core 4 is brand new--it was released on 13 June 2005--and it doesn't support SATA drives. RedHat folks...Hello? Are you at home? No SATA support? WTF?

Running the install disc simply resulted in a system hang shortly after the install searched in vain for a hard drive to mount.

I really want a full-featured Linux OS on this system, so one of the simplicity-centric distros won't do. That rules out SimplyMepis, Knoppix, and Ubuntu. I looked for a new Mandrake (make that Mandriva) set of ISOs, but it appears that Mandriva really wants money before the web site will give a download link. (By the way, I installed Ubuntu while I was waiting for Fedora ISOs to download, just to see if I could. Ubuntu worked perfectly. That's a hell of an OS.)

So I resorted to a slightly older install set that I already have of Mandrake 9.1. I got as far as localizing the keyboard (to American English), and the install program would not recognize my USB mouse, no matter what I tried. This was Mandriva's second chance. On to the next distro. (
And I won't be linking to Mandriva. You can Google it if you care that much.)

And let me mention here that I'm not happy with where Linux distribution is going. All of the big names in Linux (except Fedora) want me to buy a support license before they hand over the damned ISOs.
This is not ok. I'm your potential customer, and you're pissing me off. I may buy support for a Linux OS at some point in the future, but I will not buy from a company that hides the free OS from me until I pay them. Never.

Thank goodness for, the online clearinghouse for Torrents of darned near any distro you could hope for. I selected five or so for download and went to bed.

Our new 7MB downstream connection has already proven extremely handy; I had all the torrents I had selected when I woke up five hours later, except for
both of the Mandriva distros I had selected. That's right; I gave Mandriva a third and fourth chance. You blew it, guys. You can't even seed a torrent right. It'll be a long time before I try Mandriva again.

Of the many times I've installed Linux at home, none of those installs have been SUSE Linux. I keep hearing good things about SUSE, but I've never tried it. This morning I burned the single DVD ISO (~3GB) for the SUSE install and popped it into the PVR.

Nice! SUSE's installer is graphical and elegant, and worked out how to properly use my USB keyboard and mouse without any interaction from me at all. They just worked, as they should. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to finish the install process because I had to go to work and open the lab. When I get home, I'm going to start the SUSE install from scratch again, just to see how pretty.

And now that I've thought about it for a while, I think I'm going to dual-boot this system with Windows XP. It occurred to me that it would be nice to have this machine available for Half-Life and MCM2, and any emulators that might be Linux Impaired. So I'll have to install XP before I run the SUSE disc again.

I sure hope that SUSE continues to impress me.

1 comment:

  1. Damn Blogger...It keeps screwing up the font near the end of the post no matter what I do. Sorry for the font size change.