Monday, 1 July 2013

A Game Of Two Halves

Building the Beast

It was the day of building the eponymous beast, we had all the bits, the house was cleared of small urchins with their touching fingers, and we were finally ready to go. I opened the system board box and carefully removed & inspected the contents. The Intel DQ77KB board comes with a poster sized "how-to-do" instruction sheet. It has good clear instructions, colour diagrams and each stage is split into simple numbered steps. My son Saul (who was new to computer building) had no problems following them under my watchful eye and with the odd word of assurance. I was like the sensei passing on noble skills to his apprentice.
Number one super guy!

We had a chat about static electricity and being careful about which bits you touch, and then kicked Off with Stage 1: processor installation. The Intel 1150 socket is a marvel of engineering and easier than it looked to use. I open and closed it a few times admiring the action, (it's a sort of tilt, slide and spring-lock). The retail boxed i3 processor came with a standard (four wire) cooling fan which just pressed into the four holes in the system board around the base of the socket. The fan header was close enough by to accommodate the short cable, and under operation it turned quite slowly and was almost silent.

nb. Inside the box I found a HDMI to DVI adaptor, which I'd gone out of my way to buy separately, but hey these things happen. The one I bought is far nicer :-)

Next the laptop style memory just slotted in like normal, though Saul was a little worried about how you had to joggle them a little before they would firmly snap down. The mSATA card fixes onto the full size PCI Express mini-card slot on the system board. I'd never seen these cards before and it really was small (see picture below with it in my son's hand). Resembling memory, it slid in at an angle and then had to be pushed flat against quite a springy force. Two tiny screws held it in place and there was some potential for this "liveliness" to catapult them (never to be seen again) if you didn't have your wits about you.

The mSATA card in Saul's hand.
Overall I am very impressed with the Intel system board, it's clear english instructions and the nifty processor socket and fan. Next step was to mount the board in the case and fire-it-up.

A Case of Beauty

The Streacom F7C EVO came exquisitely packed in a matt black cardboard box not unlike an Apple product, (we have a few of those in the house) protected by foam packaging and a white fabric bag. The comparison didn't end there, the look and quality of the case was equally top notch.

The Streacom F7C EVO Mini-ITX case.
I must say, I've very impressed by the solid feel and attention to detail. It's made of sand blasted thick anodised aluminium, laser engraved with large padded plastic feet and a minimalistic look. This does mean you don't get a reset button or a hard disk light. As a side project I started to contemplate adding an LED shining through the infra-red receiver window. The case is designed for a multimedia PC so an add-on receiver board for a remote control can be fitted behind the font panel, next to the two USB sockets.

Inside is also quite minimal (and no sharp edges anywhere, leaving fingers safe from cuts), there's a painted steel rack that bridges from front to back where you can bolt your hard disks (1 x 3.5" and 1 x 2.5") and a mount for a slot-loading CD/DVD drive. Then towards the rear there's a small bracket for mounting a standard 8" case fan.

Bagged Up Hardware.

Mounting hardware comes in individually labelled bags, but only sizes are stated & not what they're intended for. I took them out and by process of elimination worked out which ones where intended for mounting the system board. But I think they missed a trick here because there are no instructions in the box. Just adding 3.5" HDD or Motherboard to the appropriate label would have really helped, but if you've built a few machines before you'll soon work it out.

The motherboard matched the four mounting pillars exactly, but it does sit a little low in the case making some of the rear sockets slightly hard to access. Finally the power switch and power LED connectors were attached to the colour coded headers.

System Board Mounted Ready to Boot.
That went well, we had a full computer system on a board less than 9 inches square in under an hour.

And then the Fun Began

We both smiled as it booted first time, but then I couldn't get it into the BIOS settings. The splash-screen with instructions flicked by so quickly!! After a few restarts I figured out that F2 needs to be held down and then I was able to continue (surprising this wasn't on the quick-start sheet). I reduced the memory voltage down to 1.35 volts, and then spent a few moments looking at the various config pages. Each option has help text that displays over on the right of the screen, and it actually makes sense. This is a far cry from what I'm used to.

To take care of the disk cloning I downloaded a bootable CD image of Parted Magic. It took a while to start from a USB CD drive up on my old 1Ghz machine but once running it gives you a gnome based system to modify and manage your disks without having to get "down and dirty" with the command line. It actually does a whole lot more so I'd recommend checking it out if you run Linux.

