Rebuilding the Dream (Machine)

Nathan Edwards

Our 2008 Dream Machine rises from the, well, not quite ashes

The Mission Our 2008 Dream Machine was a thing of beauty. We took the case from one of HP’s ambitious-but-doomed Blackbird 002s , slathered it in chrome (because we could), and built a water-cooled monster, with two Core 2 Quad QX9775 CPUs, two ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 GPUs, and a whopping 8GB of DDR2. To power it all we had PC Power & Cooling whip us up a custom 1,200W PSU. It was quite a machine in its day.

That was four years ago, though, and the parts we used are not only out of date, but out of sight. The only remnants of our once-great Dream Machine that we could excavate from the Lab were the case and the PSU. Not wanting such a beautiful case to go to waste, I decided to rehabilitate it as a companion piece to this year’s Dream Machine. Aside from the chassis and PSU, I’m using all-new components, but they’re much more modest in price and performance than the ones in this year’s Dream Machine . In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that the case (and chroming) once cost us a cool $6,000, this refurb would be just a hair above our a Basline build we would have today.

The case was only available in one of HP ’s prebuilt Blackbird rigs, but the company did end up selling a few bare cases to anyone who could pony up $1,000. Unless you’re one of the few who bought one, the case-centric parts of this build might not be directly relevant to you, so this is more of a build log than a how-to. The Blackbird wasn’t an easy-to-use case when it came out, and users (like me) who are spoiled by modernity will have quite the ride trying to bring it up to date.

Choosing the Hardware

Spec’ing out this rig was harder than I thought it would be. Not only did I have to make a rig worthy of the over-the-top chassis (which I’ve dubbed the Chromebird), but I had to do so in a way that would complement, not distract from our current Dream Machine. Not easy to do in a chromed-out monster of a case.

Instead of building yet another Ivy Bridge or Sandy Bridge-E machine, I’m going with AMD’s top chip, the FX-8150 Bulldozer . With eight cores, it’s roughly comparable to an Intel Core i5-2500K on most highly threaded apps. Not the fastest chip out there, but perfectly capable of running a gaming and productivity workhorse. I’ll run the Bulldozer CPU on an Asus Crossfire V Formula board, for both its brawn and its red-and-black color scheme. Prolimatech’s Goliath cooler and two 14cm Vortex fans (red, of course) keep both the CPU and the motherboard cool, and the downward‑facing right fan helps draw in air through the mesh side of the case. 2008’s finest didn’t have a lot of intake fans. For RAM, I’m using 16GB of Corsair Vengeance . With red heat spreaders, of course.

Keeping things in the AMD family, I’m opting for an XFX Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition . It’s a fine, top-of-the-line graphics card with an attractive brushed-aluminum-and-red heatsink.

I’m keeping my standard 120GB boot SSD and 3TB storage drive combo, but in deference to the color scheme I’m opting for a Corsair Force GT . It’s a fast SandForce-based 6Gb/s SATA drive, and yep, it’s red.

The total bill for the retrofit (not counting the case or PSU) comes to just over $1,500. And that’s with an eight-core CPU, speedy SSD, top-of-the-line GPU, scads of RAM, and plenty of storage. It’s not a Dream Machine, but it’s everything you need in a modern gaming PC. And it looks stellar.

INGREDIENTS

PART
URL
Price
Case
Custom HP Blackbird 002 bit.ly/mpcdm08 $6,000 (in 2008)
PSU Custom PC Power & Cooling 1,200W www.pcpower.com $530 (in 2008)
Mobo Asus Crosshair V Formula www.asus.com $220
CPU
AMD FX-8150 www.amd.com $200
Cooler Prolimatech Genesis, 14cm Vortex fans (x2) www.prolimatech.com $105
GPU XFX Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition www.xfxforce.com $500
RAM
16GB Corsair Vengeance www.corsair.com $85
Optical Drive
Samsung SH-222AB CD/DVD burner www.samsung.com
$20
SSD
120GB Corsair Force GT
www.corsair.com $130
Hard Drive 3TB Seagate Barracuda www.seagate.com $160
OS Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (OEM) www.microsoft.com $139
Total $1,559

Building in the Bird

The Blackbird 002 chassis was ahead of its time in many ways, so this build was a lot easier than it could have been. Unfortunately, not all the parts from the original survived, so I had to get creative in some places.

