Sunday, July 16, 2017

Building a Computer

Years ago I modified computers on a regular basis, swapping pieces around and buying new components. When I was in middle school one of my birthday presents was a new motherboard - except my parents didn't know which one to get, so they used a chunk of 2x4 with "The Mother of All Boards" markered onto it as a stand-in. I pretty much quit messing with hardware after I got my first laptop. It's not practical to modify mobile hardware much, and I had switched to consoles for gaming needs.

The rise of Steam, with it's massive expansion of the games catalog and unmatched yearly sales, convinced me I should get back into PC gaming. But I still have some unusual constraints, in particular that I want to fly my PC back to Wisconsin every year. Since airlines are charging through the nose for checked bags, I wanted to be able to fit it in a carry-on.

It turns out that there are almost no pre-made PCs that are physically small enough to carry-on, yet have a full-strength graphics card. Cyberpower's Syber line, and OriginPC's Chronos seem to be the best options, but there are a few others around. Naturally you end up paying a premium to have someone else build them for you, so I elected to build my own.

Since case size seemed to be the biggest constraint, I started there. There are a number of crowdfunded options including the NCase M1, Sentry, and DAN A4-SFX, but they tend to be quite expensive. From established manufacturers there are the Silverstone RVZ line and the Fractal Design Node 202. I went with the Node 202 because it's the smallest, and I don't like all the styling and LEDs on the Silverstone cases.

One can argue endlessly about what to put inside that case. In fact I did that until Luke and Glenn were sick of it. I also read about other builds using the case to figure out what fans and coolers would fit. The upshot is this parts list. Most of it can be modified freely - the key points are to save space by using an m2 hard drive, memory chips with no heat spreaders, and a low-profile CPU cooler.

Getting Started

Eventually I got past my analysis-paralysis phase and actually ordered all the parts. Since I spent so long choosing a case, the first thing I did was check how big it is in real life, rather than just measurements. 
It turns out that it does fit in a carry-on - but only just barely. There's maybe an inch of space to spare total, and our smaller carry-on wouldn't fit it at all. 

Here's a comparison to an an XBox One (original, not the S version) and a 15.6" Lenovo Y510p laptop. They're all lined up on the left and back edges for this photo. The Node 202 is definitely bigger than the other two, but not by a huge margin

The Build

Case gawking completed, I got started on building the machine. Which I proceeded to screw up in nearly every possible way. The short list of things I would do differently is:
  1. Assemble all the components outside of the case and get them to the POST screen before putting anything in the case. It's much easier to do when you're not working inside that cramped case. 
  2. The m.2 hard drive slot on that motherboard is on the bottom.
  3. When putting the motherboard into the case, it's much easier if you take out the graphics card riser assembly first, despite what the directions say. That gives you easier access to the screws. 
  4. The case directions neglect to mention one of the screws holding the graphics assembly in - I'll show it later. 
  5. Be really organized about keeping track of which screws go where, especially the 4 different kinds of tiny black screws in the case. I did pretty well with this until the very end. 

Ignoring my own advice from above, I started out by opening up the case. Again, I recommend wiring up all the components outside of the case first to make sure they work. You should put the motherboard on something non-conductive, like the box or anti-static bag that it came in.

 Here's what it looks like fully disassembled. Getting the bottom off is a bit of a trick, because all the plastic tabs want to grab back on as soon as you release them. I found the best method is to stand the case on edge and use a flat-head screwdriver to push them open.

Following along with the case instructions, but not taking photos, I installed the power supply and motherboard. The motherboard mounting screws in the center of the case are really hard to access - in hindsight I suggest removing the graphics card riser before installing the motherboard. 

Which brings me to my next point - the instructions say that there are 3 screws securing the graphics card assembly. In fact there are four, with the last being on the back of the case just below the slots. The screwdriver is pointing at it in the photo. I almost bent the whole thing trying to get it out, before realizing there was a secret screw. 

Here's the machine reassembled. It's already getting pretty cramped, and I don't even have the power cables in yet. If we had a 2.5" drive it would go in the cage towards the front of the case (farthest from the camera) on the center strut, which would be really hard to deal with. You can see I put the case fan towards the front of the case, which may or may not be a good idea. I believe it would fit directly under the card, but I didn't try. This placement does make routing the front-panel cables a bit annoying, but it's doable. 

You can also see that the power cable runs awkwardly over the fan. I ended up snipping one of the cable ties so that it could lie flat along the bottom of the case instead. But as shown, that cable points out the fact that the only space to route wires between the two halves of the case is a small window in the center strut, right where you see that cable going. Consequently that section of the case, and the bit between the memory and the PSU, tend to be very full of cabling. 

Also, it's not visible in this photo but the graphics card supporter sits between the case fan and the graphics card. The GTX 1050 Ti is just barely too short to reach it, so the card is unsupported. But it seems to be small and light enough that it's not a problem. 

It was at about this point that I realized that the m.2 connector is on the bottom of the motherboard. I proceeded to remove almost all of this from the case to access that slot, shown below. 
Having done that, I put all the components back into the case again, which takes a little while. Then I flipped the case over to check something...

Yeah, there's a cutout in the case that provides access to the m.2 slot right there. So I did all that work for nothing. Doh! But while we're looking at the bottom of the case, you can see the dust screens. They're attached with magnets, which makes them easy to move by accident while you're handling the case. 

Anyway, after getting the whole thing reassembled, I went to plug in the power cables. Attaching the power cables to the power supply while it's in the case it really difficult - they all go in the small space between the PSU and the center strut. This is another reason to wire everything up outside of the case beforehand. 

After doing that, I went to attach the front-panel connectors. Mostly this is easy, but the cables for the power indicator LED and the power switch are tiny, and they connect to this pin block. The pins are really hard to access. You can see that the memory goes right above them in this photo - I removed the actual chips. The motherboard main power connector is next to it, and the PSU is right below. Bottom line, you probably want to do these before all the other stuff. 

Also, the indicator LED connects to the green pins, and the switch to the red pins. Or was it the other way around? If you get it backwards the LED will come on, but the power switch won't do anything. Ask me how I know that... or why I disassembled everything, right down to removing the CPU cooler, again. Yeah, good times. Don't get those two confused. 

Once I finally got the whole thing put together correctly it worked fine. The only BIOS tweak needed was setting the memory to use XMP Profile 1, which upped the memory clock to use the full potential of the DDR4-2400. 

I haven't run any formal benchmarks, but I did run Doom on Ultra settings for a couple of hours in a hot room (29-30 deg. C). The temps inside the case stayed very reasonable - the GPU was the biggest hotspot, but it topped out at ~70 deg C. So the whole thing seems to be running well. 

Overall it was a good experience, despite my many roadblocks. Hopefully I'm still saying that after the first plane trip with it. 

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