Building A Budget PC To Test Vail

by Damian on April 30, 2010 · 27 comments

in Guides

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard that Vail, the much anticipated follow up to Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, has been released to the public for Beta testing. As with anything Beta there is always the potential for bugs and instability, so it is generally not recommended to test out Beta software on critical systems unless you install on a Virtual Machine. Another option would be to build a PC to specifically use as a testing ground. For the purpose of this article I will throw around some ideas for building a budget PC that can be used to test out Vail. The goals for this build will be as follows:

  • Cheap, Cheap, Cheap.
  • Hardware supports x64
  • Balance between small size and expandability
  • Use as a full fledged server or even turn into an HTPC down the road.

Case:

HEC MicroATX Mini Tower Case W/ 485W PSU$61.99.

I chose this case for several reasons. First, it comes with a 485W PSU, which will save us from having to purchase a PSU separately. It has room for 2 internal 3.5″ drives and also 2 x 5.25 bays which can be used for ROM drives or converted to fit additional 3.5″ drives. The case itself is sturdy and should have enough room for expansion without having an overly bulky or large case. For $61.99 with a PSU you cannot beat this price (I actually use this case for my HTPC/test PC).

Motherboard:

Gigabyte GA-785G MT-USB3$74.99

This boards comes with 2 x USB 3.0 which was a main factor in choosing this board. If you decide to turn this build into a full fledged server the 2 USB 3.0 ports should offer for plenty of expansion and increased transfer speed/performance over the USB 2.0 ports. You get 3 PCI slots (with one of those slots being a PCI Express 2.0 x16) which gives you room to add a TV Tuner Card, dedicated graphics card and/or an eSATA Host Adapter card. This is also an excellent board for an HTPC with HDMI and optical connections on the back panel.

CPU:

AMD Athlon II X2 240 Regor 2.8GHz 65W Dual Core Processor – $59.99

This is an energy efficient dual core AMD CPU which supports both 32bit and 64bit. Unless you are looking to do some CPU intensive activities with your server (such as encoding or transcoding high bitrate content), a low power dual core CPU is perfect for both a server and HTPC.

Memory:

G.Skill 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM$64.99

Since Vail is a 64bit Operating System you can take advantage of 4GB or more of RAM. However, for most home server uses anything more then 2GB is probably overkill.

Hard Drive:

Western Digital Caviar Blue 320 GB 7200RPM 16MB Cache Internal 3.5″ Hard Drive$49.99

Since this drive will have the Operating System installed on, I prefer to use a 7200RPM drive instead of a 5400RPM green drive. Also, for any additional drives that will be used as part of the storage pool I would recommend the Western Digital 2TB Green drives.

Total Cost – Approx $330 ($311.95+ approx $20 shipping)

You may notice that I did not include a ROM Drive. This is something that can easily be added down the road, but since it is very easy to install Vail using a USB flash drive I decided to leave a ROM drive out.

So there you have it, a PC that can be built for under $350 that can serve as a test rig to run the Vail beta through its paces. I was thinking about doing this build around the intel core i3 CPU, but the CPU/motherboard comparable to the AMD build I highlighted above would cost approximately $100 more. The great thing about this build is that there is future room for growth. If you decide to turn this build into a full time server simply add on a few USB 3.0 enclosures and your storage capacity will grow exponentially. Install Windows 7 on this build and you now have an HTPC ready to play back all your content on a big screen TV.

What do you think, does this make for a good budget build? If you have a budget build that you think would work great feel free to share in the comments sections.





Article by

Hi, my name is Damian, and I'm tech gadget addict! Although I always had some interest in technology, it wasn't until I got my EX470 and more importantly found Mediasmartserver.net, that my interest became an addiction. My goal, aside from world domination and to see the Mets/Broncos win another championship, is to set up the perfect digital home where all my media is available at the click of a button. When I am not writing for Mediasmartserver.net you can find me over at my blog at http://www.adigitalhomeblog.com or follow me on twitter


{ 25 comments }

Texas-Hansen April 30, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Good article Damian. Another option is pop an extra drive in your desktop PC you already have run it as a dual boot system with one of the drives housing WHS Vail. (Of course, you’ll need another PC on the network to make use of the connector…..opps…dashboard.

