Page last updated at 08:45 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Making the computer really personal

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


David Penfold tells Ellie Gibson why his water-cooled computer brings 'exceptional processing power'

For most of us a home computer, clad in a beige or matt black case, is a functional device fit only to sit out of sight beneath a table.

But for many others those drab cases and standardised components are the blank canvas they use to create something that demands attention - for its looks and raw computational power.

"It's a cross between performance and aesthetics," said David Penfold, who has turned many of those drab cases and chugging components into something far greater.

His latest creation, called Overclocked Orange, consumed months of his spare time as he built it and then tuned it to get the best performance.

Benchmarking tools helped, said Mr Penfold, and were a key part of making the machine stable and useable.


WatercoolingUK's Rob Creathorne says liquid cooling systems can give computers a lot of zest

Overclocked Orange is no skittish pureblood good for only a mad dash over a short distance followed by a collapse into exhaustion. It's a working machine that Mr Penfold has tested and tweaked to be as stable as a factory-bought clone, if not more so.

"It's a media server, I use it for work and playing games," he said. "There's not a day goes by that I'm not on my PC."

At the heart of the orange monster is one of the latest Intel i7 quad core chips accelerated, or overclocked, to 3.99Ghz. It has 6GB triple channel DDR of RAM, and alongside that sit three overclocked Nvidia GTX280 graphics cards. It has four terabytes of storage for games, movies and music.

It has a dual-loop water-cooling system plumbed throughout the case to take away the heat generated by the feverish processor and graphics cards.

"You can get stock air coolers but they are never going to be able to shift as much heat as a decent water set up," he said, adding that water-cooling has another advantage - less noise.

The finished machine sits on the desk in the computer room in his home and its glowing orange innards, bright chrome fittings and sheer size make it dominate the room.

Asus Rampage II Extreme X58 motherboard
Creative Labs X-Fi Titanium PCI-E soundcard
Silverstone ZM1200M 1200W modular PSU
Intel i7 940 CPU (2.93GHz) overclocked at 4.0 GHz
6GB Triple Channel DDR3 running at 1523MHz
3x Nvidia GTX280 graphics cards overclocked to 730Mhz
2x 300GB 10,000RPM Western Digital Velociraptor HDD
2x Samsung 1TB Spinpoint F1 HDD
1x Western Digital 1.5TB External E-SATA HDD
1x Samsung 1TB Spinpoint F1 External HDD
1x Blu-Ray optical drive
1x DVD-RW optical drive

Alex Watson, editor of Custom PC, said the popularity of case modding and overclocking was getting a boost from manufacturers producing kits and parts to help enthusiasts get started.

"If you were into liquid cooling your computer 4-5 years ago you would not have been able to buy a case and put all that stuff in it," he said. "You would have had to drill the holes yourself to fit the radiators in."

In the early days of case modding and overclocking, said Mr Penfold, many people scavenged parts such as pumps from fish tanks or shopped in DIY stores for the bits they needed.

The rising popularity of the net has also helped, said Mr Penfold, as it is now much easier to find people who can answer questions or have had similar experiences.

There is another reason that overclocking is proving popular, said Steven Dodd, an experienced PC builder despite still being a teenager.

"Overclocking is free," he said. "You do not need to go out and buy an upgrade to get more performance."

Mr Dodd built his first PC at 13 but his most recent project was very ambitious and involved him building the case for the computer himself from 3mm thick acrylic sheets.

The Aero design, as he called it, took about six months to finish.

The inspiration for embarking on the project was the gift of a Samsung flat panel TV that has a PC input. Mr Dodd wanted a PC that could act as a media server but did not look like the common or garden desktop PC.

His lack of funds led to him seeking sponsors to supply parts. Five firms responded to the 150 or so e-mails he sent out and eventually chip maker AMD, storage firm Seagate and memory specialist Crucial donated parts.

Close-up of Overclocked Orange, David Penfold
Fans can help but purists prefer to water-cool their computers

"Without them," said Mr Dodd, "I probably would still be saving up for parts now."

Also key to the build were friends he made on the forums of CCL computers who acted as a sounding board as the project rolled on.

The properties of the acrylic sheets and design he chose to cut into it proved tricky to complete. While building the machine, he said, he learned a lot about working with acrylic and he used a lot of vaseline to cool drill bits and blades used to shape the sheets.

"Sometimes I did think 'Why am I doing this? Why don't I go out and buy a case?'" he said.

"But I liked the challenge, I like having something of mine that no-one else would have," he said, adding "I also wanted it to match the telly. I'm a bit of a perfectionist like that."

While all the parts went in the Aero case were standard, Mr Dodd did have to make some adjustments to the power supply.

"I'd heard it was loud," he said. "when I turned it on it was incredibly loud and I had to open it up and replace the fan."

The difficult creation process has only slightly dented his enthusiasm for modifying PCs. "I will do it again," he said, "but not soon."

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