1. Preparing the board

Because the Genesis heatsink is so large, I didn’t install it until the end of the build. But I did perform the rest of my usual motherboard preparation before I installed the motherboard into the case. First, I installed the CPU by lifting the socket arm, aligning the CPU with the socket, making sure it was oriented correctly, and then gently lowering it into the socket (image A) . Then I locked the socket arm back into place.

Next, I populated the RAM slots. I aligned each DIMM with its slot, making sure the notch on the RAM lined up with the one on the slot, then pressed each end of the DIMM until the clip locked into place. I repeated this with each DIMM (image B) .

2. Installing the Cooler Mount

The Genesis cooler doesn’t use AMD’s default mounting kit, though it does use the backplate. I removed the four screws securing the default mount and removed the two plastic end pieces. Then, using the four knurled thumbscrews, I attached the Genesis’s AMD mounting plate to the stock backplate and tightened the screws in a cross pattern until all were secure (image C) .

3. Opening the Case

With the motherboard prepped, it was time to open the case. The left side door has an easy-open latch, and once it’s open more than about 45 degrees, lifts right off its hinges. The right door doesn’t come off as easily. First I had to remove the decorative inset panel, and then unscrew the three screws securing the door to the rear of the motherboard tray (image D) . After that, the door swung open and lifted from its hinges exactly like the left one.

4. Installing the PSU

The stock Blackbird shipped with a modular PSU, but we had to have a special PSU made to power our dual-CPU, quad-GPU Dream Machine, and that PSU was, alas, nonmodular. To install it, I removed the PSU bracket from the bottom‑rear of the case and attached the PSU to it (image E) , then installed it into the case, pulling the cables through the PSU cover and out of the chassis.

5. Installing the Mobo

Once the PSU was in place it was time to install the motherboard. Since the case was last used for an EATX motherboard, I did have to move some standoffs into ATX configuration. I placed the case on its side and installed the I/O shield, then the motherboard. After returning the case to its upright position, I routed the 24-pin and 8-pin ATX motherboard power cables behind the motherboard to their connectors and marveled again at how forward-thinking the Blackbird’s design was (image F) .

While I was at it, I took the opportunity to connect the leads for the pop-out top panel connectors: HD_AUDIO, USB 2.0, and the multicard readers (image G) . No front-panel USB 3.0 here, though the rear-panel ports still work. And though the top panel has a FireWire connector, the motherboard doesn’t, so I hid the FireWire cable behind the motherboard tray. I also connected the 12cm hard drive bay fan and front-panel connectors.

6. Power to the Drives

The Blackbird came with a custom SATA backplane behind its five hotswap 3.5-inch drive bays, which can (in HP’s infinite wisdom) be powered by one SATA power connector, two 4-pin Molex connectors, or one custom 10-pin power connector, which ain’t exactly prevalent. Since the PSU we had built for the 2008 Dream Machine does have the 10-pin cable, I used that, and it was only later that I realized I could have used a less bulky modular power supply instead. Oh well! I routed the 10-pin cable above the hotswap bays and attached it to the backplane (image H) .

Since the backplane is just a pass-through and we’ve established that the age of your SATA cables doesn’t matter ( bit.ly/tY4rRm ), it’ll support 6Gb/s SATA drives—ideally.

7. Ahem. Power to the Drives!

Installing The Seagate HDD went  without a hitch. Unfortunately, since the hotswap drive trays were made in 2008ish, they lack support for 2.5-inch drives. The only 3.5-inch–to–2.5-inch adapter I had was one that Corsair shipped with my SSD, so I mounted the drive to it, stuck it in the tray, and slid it into the bay, where it completely failed to show up in the BIOS despite being seated and reseated. My guess is that since the rear of the tray wasn’t held down by anything, it wasn’t providing enough structure for the ports to line up. So I had to improvise. I mounted the drive onto its adapter tray and put it at the rear of the hotswap tray. I then attached a Molex-to-SATA adapter, because my PSU only had two SATA power plugs and they were too close together to power both the SSD and the optical drive. I connected a SATA cable to the motherboard, pulled it through the top of the drive area (next to the 10-pin power connector), and connected it to the SSD (image I) . I slid the tray back into the bay. Since I wasn’t using the hotswap connector in that bay, I removed the SATA cable from the rear of the backplane and connected the other four SATA cables from the backplane into the motherboard.

