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Some bone questions to help me build an HTPC

Discussion in 'Desktop & Laptop Computers Forum' started by esta56, Nov 25, 2003.

  1. esta56

    esta56
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    Firstly, I've just spent the last hour writing a query only to have it disappear and have it replaced with a Server Error screen, so I lost the lot. Very frustrating.

    So here goes again!

    I want to attempt to build my first ever PC to be an HTPC for my AV set-up. I have been reading and researching like mad to try and decide what components to buy and where from etc. I do find that the more I read, the more I come across the assumption that you know all the obvious bits and pieces. To use an analogy - it is like asking someone how to get to London and them replying "Oh, just drive down the M1" the assumptions being that a. I now what 'drive' means and is referring to, b. I can drive, c. I now what 'M1' means and d. I know what 'down' is all about!!

    Anyway, some queries:

    1) The Motherboard I am thinking of getting is an ASUS P4C800 E-Deluxe which, their specs, seems to rattle on about all sorts of different HDDs - S-ATA, UDMA 133/100/66, Serial ATA and Ultra ATA 133. I'm trying to decide which HDDs to go for (I've seen a nice looking Maxtor 300Gb one that I would like to have 2 or 3 of) so does it matter or should I be favouring one type? Can HDDs be mixed an matched? Can the MB handle three HDDs?

    2) It appears from reading around (and I only came across this by chance) that Windows XP doesn't address anything over 137Gb no matter how big the HDD is!! The adverts don't appear to mention this. To sort this problem, apparrently upon installing wXP you have to immediatly download Service Pack 1!! Why? Why isn't this in a new XP? It would be like buying a car and having to immediately give it to the garage to have an upgrade fitted!! Then (it is not over yet) you have to download a file from the manufacturer of your HDD and of course it's assumed that you know what to do next!! Does this file just get on with whatever it has to do or do you have to run it? If you have more than one HDD, do you have to do something to each disk or does all the above take care of all disks?

    3) Does the MB, HDDs, Graphics card (in fact anything that is going into make up the HTPC) come with beginners easy to understand instructions telling how, where and what to connect to what? Or am I supposed to know how to 'drive' already?

    4) When everthing is assembled in the HTPC case and plugged in, do I just switch it on and hey presto, as if by magic, everything works? Then do I just load XP and go through the process above?

    5) Is there a resource on the Web that guides you through building a PC in easy to understand instructions?

    6) Finally, one of the reasons for building an HTPC (after seeing the demo laid on at EventII) is to have a high quality image output to my PJ and Plasma. I currently have an old PC (not connected to my AV system) that I tried Star Trek Insurrection on and it looked just as bad as on my Plasma through my standalone payer. The PC is an old PIII 933Mhz, 256Mb Ram, WinME, playing on ATI 7.0 Direct SHow DVD player which came with my Graphics card, an All-in-Wonder 128 Pro AGP. I'm hoping someone will say that the DVD would look bad through this set-up and that Theatertek and a modern PC, Graphics card etc. would solve all this. The demo of the same disc at Event II didn't show any of the problems I've seen.


    So any help on the above would be gratefully received but remember, don't assume anything!
     
  2. KraGorn

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    Damned annoying, isn't it. :(

    Some answers which may help:

    1) There are two basic types of hard disk: ATA and serial ATA. ATA are also known as IDE, which come in various UDMA flavours, but basically for all intents and purposes they're the same. ATA drives and SATA drives can't be mixed, without special adaptors, on the same 'bus' or 'channel'. There are two standard IDE channels, each can run 1 or 2 drives.

    An SATA channel is a different beast and can run several .. I've no experience of those so can't offer any info.

    You can mix IDE and SATA in the same machine.

    2) The 137Gb limit is based on several things, fundamentally the BIOS, which is not overcomeable without breaking many things. In order to support bigger drives you need special support, which currently is provided by third-party drivers etc. rather than being part of Windows ... these drivers will come with such drives so there's no need to worry.

    3) Most disks don't come with any useful sort of connection info, you're expected generally to know what to do sadly. Graphics cards just plug in and generally are pretty intuitive. Motherboards come with very detailed instructions, though often without a glossary.

    Basically, if you've not done it before you're better off not trying without access to someone to help ... on-line support such as forums like this are a start but in my experience it's possible to hit problems which are very hard to describe and diagnose by the written word alone.

    4) In theory yes, once built you simply insert the XP CD and install .. but be prepared for the unexpected. ;)

    5) 'Fraid I don't know of one, though I'm sure there will be.