Damian April 30, 2010 at 2:18 pm

@ Tex,

I am still trying to figure out how I want to test Vail. I have a spare HTPC (same case as the one I highlighted here) that I can use. I also have a spare drive in my desktop pc that I could do as you mentioned. Of course the biggest factor is finding two minutes of peace and quiet in my house lol

Rhinoevans April 30, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I am running it as my main serve. Formatted the WHS yesterday and installed VAIL. I have all my data backup, so I see no worries on this approach. I hope in the end, when the final release is available, that I will be able to just due a restore to the OS software and preserve the data drives. But no issues since I have all my stuff backed up. I know what the guys over on THE HOME SERVER SHOW said, but so far this is as stable, for me, as WIN 7 Beta.

Comp1962 April 30, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Damian very nice write up. I am testing VAIL on a pretty much stock EX470 with 2GB RAM. It running but its abit on the slow side for me. Your write up has me thinking about building a test server then using it as an HTPC but then I will want the HTPC more then a faster test version of VAIL so I have to give it some thought. Then again we have an older PC at work that I can borrow. Intsall VAIL on it and bring it back to work and let it do some tasks at work but I have to check the processor specs out on it because its abit on the iffy side of 64 Bit. Maybe I will drive back to the plant and grab the unit to see.

The Kitty April 30, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I started a new server test build 2 weeks before Vail came out then boom, what timing. I went with an Athlon II X4 which works very well and less than $100. AM2+ Mobo lets me use DDR2-800 lying around. A bit slower. I don’t have USB3 though. So we are on similar wavelengths. Vail is pretty snappy with 4 cores and 4GB.

Rhinoevans April 30, 2010 at 7:54 pm

A better deal is at NEWEGG today ONLY!!!
EX 490 for $397 Free Shipping
EX 495 for $499 Free Shipping

4/30 only

Bodog WGS May 1, 2010 at 4:56 am

I notice you recomend the WD 2TB EARS drives for expansion HDD’s – for those considering using these drives in their Vail preview system it’s worth noting the follwing warning in the Vail preview release notes:
Issue:
Server installation may fail when using Western Digital hard disk drives with Advanced Format
Description:
Depending on the exact Western Digital hard disk drive model and firmware, Windows Server “Vail” setup may fail because of compatibility issues with the sector sizes that are reported by the hard disk drive.
Solution:
It is recommended that Western Digital hard disk drives with Advanced Format not be used as the primary hard disk drive on the server.

Alex Kuretz May 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Hi Bodog, thanks for calling that clearly. I imagine that warning is why Damian recommends the 320GB Caviar Blue drive as the System drive, and the 2TB EARS drives only as additional data drives.

Damian May 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

@ Bodog WGS,

Thanks for the comment. As Alex mentioned, the reason why I recommended the Caviar Blue (or Caviar Black as an alternative) is because I am still not comfortable with the advanced format of the EARS. I think I had read that they worked fine as a pooled drive with Vail, which is where I think they have a place.

Bodog WGS May 1, 2010 at 5:21 pm

@ Damian
Yes – the EARS drives do work in the pool in the current version – but best to run the WD utility or jumper pins 7 & 8 on them to avoid performance issues. I run a 1.5TB EARS drive in the pool and it works fine.
Great article BTW – I’m about to build a test box for Vail – but I’m an Intel man and think I’ll go with an i3 processor so I’ve got some grunt for media encoding. I know you designed your system to a price point but I wonder about the wisdom of buying a 320GB drive these days – I’m finding even 500GB drives are starting to accumulate around the house as I swap them out of my Media Smart to maximise my inbuilt storage capacity so probably better to go for the highest capacity you can afford to avoid later redundancy (I think the 1.5TB is the sweet spot at the moment)

Damian May 1, 2010 at 5:35 pm

@ Bodog,

I was under the impression that there was no need to use the WD Utility or jumper pins for Vail, this was only an issue with the current WHS?

