Build Your Very Own POS (Project Old School)
Skill Level: Intermediate – Requires some fabrication
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10 (Windows Sux)
For other DIY computer stuff, check out my page here.
When I started on the road to build a new review system for NerdBacon.com, I knew I wanted to stick with the design philosophy of the original POS, that is to build something extremely affordable but with enough chops to play and enjoy any game on at least medium settings. For several months now, the old POS was freezing randomly during use, and I suspected an intermittent motherboard issue. I was right, and the old soldier went belly up as I was trying to transfer all the accumulated data on its drives. Coincidence? Maybe, but I like to think we imbue a bit of our spirit into everything we touch. I think the old gal was just miffed that she was being replaced by a slinkier, sexier newer model and wanted to plant the boot at the appropriate time. What she doesn’t know is I already have a new board on the way for her, and she’s going to live again as a Linux-driven multimedia system in the living room.
What started out as a straightforward build turned into a quest for a new system, hampered by hardware failures, my obstinate choice to use a ten year-old case (because it really is cool), and good old Microsoft.
Let’s break down the build components first. I decided to stick with AMD due to the value inherent in the components and their suitability as a gaming platform, and the fact that Newegg had a Shellshocker combo I couldn’t turn down. I used the now venerable AM3+ platform with the following components:
FX-4300 Quad-core CPU
Biostar TA970 Motherboard
G.Skill NS Series 8GB (2X4GB) DDR3 @ 1333MHz
WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM HDD (OS, applications and storage)
Seagate Barracuda 160GB 7200RPM HDD (System Image and backup)
LG Multi-Drive DVD/CD+-RW optical drive
ASUS Radeon HD 7770 2GB DDR5 video card (worked for about 30 minutes, replaced with…)
Sapphire Radeon R7 260X 2GB DDR5 video card
Apevia X-Cruiser ATX Mid Tower Case circa 2004- Sturdy steel finished in electric blue with analog temperature, fan speed and voltmeter gauges (too cool!), LED case lighting, etc.
Two Cooler Master 80MM blue LED fans and one Rosewill 120MM blue LED fan – I’ll probably break down and put two fans in the front of the case soon, it tends to heat up after prolonged use…
I just couldn’t say no to the price. I got the CPU, board, memory, 1TB drive, optical drive, a cheap case with PSU, and a Radeon HD5450 card for $280. The R7 cost $130 with a $20 rebate, Windows is a bean ($100), and of course I had the case and smaller hard drive laying around.
So, it fits the bill for an inexpensive but competent little system.
It was, however, an exercise in patience to put it together. The case originally housed a socket AM2 system but I had never bothered to hook up the fans to the built-in fan controller, I just plugged the directly in to the PSU and had them running full blast all the time. Well, over the years shit happened and by the time I dug this case out of the closet and prepped it for this build, I found that at least one of the front wire harnesses was faulty, with loose wires going into the male Molex connector. Easy fix, I just hacked apart a Molex to SATA adapter that was in the case and rewired the fan controller. Next, I found that the temperature sensor no longer functioned. They’re quite delicate and should be stored inside a protective cover when not in use. Luckily, I have a small computer graveyard on-site and I found one in another old gaming case that did work. A little solder and a few minutes later and I was back in business.
This old case has some nice features, but also inherent limitations. One good thing is that the ATX motherboard bracket comes entirely out of the case. Another is that ten years later, all the holes are still in the same place. However, Biostar in their wisdom put some extra mounting points on their board. It was a good thought, since two of them are very close to the DIMM slots and the board really needs support there, but unfortunately the holes don’t match up with the ATX standard – I know this because I matched the board up with several cases of varying ages and none of them had holes to match these mounting points. So, OK, drill and tap a couple little holes and drive on. Another issue I’ll touch later on is cable routing- it just wasn’t as big a priority for case manufacturers ten years ago when this case was built.
Aside from the minor mounting hiccup, the board looks great and, so far, runs very well. It’s a good choice for anyone who wants a capable, value-oriented gaming board. The 970 series has the same basic features as the pricier 990FX, just less support for multiple-GPU setups. The Biostar has a snazzy red and black motif going on, not exactly a match for the case but still, an attractive board that appears to be comprised of good-quality components. Like all boards I’ve handled recently, it seems to be based on a thinner PCB and so is more delicate than older boards. That’s why I took the time to add the extra holes and spacers.
Everything else went into the case without a hitch – after I got the board mounted the rest of the system was ready to load OS in less than 20 minutes. With the cables connected for testing, I dropped a new copy of Windows 7 into the drive and listened eagerly as the disc spun up and Windows started loading. I use Windows OEM software packages. They’re cheaper than the retail versions and include the same software. For those of you who’ve heard you need to jump through hoops and install other software on a computer that’s already running 7, you don’t. These discs behave exactly like retail packages when you pop them in the drive. You only need to install OPK (Windows OEM Preinstallation Kit) and have a technician PC already running Server 2008, Vista, or 7 if you’re going to sell new computers with Windows installed.