Parted Magic Screen.
The plan was to clone the old IDE solid state disk onto a temporary disk, then clone that onto the mSATA drive. The first clone worked OK, taking about 10 minutes to do a 30Gb disk, but when I attempted the second stage (onto the mSATA card) it kept hanging. In one instance I left it running for over an hour, but it wasn't able to move on from 61% complete. I repeated this a few more times in vein, and then tried to manually format the mSATA from the command line. This rewarded me with a kernel panic and a "Buffer I/O error on device" message.

After a few more hours of trying different things I reverted back to my old server. I've raised an RMA with eBuyer to have it replaced, but it's left my son a little disappointed. He was really hoping to get the Minecraft server up and running. Perhaps it had been going too well, as those who have previously built computers will recognise, but as Saul's first experience at PC building it has actually been quite positive. He did tell me later that it was much easier than he'd imagined, and I think he enjoyed doing it.

So a result,.. though for the meanwhile only a minor one. (We'll try again after I've been through eBuyer's returns process)


  1. Good article and actually reflects my own experience in a lot of ways I could almost feel the slight tension before you started it the first time!
    Curious to know, why did you choose mSATA over a regular SATA drive? (Going to guess size but is the case not big enough for a regular ssd / 2.5" hdd?)
    Also... where is the PSU? :)
    Is the case good quality inside, rounded edges on metal edges, bays for drives, good cable management etc?
    I ask as I have recently thought of building another PC and was lloking at Mini-ITx cases! :)

  2. Thanks Neil, I certainly tried to find the right level between providing enough detail to be interesting without swamping the poor reader with specs. Some of your queries are perhaps answered in earlier posts but I'll answer anyway just in case I wasn't clear.

    My main reason for choosing mSATA is that my current server has 4 HDDs (3 x 2.5" and 1 x 3.5") which is a lot for a case that officially only holds a 2.5" and a 3.5".

    Given I am not able to transfer the current 2.5" IDE SSD over I needed to find a replacement. And when I discovered that the new system board could mSATA I figured that's one less drive to worry about mounting. Seems to make a lot of sense in a Mini-ITX machine too.

    I didn't really give a fair review of the case, but there are some good reviews elsewhere on the web that are worth looking at. But it's an interlocking C design with absolutely no sharp edges, space for two drives, plus a slot load CD (I intend using this for my second 2.5" hdd) and no cable management. It's very minimalist so it's up to you to keep your cables tidy.

    If you like pretty this is the case for you, if you need functional and lots of disk bays then you'd be better looking elsewhere.

  3. Nice one. I just went back through your June posts, I came to this one directly from a G+ post so wasn't really looking beyond it but now have the background. ;)

    We're having our house extended and so I'm looking for a second PC for the kids. (Q6600 Quad Core / 8GB RAM/ GTX650 and about 3TB storage).
    In reality they will probably use my workhorse and I'm looking to build something quieter and smaller to keep in the dining room for my use.
    I'm probably going to migrate a couple of the data drives I have but still want to play games on it so my needs are a little way off yours particularly as my gaming needs go a bit beyond MC :D
    (incidentally Cade has been running various minecraft servers on the current PC for his friends for close to a year now)
    I've been drooling over this case :
    Which you can get in white or black, with or without a PSU.
    I will be jamming in a full length GFX Card and beyond that not thought too hard about it :)
    Oh I'll be aiming for 8GB ram and Win7 / 8 (probably 7 since I already own that and to save a few quid).
    Interested to see on you get on with the rest of your build!
    BTW Saul may find this of interest :
    Basically it's like MC in space you can build ships with working engines / shields / weapons, mine asteroids and build space stations.
    There's a PvP element too and setting up a server is simple.

  4. That case you sent a link to was on my short list and it's a bit cheaper than the one I bought, but I didn't like the fact that it was so deep. (I'm picky) It is a cracking case and I think it's worth NOT scrimping in this area.

    I've got a mSATA adapter on order to try and get the project moving again (must try and get another posting out because there have been developments). Yesterday I discovered my main /data and /home HDD was failing so I spent some time trying to salvage data while the disk is still running.

    Thanks for the heads up on Star-Made but a friend of mine has already started video blogging about it.

    Love to hear about your build, the DQ77KB is a great low power mini-itx board as long as you are ok about limited TDP of 65w, but that doen't limit it that much. You can still throw an i7 into it if budget permits.

    My previous servers haven't had enough horse power to do anything other than what they were intended for (headless server) but I'm toying with the idea of installing some VM's.