If I did an intel build it would be similar to the core i5 HTPC I just built (http://www.mediasmartserver.net/2010/03/11/building-a-mini-itx-htpc-2/)

The size of the drive depends on you will use the PC though. For WHS the O/S drive only gets used for Pooled Storage when all other drives are full. IMO once you get to that point you better be looking to add more storage anyhow. From an HTPC standpoint it just depends on how you use. For my HTPCs I do not store any media on them, so there is no need for a large O/S drive. If you store recording, etc… on an HTPC then a larger drive does make sense, and I would have gone with a 1-2TB drive.

Make sure you write back or post on the mss DIY forum (http://www.mediasmartserver.net/forums/viewforum.php?f=22) once you complete your build. Very interested to hear how it goes :-)

Rhinoevans May 2, 2010 at 11:06 am

Any have any idea if this would be a good CPU for a server. I can get it for cheap.

Intel® Core™2 Quad Q6700

Damian May 2, 2010 at 11:07 am

@ Rhinoevans,

I assume that is a Quad core? My desktop PC is a quad core Q6600. I would say that is overkill for a server unless you plan on doing a lot of transcoding/encoding with your server

Rhinoevans May 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

It is a Quad. But Free is good!

Damian May 2, 2010 at 11:22 am

Free definitely changes the equation. The way I look at it, I would rather have more CPU then you need then end up having less.

Eidos May 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Good article! I had an old computer and extra drives laying around so I purchased a Gigabyte Motherboard and an E6500 with 4 GIG of memory on sale. For less than $300 I had a pretty hot computer to use for a server test bed to test Vail and other add-ins without jeopardizing my two HP servers. I used the old IDE DVD drives and kept the SATA ports free for HDD’s. You can even pick up PCIE boards for more Sata ports to make the server expandable.

Gigabyte are also good boards that allow you to modify the BIOS to use faster memory and set the CPU operating frequency at higher levels to get good response. I am very happy with this server and it is along the ideas you used. It is a great toy to learn on!

Rhinoevans May 3, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Debating a Core 2 Quad (Q8300 Yorkfield) or an i5 650 (2 Core)? Any comments from a server point of fview?? Difference in price, $40 more for i5

Damian May 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm

What happened to the Q6670 :-)

The Q8300 looks like it will use up more energy (95W vs 73W for the core i5). Do you expect that you would need/use all 4 cores of the Q8300? I have not tried encoding on my core i5 650 HTPC, so don’t know how much slower it is compared to my Q6600

rhinoevans May 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I thought I had more than enough points to WIN. Guess not. :( Just now tring to save a bit on building a somewhat budget server. Thought I had the Q6670, got psyched to build another, and now can’t let it go. Have a chance later in the week to win an i7 980, but that will definetly not be going into a BUDGET server.

rhinoevans May 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm

For the same money I could build an i3 with the IBM Intel BOXDH55TC

Damian May 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

An i7 Server would definitely be overkill, but kicka$$ nonetheless!!! The Intel mobo you mention got good reviews. I think I would still shoot for a mobo with USB 3.0 to be somewhat futureproof if you stick with it

JonnyTwice May 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm

“As with anything Beta there is always the potential for bugs and instability”

As opposed to the release version. And that isn’t a dig at HP.

forrest May 4, 2010 at 8:48 pm
Pluckyhd May 10, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I can’t believe this many people are tryin vail. To me not being able to access te pool drives outside the vail whs is the straw for me and the 10 drive limit since I already have over 10 drives that outs that for me as well.

To me vail=dissapointment

Comp1962 May 10, 2010 at 7:21 pm

@ Pluckyhd ~ The 10 drive limit you mention turned out to be a recommendation for beta release meaning at that time 10 drives was known to be stable. That number has increased since. The accessing the pool drives outside of Vail however is a valid point and one thats hard to get use too but Vail is still far away from being completed. I have it running for testing and there are things in Vail I like very much but I know its not a complete product yet. I think when Microsoft is done with it that it will be a very robust platform.

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