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Building the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, Part 1
Pages: 1, 2, 3

DVD Writer: Plextor PX-712SA

Our data is crucial to us. We'll back up this system using the DVD writer, so it's important to choose a reliable model. Over the last decade, we've used optical drives from dozens of manufacturers, and none of them is as reliable as Plextor. Like Intel motherboards, Plextor optical drives aren't always the fastest or most fully featured models available, and they do cost more than lesser brands. But Plextor drives are rock-solid reliable--both the drives themselves and the discs they write. Over the years, we have burned boatloads of discs in Plextor drives. We have never had a Plextor drive fail, and we have never written a disc in a Plextor writer that later turned out to be unreadable. We can't say the same for other brands we have used.

We didn't want to install any old-style parallel ATA devices in this system, so we chose the Plextor PX-712SA DVD writer, which uses the Serial ATA interface. The PX-712A writes DVD+R discs at 12X, DVD-R at 8X, DVD+RW and DVD-RW at 4X, CD-R at 48X, and CD-RW at 24X. It reads DVDs at 16X maximum and CDs at 48X max. The PX-712SA supports lossless linking, background DVD+RW formatting, the DVD+VR format, and just about every other CD- and DVD-writing feature imaginable, with one exception: It does not write dual-layer DVDs. We considered that only a minor disadvantage, because dual-layer discs are still hard to find and expensive, and they are useful primarily for duplicating commercial DVD-Video discs, which we have no use for.

Plextor lists the PX-712SA as compatible only with Windows 2000 and XP, but the PX-712SA works perfectly on our Xandros Linux boxes using the excellent K3b burning software. In fact, DVD writing under Linux with K3b is noticeably faster than with Nero or Roxio software under Windows, particularly when writing many small files rather than a few large ones. Whether you run Windows or Linux or, as we do, both, the Plextor PX-712SA is the drive to choose. Be sure to read Part 2 of this article, which will be published next week, before you buy the PX-712SA drive.

If we were on a tighter budget or if we needed dual-layer DVD burning, we'd choose the NEC ND-3500A, which we've seen in OEM versions for as little as $85. With 16X DVD+R writing and dual-layer support, the ND-3500A is hard to beat for the price.

Case: Antec P160

This system will be a barn burner, so we wanted a case that looked the part. Vanilla beige just wouldn't cut it, and even black is becoming a bit too common. We wanted to use an aluminum case for its high-tech appearance. There were numerous candidates to choose among, but we settled on the Antec P160 for its combination of features, build quality, and low price (for an aluminum case).

Antec P160 Case
Figure 3. Antec P160 case (image courtesy of Antec, Inc.)

The Antec P160 provides all of the features we wanted in a case for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. It's constructed of heavy 1.2mm aluminum stock with an attractive anodized finish. There's plenty of expansion room, with 10 drive bays, including four external 5.25" bays and two external 3.5" bays. Antec provides aluminum bezels for optical and floppy drives.

The P160 accepts any motherboard up to standard ATX and includes numerous convenience features such as a tool-free removable side panel, a removable motherboard tray, and a washable air filter. Antec obviously engineered this case for quiet operation and effective cooling. The hard drive trays include rubber shock-mounting grommets to reduce drive noise. One quiet, low-speed 120mm fan is supplied with the case. There is a mounting position for a second 120mm fan, although the second fan shouldn't be needed in any but the most heavily loaded configurations.

We also like the unique swiveling front control panel that can be rotated from vertical to a 45° upward angle for improved visibility. It provides the usual front-panel connectors, including two USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE-1394 (FireWire or i.Link) port, and two audio ports, as well as an LED temperature display with two built-in temperature sensors. If there's a better case for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC, we don't know about it.

Power Supply: Antec NeoPower 480

A good power supply is a major factor in system stability. Unlike most cases, the Antec P160 does not include a power supply. That makes sense, because most people who build a PC around the P160 will want to choose a specific power supply appropriate for their system configuration. For ours, we chose the Antec NeoPower 480. The NeoPower 480 is an expensive power supply. It sells for about a 50 percent premium over the superb Antec TruePower 550W units, but we considered the additional features of the NeoPower 480 to be worth the extra $50 or so.

