Live blogging a computer upgrade

It’s Saturday morning, and I am in the process of upgrading an old computer I have to help support the development of This website has inspired me for a number of research projects along the way to becoming (hopefully) a successful e-commerce website. The backend program I am using to create maps is quite CPU intensive (0% hard drive activity after initial data load, 100% cpu usage for minutes to hours depending on the size of the map).

The computer I am upgrading is about 7 years old and is one that I built while a grad student at UC Davis. The specs for it are: Dual Pentium III 1 GHz processors with 512MB of RAM (the maximum allowed by the motherboard). The only components that will remain after the upgrade will be the case, an old graphics card, and a cd-writer. All other components will be replaced. The upgraded system will have the following components:

  • Intel Core 2 Quad 9550 processor, 2.83GHz, 12 MB cache
  • ASUS P5Q SE/R Motherboard (Intel P45 chipset with ICH10R Southbridge providing RAID)
  • 8GB G.SKill P8500 DDR2 RAM operating at 1066MHz
  • (2) 500GB Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM, 32MB cache hard drives operating in RAID 0
  • 500W Energy efficient Antec earthwatts power supply
  • A very old cd-writer that still works (hopefully)
  • A new lightscribe DVD writer, CD writer combo drive
1 – Analise and Josiah help unpack the box from 2 – All the new components are laid out on the table 3 – The current setup showing the computer to be replaced on the bottom

11:15AM So that brings us to where we are now. I am making a rough outline of the next steps to tackle as detailed below:

  1. Run PC Mark Vantage on the top computer (my current development machine) to have a quantifiable benchmark to compare against the new machine. The top computer is an AMD Athlon X2 4400 (two cores running at 2.2GHz each) with 4GB of memory running 64bit Vista.
  2. Boot up the old computer and verify that important data has been backed up to the external hard drive (shown on top of the top computer).
  3. Remove all components from the bottom computer. Thoroughly dust the case and prepare it for the new components.
  4. Install the new power supply
  5. Install the new CPU onto the new motherboard.
  6. Install the G.Skill memory onto the new motherboard.
  7. Install the new motherboard into the case
  8. Install the new lightscribe DVD writer
  9. Re-install the old CD-writer
  10. Install the temporary hard drive (an old 8.4 gb drive) while waiting for the new ones to arrive
  11. Install a 64bit version of Debian to test the operation and stability of the new components

11:55AM I just finished benchmarking my current development system and checking that the important data on the 8.4gb hard drive has been saved. The screenshot below shows the comparison of my system to the fastest system tested using the benchmark out of 92,836 total systems tested:

4 – PC Mark Vantage results on my current development computer. This will be useful for comparison with the new computer.

12:15PM Time to move on to the next step — removing all the old components and cleaning out the case to make it ready for the new components. It is also time for lunch!

5 – Since we were moving outside anyway, it was time for a picnic lunch in the driveway 6 – Here is the open case with all the old components and a few “surprises” in it. 7 – The kids helped remove the surprises which I am sure they were responsible for in the first place since there was an open 5.25″ drive bay on the front of the computer that was right at their height

1:00PM Let the dusting begin! Once I have removed all the components, I can freely dust the computer with a can of compressed air, a handheld dustbuster, and my t-shirt if necessary.

8 – Here are all the components removed and laying at the entrance to our garage. Notice that one of the “surprises” found in the computer hasn’t been removed yet. 9 – You’d be surprised how much dust accumulates inside a computer case after 7 or 8 years of use. It took about an hour to completely dust and clean the inside of this case. 10 – Here is the “recycled” computer case. It sure would have been easier to buy a new $50 case, but hey I saved my $50 and the environment with an hour’s worth of work

2:15PM With everything back inside and the kids settled down for a nap, it is time to get to the most crucial and delicate part of the operation done — installing the CPU, heat-sink, and memory onto the motherboard. Here is a sequence of pictures detailing the process:

11 – The ASUS P5 motherboard is ready for some components. Note the “important” message stamped onto the processor cover. Freaked me out a little bit, especially considering how much force you do end up needing to use to clamp the processor in place.

