This post is a bit of a computer build log. Though I really just swap the guts from one case into another with a few slight tweaks. I also did the work on this machine on one of my typical workbenches – my office desk so you’ll see some other machines in the background as well as the subject machines of this post.
Reliant: You Served Us Well:
So first off, what is Reliant? Reliant is the name of a very dependable and regularly used old workstation in our office. It was named after the USS Reliant from Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan (easily one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time). Reliant is an older machine, a Dell Optiplex 755 model with just 2GB of RAM and a core 2 duo e6600 (2.4GHz). Over the years people repeatedly had issue with it due to the low RAM and poor integrated graphics. This machine had some odd issue with the RAM slots, it seems that half of both the A&B channels had burned out. How that can happen is beyond me, but I could only populate DIMM3 & DIMM4 (a2 & b2) on that machine and I either didn’t have any 2GB DDR2 memory or the ones I had didn’t work in that machine.
The machine was given to me by an ex-coworker so I didn’t have a dime in it. I might have considered upgrading it before, but it was still working well enough. In addition, being installed in a very tight spot didn’t make me eager to do any work on it. But after 4 years, it is time for a change to something better.
The Awesome Find:
The replacement system I picked was a junkyard find, a Dell XPS 8300. This machine is one of the newest pieces of hardware I’ve ever found at a yard. When I found this XPS and saw the i7 tag, I could hardly believe what I saw. I figured it must really be dead because it was only a few years old. It had been kicked around the scrapyard for a while so it was pretty beat up.
When I got it home I proceeded to see if it worked and it did turn on. I immediately heard some beeps and after some quick checking found that the the beep code I heard was “real time clock failure”. Seriously… real time clock failure, so the battery was just dead? Really? Sure enough after changing out the battery I was greeted with the post screen on the next power on. Now in all fairness, I ended up finding that there was some memory incompatibility with one of the pairs of RAM that was installed causing some startup beeps once in a while and which also destabilized the system. The memory was probably upgraded because it had a pair of two 2GB DIMMs installed and a pair of 4GB DIMMS installed – I never checked the service tag, but the 4GB DIMMs were probably the original equipment. I’ll imagine the original user was fed up at that point, three problems with that computer that I could see (1, it was too low on RAM and needed an upgrade, 2, the machine was probably exhibiting the memory problems which forced 3, the machine to sit unplugged for a while and eventually killed the battery). I suppose it is also possible that the battery died once the machine was sent to the scrapyard. Either way, with those fixes the XPS was now stable and reliable. This machine had no disk drives other than the optical disk when I found it. At that time, I added a 128GB SSD as well as a standard 320GB SATA disk drive and installed openSUSE 13.2 on the SSD.
Finding the Right Case:
I picked the case shown below for the new system. It was originally a Nobilis Pentium D system. This was yet another junkyard rescue and is a little scratched and scuffed but nothing near as bad as the XPS. I needed the height of the case to be less than 14.5″ tall. You can see Reliant at the far right beneath the printer (there is not much room).
The system in this case was filthy, not the worst I’ve seen, but it was pretty gross. This case is a fairly standard mini-tower, two external 3.5″ bays, two external 5.25″ bays and 1 internal 3.5″ bay. Basically it had everything I needed in a mini-tower case and the style was something I could live with. I’m somewhat particular, I have around a dozen mini-tower cases but most of the others didn’t really stack up aesthetically. The first case I picked was a Dell Vostro 220, unfortunately it didn’t have a removable I/O shield, it just had the ports punched out for the particular board it had installed by the factory. I was actually pretty surprised by that.
Doing the System Swap:
Below is an image of the Dell before I removed the system. I think it is interesting how dell oriented the internal 3.5″ drive bays sideways. I’m not really a fan, it seems to me like there is limited room for upgrades (though most people wouldn’t need the space so I can understand the decision by the maker).
The Dell has a standard micro-ATX motherboard standoff pattern as did the micro-ATX in the Nobilis system so no problems there. I considered using the power supply from the Nobilis system but thought better of it for a few reasons. First, the Nobilis is older and of lower power (380 watt vs 460 watt), second, the Dell power supply was specifically matched by Dell to that machine, and third, the Dell power supply was as clean as the rest of the Dell machines internals.
Installation went fairly easily but one problem was the cable length of the SATA power connectors. I have heard that Dell custom produces their hardware to their own specifications to save money. As such, there was limited cable length beyond what comfortably fit the Dell case. It really wasn’t much of a problem, I just needed to keep the main disk drive close to the secondary drive. I was fortunate to have a spare 3.5″ to 2.5″ HDD converter I didn’t use from a Rosewill Challenger case to install the SSD. This new system needed to have dual monitor support so I installed a Dell K192G NVIDIA GeForce9300 256MB video card. These are decent cards for everyday home & office use and light gaming, they support two monitors via a DMS-59 port (fortunately I have numerous adapters). At this point I was about finished. I had transferred almost every part from the old Dell XPS 8300, even the case exhaust fan (because it was clean, worked well and was quiet).
A Fun Diversion:
With all the parts from the Dell XPS 8300 into the Nobilis case I thought I was about done. But something was missing, some color, some flare…
There is something about lights in a computer that is just plain awesome. I wanted to have some red lights since my other machines in the area are pure blue. I knew I had an old red LED fan, but IIRC it was in rough shape. Yes indeed, after I dug out the clear plexiglass case it was installed in previously I found that though it still lit up bright as day the fan blade was wobbly and loose. I thought I could just pull off the fan blade entirely, however the copper windings that remained got quite hot after running the fan for a few moments. I tried to rip the remainder of the motor off from the plastic fan base. Unfortunately, though I did get the motor piece off the circuit board, I ripped the contacts for all of the leds off the circuit board as well. Next I found a blue led fan I had and started playing around with the salvaged LEDs from the red fan. I found that they would light when connected to the leads coming off the blue LEDs, but that there was not enough power in the line to power both at the same time. I ended up splicing two of the red LEDs into the fan. I had to run out to the hardware store to get some heat shrink tubing.
I used the red LEDs to point through the bottom two mounting holes of the fans frame. Then, when installed, I taped the two blue LEDs where they could be seen shining nicely from the front of the case. They give the front grille a cool symmetric colored glow as well as a nice color blending effect. The ridiculous truth is I spent far too much time on the fan lights.
Just one final step, get rid of that Pentium D sticker and replace it with the Core i7 badge from the XPS case. Luckily that was easy enough and now the machine looks great! I was able to squeeze it into the cabinet where the old Dell was, but it was a tight fit and it hangs out in both the front and the rear of the cabinet a little, though I knew it would.
The system is performing as expected. One thing that did surprise me was that my wife was excited about the new computer. She had to deal with the issues on the old one so perhaps it should have come as no surprise.
As with all my machines, I’m hoping for a long an uneventful life. Since this hardware is newer, and has been previously tested as being stable I would think that chances are good we get many years of quality service from this machine. But what about Reliant? Well, I’m not sure yet. It certainly still had good potential for a number of projects, so I guess we’ll see what happens.