8. Hitting the Optic Nerve

I attached one of the Blackbird’s drive rails to the right-hand side of the optical drive, then slid the drive in from the front until its bezel was flush with the bay and the optical bay cover was able to close (image J) . I then attached a SATA cable and another SATA-to-Molex power adapter and slid the drive retention clip closed.

The Blackbird shipped with up to two slimline slot-fed optical drives, but the trays were designed for PATA drives and have little panels that completely block the area where a SATA drive would connect. So I’m leaving those empty for now. In the 2008 Dream Machine, we put a water-cooling radiator in there.

9. Cool It!

With the drives installed and powered, I once again placed the Blackbird on its side, this time to mount the cooler. After applying thermal paste, I gently placed the cooler onto the CPU, with the horizontal fin stack over the RAM (image K) . I placed the crossbar over the heat exchanger and mounted it to the bracket with the two included spring screws (making sure to use the AMD-specific ones). Then I attached the two 14cm fans, one to each set of fins. I set the fan on the right-hand side to blow down toward the motherboard, and the one on the left to push cool air through the left-hand fin stack and out the rear of the case. This is especially important, as I’ve lost whatever mounting bracket originally enabled us to attach a 12cm exhaust fan to the rear of the case. I plugged the fans into the CPU FAN and CPU OPT FAN headers at the top of the board.

10. Mounting the Videocard

Last but not least: I mounted the videocard into the top x16 PCIe slot on the motherboard and attached an 8- and a 6-pin power connector (image L) . I then bundled up all the rest of the power cables and hid them behind the cover the Blackbird provides for this purpose. Then I double-checked all my wiring and connections, closed the case, and powered up my rehabilitated Dream Machine!

I Know Why the Chromebird Sings

Not gonna lie: The new build looks great. It’s certainly one of the prettiest machines I’ve built to date. Can it compete with our 2012 Dream Machine? Not even a little bit. My rehabilitated Blackbird is a whopping 81 percent slower in Premiere Pro , 54 percent slower in Stitch.Efx , 18 percent slower in ProShow Producer , 47 percent slower in x264 encoding, and 62 percent slower in Batman: Arkham City . That sounds pretty bad until you realize that the 2012 Dream Machine has an eight-core Xeon and the equivalent of four GTX 680s and costs $10,000. So it’s over six times more expensive than the Chromebird (again, not counting the case or PSU), but it’s not six times faster. That’s cost savings there.

Against our $2,500 zero-point machine, the Chromebird fares a little better. The zero-point has a six-core Sandy Bridge-E chip with Hyper-Threading, and its 12 threads absolutely crush the eight I get from my FX-8150, even at 3.8GHz. In the heavily multithreaded Premiere Pro, the zero-point was over four times faster, while in ProShow Producer, the Chromebird was only 24 percent slower. Stitch.Efx is one-third single-threaded and two-thirds multithreaded, and the Chromebird couldn’t come close to our zero-point there.

So am I surprised or appalled that a $1,500 Bulldozer build can’t beat a rig that costs a thousand dollars more? Nope. Instead, I’m happy that I built what I set out to build: a kick-ass gaming rig that looks amazing and performs well for the price, and a chance for the case from one of our old Dream Machines to live again.

If I had to do it over, I’d opt for a modular power supply and a 3.5-inch–to–2.5-inch drive bay adapter that’d let me use the SATA backplane for the SSD. Blackbird owners’ forums indicate that Icy Dock makes one that works. But I’m happy with the Chromebird as it is, and glad I got a chance to make something beautiful that wasn’t quite as much work as water-cooling this year’s Dream Machine. This was almost a vacation in comparison.

Benchmarks
Zero Point

Premiere Pro CS6 (sec)
2000 8,965 (-78)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 831 1,923 (-57)
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 1,446
1,893 (-24)
x264 HD 5.0 (sec)
21.1
13.4 (-36)
Batman Arkham City (fps) 76 48 (-37)
3D Mark 11 X5,847 X2,916 (-50)

Our current desktop test bed consists of a hexa-core 3.2GHz Core i7-3930k 3.8GHz, 8GB of Corsair DDR3/1600, on an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard. We are running a GeForce GTX 690, an OCZ Vertex  3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.

Note: This article was taken from the September issue of the magazine.

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