Antec NeoPower 480 power supply
Figure 4. Antec NeoPower 480 power supply (image courtesy of Antec, Inc.)

If you've ever worked with a standard power supply, the first thing you'll notice about the NeoPower 480 is the Advanced Cable Management System, which Antec has patented. The typical rat's nest of cables is absent. Instead, the NeoPower 480 provides only a basic set of permanently attached power cables, including the ATX12V main power cable and the ATX12V processor power cable. All other cables, including drive power cables, are detachable; they connect to one of the four proprietary 6-pin connectors on the side of the power supply. That means you connect only the cables you need, which improves airflow and greatly reduces clutter inside the case.

The NeoPower 480 provides the new 24-pin ATX12V main power connector used by the Intel D925XCV motherboard. Although it's possible to power the D925XCV with an older 20-pin ATX12V power supply, doing so requires providing supplemental voltage by connecting a Molex drive-power connector to the motherboard. We prefer the less cluttered connection available with a 24-pin power supply. PCI Express video adapters have special voltage requirements, for which the NeoPower 480 provides the new 6-pin PCI Express connector. It's possible to power a PCI Express video adapter with an older power supply using a Molex drive power connector to provide supplemental voltage. However, using a power supply with a PCI Express connector provides a cleaner solution.

Unlike many power supplies, which cut costs by sharing control circuitry among two or more voltage rails, the NeoPower 480 provides dedicated circuitry to control each voltage rail. The critical voltage rails use feedback circuitry to control output voltage within very tight tolerances, which contributes to increased system stability. To accommodate the heavy +12V demands of current processors like the Prescott-core Pentium 4, the NeoPower 480 provides dual +12V rails.

The NeoPower 480 is engineered for quiet, cool, efficient operation. It monitors operating temperature and adjusts the speed of its own 120mm fan accordingly. It also provides dedicated fan-only power connectors that can control the speed of supplemental case fans as the temperature inside the case varies, reducing fan speeds for quieter operation until higher speeds are required to cool the system.

The NeoPower 480 is more energy-efficient than many power supplies because it uses Active PFC (power-factor correction) to reduce the maximum amperage it draws. A non-PFC power supply of similar wattage may have a peak current 25 percent or more higher than the NeoPower 480. The Active PFC and other efficiency features of the NeoPower 480 translate to reduced current consumption, lower operating temperatures, and the ability to use a UPS with a smaller VA rating.

Overall, we think the Antec NeoPower 480 is the best mainstream power supply available, so that's what we decided to use.

Component Summary

Table 1 summarizes the components we chose for our Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC. With the exception of the memory, which we priced directly from Crucial, the prices shown for all components were obtained from NewEgg in late September 2004.

Table 1. Component Summary

Component Product Price
Processor Intel Pentium 4 560 $535
CPU cooler <included with retail-box processor> $0
Motherboard Intel D925XCV $195
Memory Crucial CT16HTF6464AG-53EB2 PC-4200U 512 MB DDR2 DIMMs (two at $187 each) $374
Graphics adapter nVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT PCI Express $389
Audio adapter <embedded> $0
Network adapter <embedded> $0
Hard drives Seagate ST3160827AS Barracuda 7200.7 SATA NCQ (two at $115 each) $230
Optical drive Plextor PX-712SA S-ATA DVD burner $155
Case Antec P160 $119
Power supply Antec NeoPower 480 $151

There's only one way to find out whether it all works, so stay tuned. In Part 2 of this article you can follow us as we build the Perfect Bleeding-Edge PC around these components.

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson. All rights reserved.

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of "Building the Perfect PC" and "PC Hardware in a Nutshell." She runs her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions.

In August 2004, O'Reilly Media, Inc., released Building the Perfect PC.

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