12 – Here is the tiny cpu which is easily outsized 10 times by the heatsink and fan sitting on top of it. Note the timestamp of 06 – I am a little bothered by that, but comforted by the fact that the timestamp is probably when the very first pre-production processors were being produced and they never changed the stamp once they went into production.

13 – Whew, the CPU, heatsink, and fan are all in place. The process is very easy, but you do have to press down hard on the clamp to lock the processor in place. Then you have to press down very hard to snap the heatsink plugs through the four holes surrounding the processor

14 – Memory installation is extremely easy. Just pull the levers away, slide the memory straight in, and then push the levers back up to lock in place. I remember when you use to have to slide in memory at a 45 degree angle with a lot of force to get it to stay in place.

2:45PM With all components in place, I can begin on the installation of the case components (power supply, fans, etc…) and then the motherboard into the case. This is where I encounter the first minor hiccup of the day. I have already installed and screwed down the motherboard when I realize that I need to have the motherboard faceplate already in place as it won’t squeeze between the motherboard and faceplate window. My solution to the problem is to use poster puddy to afix the face place tightly on the outside of the case. The next major hiccup is the realization that my old AGP graphics card will not work with my new PCI-express motherboard. The pictures detailing these hiccups are below:

15 – Faceplate problem – note the poster puddy at the edges of the faceplate keeping it in place!

16 – Graphics card problem – the graphics card on my old computer is an AGP card. My new motherboard, on the other hand, only works with PCI-express cards. So this picture shows my current development machine about to cough up its PCI-express card temporarily. Then when I went to boot the new computer, nothing was on the screen so I thought there was an incompatibility between the card and the motherboard. I tried lots of things and was about to give up when I realized it wasn’t a graphics problem at all. I had forgotten to plug the power cable from the power supply to the power socket next to the CPU. Once I did that everything booted up fine.

6:00PM After a break for dinner and a family walk around the neighborhood watching the sunset and beautiful fall colors of the trees, I was finally ready to install an operating system. I knew that whatever installation I was going to do would be temporary since my real hard drives hadn’t come in yet so I thought I would do a net install of Debian linux. Unfortunately after two failed attempts, two wasted cdroms, and a little bit of frustration I decided to go with a temporary Vista installation since that is the OS I will be running anyway. The installation was extraordinarily slow because of a scratched DVD and slow hard drive. Later after installing all the drivers and updates for vista, my PC mark scores were considerably higher for CPU-intensive tasks, but slower for any tasks that stressed the hard drive.

17 – Finally, everything was up and running and I was able to get Vista installed. Here is the temporary home for the newly upgraded computer.

18 – Here is the cpuz screenshot showing the new processor running at 2.83 GHz with 4 cores.

19 – Here is the cpuz screenshot showing the cache configuration. My hardware students will be learning about memory caches by the end of this month.

20 – Here is the cpuz screenshot showing the motherboard information.

21 – Here is the cpuz screenshot showing current memory information.

22 – Here is the cpuz screenshot showing the memory capabilities of individual RAM modules. Since all 4 slots are filled with identical modules, each has the same information. Note that my memory is actually being over-clocked to match the PC8500 specification printed on the box. I think that is a little misleading. Stability seems fine so far, but the only potential problem is that it requires a higher voltage which means the memory chips will heat up. I have a three good fans in the case, so I am hoping that is enough to keep the modules from overheating.

9:13 PM – I am finally up and running! The upgrade all-in-all went smoothly with only a couple hiccups. I took pictures throughout the upgrade and I will add them in a “pseudo-live” format based on the timestamps of the pictures. Unfortunately I had to “borrow” the graphics card from my development computer because the graphics card on the old computer I was upgrading was an AGP graphics card. Alas, my new motherboard has only PCI and PCI-express slots 🙁 so I had no computer at all to do my live updates. One of the most time-consuming parts of the entire process was trying to get all the dust out of the old computer. I also found a dead cockroach, an acorn, a CD, and a casette tape all INSIDE the computer. Hilarious as the computer was still running and working fine with all the “extras” inside it. Here are the results of the PC Mark Vantage test. As mentioned before, the performance was definitely better, and I know that the new hard drives and faster graphics card coming in this week will up the performance significantly.

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