And this is where the build went slightly awry. One of the lesser known facts of building life is that Windows won’t always install cleanly to a system using UEFI BIOS. Since nearly all newer boards use the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, this paragraph may be important to you. Windows will load the initial files and create the system partition (roughly 100MB) on the first several sectors of the drive, and then tell you it can’t install Windows on the hard drive. UEFI is telling Windows to look for GPT. GUID Partition Tables (GUID = Globally Unique Identifiers), but Windows is not feeling it. Don’t panic, there’s an easy workaround. Just remove the Windows CD and insert the driver CD that comes with your motherboard. On the screen that informs you of the error, there’s an “Advanced” button. Click that, and choose “Load Drivers” from the buttons below. When you’re able to read the list of drivers on your mobo driver disc, install all the SATA controller drivers (and RAID drivers if you’re going to utilize more than one disc for performance or redundancy reasons). Then, very important, click “Refresh” and put the Windows disc back in the drive. Install should continue at that point, but you may have to quit that installation and restart another, it just depends on the motherboard and how much misery Windows wants to put you through before it does what it’s supposed to. BTW, Microsoft describes this phenomenon as a known issue for about a year, but so far no formal solution has been published, at least no solution that works. Just stick with it, and eventually Windows will relent and complete the installation.
So far, so good. With 7 loaded up I went through installation of all the basics, antivirus (first, ALWAYS FIRST), productivity, photo editing, etc. software and then I went online to download and install the drivers for the HD 7770. I hardly ever use the included discs as the web has the latest driver versions. At any rate, with the drivers installed the graphics were looking tasty, my friends, at least to someone who was used to the 5570. And the ASUS 7770 was a very handsome and well-made piece, with sturdy aluminum shielding enclosing the goodness. Far less attractive were the artifacts that started showing up about fifteen minutes after I had the drivers installed. These grew increasingly worse and were followed by blank black screens, flickering desktop and other fun stuff. The card started to go south as soon as it heated up to a decent temperature. Sad. So, take the card out, call Newegg, get a label and RMA and send it back. Order another card, and what the heck drop a little extra cash on something with more grunt. If God hadn’t wanted that to happen the first card would have worked. This logic works well for any time you want to justify, well, anything.
Wait three days for the replacement card to arrive, drop it in and go. The R7 260X is a good little card, although I will say the Sapphire version doesn’t compare aesthetically with the ASUS design. The shielding is plastic and feels flimsy. On the positive side, it actually works and maintains a decent temperature even under load. Where the 5570 struggled to play RAGE at any resolution, the 260X does a decent job at the monitor’s native 1440 x 900 pixels, maintaining at least low 50s even with lots of action onscreen. In addition, it handles details much better, and all the complaints I had about the game’s unimaginative color palette were without merit. It still looks bleak, but the environment is veritably bursting with different shades. Character models look much better as well. I’ve included some screen shots for comparison.
This brings us to the only bad thing about the old X-Cruiser case – poor routing options. There’s just no way to make it look pretty. It is, however, very functional and all the wires are clear of the CPU and video card, leaving a nice open space and plenty of airflow. I didn’t even include a pic of the routing, that’s how unhappy I am with the way it looks…
The last thing to do was get all my Nerd Bacon and business stuff transferred over to the new tower. But as it is with all quests, the greatest hardships were to come when I was within sight of the goal. I plug the old POS back in and fire it up, only to be rewarded with a sinister popping, clicking noise emanating from the hard drive. The hard drive that was only about six months old. Joy and rapture. Pull the hard drive; plug it into the new board and it boots just fine. I was able to copy the data from RPE with no problems onto the new, spacious 1TB platter. It also gave me valuable info about what was going on inside the old POS. That left only Nerd Bacon stuff, housed on the second drive of the old POS. I’ll post an article about troubleshooting these kinds of issues soon.
After a bit more drive wrangling, the new POS is alive, well, and ready to dive back into gaming.
There are some valuable lessons to be learned here. The first is that with a bit of work, some determination, and perseverance, you can resurrect a cool old case and have something a bit different than the run-of-the-mill tower.
The second is to always have some sort of backup media. Although I do have all my important records, etc. stored on a portable drive, there’s no substitute for redundancy in your system. Don’t be afraid to recycle that older hard drive as a backup space. The little 160GB drive is perfect to store a system image of the new POS with Steam and all my games installed, and still has room to make extra copies of crucial files.
Hope you enjoyed this article, please leave feedback and thanks for reading!
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