    6) "the DVD would look bad through this set-up and that Theatertek and a modern PC, Graphics card etc. would solve all this" :rotfl:

    Absolutely true, a PC configured for 1:1 mapping with the display device produces the best possible picture quality.


    Building PCs is not hard, but it is NOT easy if you've not done it before. Unless you're very lucky something won't work first time and diagnosing what's wrong may not be trivial ... don't be afraid of it but neither think it's intuitive for a first-timer, it isn't.

    Good luck.
     
  3. esta56

    esta56
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    Thanks for the reply KraGorn, much appreciated. All advice and comments help towards the end goal........

    ....just hope it's not an own goal!!
     
  4. KraGorn

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    :D ... in all seriousness, expect problems and to have to resort to getting some help, in that way you'll not be disappointed when it doesn't go without a hitch, after all there's a lot of complex electronics to be connected ... not to mention flakey Microsoft software. ;)
     
  5. rhinoman

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    I've just built a new machine using the P4P800, same thing (nearly) and cheaper. Dont put a number of drives in the HTPC, it'll get too hot and noisy, stick them in a different machine and network them, XPsp1 seems to work fine with big drives.

    If you buy retail components you will get better instuctions but pay much more, if you buy oem you mormally get just the component and maybe a driver disk if your lucky.

    No single resource that I know of but here, avs forum, silent pc reveiw all provide useful info, just need to be patient and read loads and knowing a little about searching in google would probably help;)

    Building the PC is the easy part, configuring it to match the display device and choosing the right software to tie it all together is what makes the result special. All the info is here in the forums and if you cant find it, just ask, theres one or two of us here with a bit of a clue what to do to get the right results:)
     
  6. esta56

    esta56
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    Thanks John for your reply.

    Re your comment on HDD, I will most probably only fit 2 drives. The Maxtor 300Gb Maxline II. By the time I've filled them (I want to put my CDs and DVDs onto them) I may have the confidence to set-up a seperate PC for even more storage.

    On the hot side of things, I'm buying an Accent case (single bay) from QuietPC together with a Super Flower Cooler and a Zalman ZM80C-HP and ZM-OP1 heatsink and fan for the Graphics card (either an ASUS or Hercules 9800XT). The PSU will most probably be an Antec TruePower 550w. Quiet PC advised to wait and see the results of the above before buying anymore fans (the case can apparrently have two 60mm fans fitted at the rear) as they may not be needed.

    On another note, I haven't ordered the VFD that QuitePC sells as I'm not sure where the other end of the data cable fits. I read an old review that showed the lead coming out of the HTPC and it looked like it was fitting into a printer socket on the back! This seems a bit strange as I would have thought all leads should stay inside a PC, especially a HTPC which will have pride of place underneath my Plasma. Anyway, I've sent an E-Mail to QuietPC to ask about this as I hope the technology will have improved on this.
     
  7. mephistopheles

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    Hi esta56

    I would suggest you keep this simple if it's your first attempt. Build up the PC with the minimum necessary first, ie motherboard, video card, cpu + heatsink + fan, RAM, one HDD only, FDD, DVD-ROM and PSU. Get that booted up and then install the OS before trying to do the rest. When the basic PC works OK you can add any more hardware and make a start on the HCPC configuration. It WON'T be easy. If you like, send me a few details and I'll mail you a floppy to give you an unattended WinXP installation (ie put the floppy in, put the CD-ROM in, press go and sit back and it will all be done for you) to give you a leg up.

    Comments :-

    WinXP SP1 does address the 137GB limit problem, as reported above. It's no longer a problem, really. Go for SATA (serial ATA)HDD. They're faster and have a neater connector. Only one drive per channel, however.

    Maxline is 'enterprise class' designed for offline (network) storage and you'd fare better with the Diamond Max 9's, if you really must go Maxtor. A friend has a 120GB IDE, though and it's noisy. Latest hot news is that the Maxtors are starting to fail after 2-4 months and that the guarantee has been sneaked down very quietly from 12 months to only 6 now.

    Alternatively, there is Seagate's 7200.7+, which is definitely quiet but a bit slower than the rivals, but I have one 120GB IDE disc in my HCPC and it's perfect for it. Flavour of the moment is the Samsung Spinpoint, which is fast, quiet, cheaper than the rest and has a 3 year guarantee. PC Pro mag gave these drives its Best Buy award recently and a brilliant review. I have just got 4 x 160 GB Spinpoints for a RAID media server and can vouch for their reputation thus far. They're excellent.

    You probably won't need more than a 400watt PSU, but it's your money. Antec True Power are my favourite.

