HyperionI just built a new machine with a Cooler Master 80-Plus Certified 600W power supply,  Asus M4A79XTD EVO motherboard, AMD Phenom II X2 555 processor, 4GB of OCZ AMD optimized DDR3 SDRAM 1600, 320GB Western Digital AV-GP SATA hard disk and a fanless Asus GeForce 240GT video accelerator. Say what? In addition to hardware accelerated H.264/MPEG-4 AVC and a mean game of StarCraft II, it can modulate CPU and memory clock speeds, fan RPM, and hard disk speed to conserve power and reduce operating noise. Was that even English?

Though the preceding jargon will be instantly recognizable to enthusiasts, for most the term computer will do just fine. For me, what began as a hobby quickly developed into a mild obsession with tinkering that now approaches its fifteenth year, for which I blame my best friend Kevin and his father Tim. With their expertise and guidance, our small circle of friends engaged in friendly competition over who could build, upgrade or overclock to achieve the fastest performing PC. At the time, a jump from a 166MHz to 233MHz processor was a big deal and hard drives topped out at around 6GB. Though paltry by today’s standards, these were on the cutting edge and gave one the rush of being an early adopter, riding on the wave of Moore’s Law. Just about the only thing that might top that feeling were our frequent sleepovers featuring all-night networked games of Warcraft II, StarCraft and Tribes. It may come as a shock to some that we were not exactly the coolest kids in school. Fortunately for us, we were too busy having fun to care.

Protoss CarrierMy most recent computer, with the help of a few upgrades along the way, had performed a stellar, eight year tour of duty (which is about an eon in computer years). It had served a broad range of needs, from workstation to gaming console to media center.  It has allowed me to forgo acquisition of separate sets of electronics for work and entertainment, which I appreciated for both the cost saved and extra living space preserved. Though it is still completely functional (and will be donated to someone who can use it) it was no longer able to keep up with recent developments in gaming and high-definition video.

Though the idea of building a new machine brought forth a much needed dose of childhood excitement, the adult in me wanted to add one more twist to the challenge. I had established the computing performance needs based on my intended applications, but I also wanted to make this one as quiet and energy efficient as possible. I chose a power supply that was 80 PLUS Certified, an independent rating indicating that at least 80% of power drawn from the outlet is converted to usable energy for the computer, not wasted as heat. The CPU, while not the fastest on the market, utilizes a more precise manufacturing technology that allows it to run at lower power (80W vs. 125W) than most of those in its category. The hard disk is designed to run quietly and conserve power, both of which are accomplished by reducing the speed of the rotating disks when high data transfer rates are not required. The graphics card, while again not the highest performing equipment available, is able to run at lower temperatures and does not require fan-based (noise generating) cooling. The keystone tying all of this together, the motherboard, has a special controller that reduces the operating speed of the CPU and other components when high performance is not needed, which results in lower power drawn, less heat generated, and permits lowering of cooling fan speeds, further reducing power needed and noise generated. While each one of these features represents technological creativity, how they all work together as a system creates the greatest amount of benefit, not dissimilar to the design of systems for LEED certified buildings.

So how did things turn out? The new computer is certainly quieter and performs the functions I need with power to spare.  Perhaps the best discovery was that the new machine, while delivering at least four times the performance of the previous, actually draws 50W less in normal mode (215W vs. 265W), settling even lower when the system drops into low power settings.

There were other issues I had not originally considered as part of my specifications, but which I learned about during the selection of components. Most, though not all of the items comply with the European Union Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which strictly limits allowable concentrations of Lead (Pb), Mercury (Hg), Cadmium (Cd), Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+), Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) to very low levels. Though not a cure-all, this helps to protect me, as well as the people and environment where electronics are dismantled and recycled (predominately developing countries), from unhealthy exposure to these substances. I also discovered that the recent financial reform bill, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, includes the requirement for U.S. manufacturers to state whether they source certain minerals (predominately used in electronics) from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Trade in these materials from the DRC has been shown to contribute to conflict and human rights abuses, similar to diamond trade in other African countries. Though the law would not affect any of my components manufactured outside of the U.S. and no international regulation yet exists, perhaps increasing awareness of this problem will spur more comprehensive action in the near future. It will be interesting to see how market leaders of our favorite gadgets like Apple and Dell will incorporate these concerns into design and sourcing guidelines moving forward.

Terran BattlecruiserFor now, I must log off and head into battle. I have to save a Terran settlement from imminent Zerg invasion.

All artwork and screenshots can be found at us.battle.net/sc2.