    Tom's Hardware Guide has a lot of illustrated guides on how to build your PC and special sections for things like cpu + heatsink etc. www.tomshardware.com

    PS try sticking the new DVD-ROM and graphics card in your old system first and try to set it up on the plasma first. You might be in for a surprise!
     
  8. rhinoman

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    I've got to agree with the keep it simple approach.

    You dont say if you are intending to use this maschine for gaming or not. If your not then a 9800 is overkill, the ZM80hp is fiddly to fit and incvalidates the warranty, get the Sapphire 9600 non pro as its fanless and uses the exact same processing required for HTPC.

    The Zalman Flower (all copper version) is good but the Thermalright SP94 is better. I've got one on a P4 2.6 and with a Papst fan at 1300rpm barely gets above 32C.

    As for powersupply, the Seisonic SS300 FT here is sufficent in power, cheaper and quieter than the Antec.

    The maxtor drives are definitly noisier than the seagates but not all that much, I had a week old seagate 7200.7 fail last week so I'm not hot with them at the moment. I'd be inclined to get a 40gb drive as your boot drive, ide as you dont have to load serial drivers during the xp install and definitly save the other drives for another machine.

    With the above spec in a Dign 3 case I can run no case fans and the temps get nowhere near 40C and it very quiet, you have to put your ear to it to hear it.
     
  9. deadhammer

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    Hi Richard

    I have just been down exactly the same route as you with regard to hardware choices. Although I am no expert with regards to HTPC's I know my onions when it comes to PC's in general. Here are some of my findings....

    400W power suply may be overkill..

    I have the P4C800-E too, probably overkill but the cost difference is negligible between this and other boards and it has a raid controller for ide and sata drives. I also like the wireless access point / wireless lan option for the motherboard I think this will be very handy later on..

    If you can - get hold of winxp with sp1 install disks. If you buy a copy new today this is what you should get (unless its old stock). I also have two Samsung SP1614N's (160GB, 8Mb Cache) as they are pretty quick and as close to silent as you will get. If you put more than one in and use raid 0 (makes the 2 drives look like 1), you will get better performance from them - basically can write to both drives simultaneously.

    Don't worry too much about SATA they are quite a bit more expensive, the connectors are fragile, they are difficult to get hold of and like for like are currently no faster than EIDE (the bottleneck is currently the mechanical components in the drive not the interface).

    Graphics card - I have the saphire 9800 non pro. If you can still get one it's a bargain - remove the fan, stick on a zalman fanless cooler from quietpc upgrade the bios to the pro bios and you have a silent 9800 pro for half the cost....You will need powerstrip to use any adavanced settings for the PJ and plasma. I believe the ZM80C is not as good at cooling as the ZM80A-HP so if you aren't planning on using the ZM-OP1 fan I would go for the ZM80A (even if you are I believe a fan is available?).

    I have the Accent HT200-G to match my Denon stuff but to be honest I'm a little disappointed. The gold is not the same as the Denon's and the case is not as high end as I had hoped for (especialyy for the cost). However it is still a good case for a PC and all the stuff has fitted in - besides noone else seems to do a gold case...

    Don't expect too much from the IR in the case. I will probably be replacing mine very soon. Basically isn't supported very well by girder. Currently I'm looking at UIRT2 or IRman.

    VFD is OK, but I haven't had too much time to play around with it. Yes it plugs in to the parallel port but once all the equipment is in the rack and set up there are so many cables coming out of the back you will not notice!

    i use the SoundBlaster Audgy 2zs as I have 7.1 but I may replace this with the M-Audio in the not too distant future.. jury's still out on this one.

    I don't run case fans although I may after further testing.

    Gyration mouse and keyboard are killer but expensive. perfect for my setup.

    I agree with the JohnS building the PC is relatively easy, you wait until you get to the configuring part.....:)

    Sory I'm out of time, forgive my rushed post - I have lots more info
    if you have any questions I will check back tomorrow..

    Dave
     
  10. esta56

    esta56
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    Wow guys, thanks for all the responses - helpful and reassuring.

    A few points/queries:

    - I chose the Maxtor Maxline II 300Gb as they seemed, from reading up on them, perfect for the job. They have large storage capacity, run at 5400rpm so apparrently are quiet and have been designed to be ultra reliable, Maxtor quote 1,000,000 MTTF. Have a look here:

    http://www.maxtor.com/en/documentation/data_sheets/maxline_data_sheet.pdf

    - If I understand (most probably not) correctly, RAID involves splitting the storage between two or more HDDs? I assume this is to share the workload (less stress for a single HDD) and bring about an increase in transfer speed? The only thing that concerns me is (Maxtor claims notwithstanding) is what would happen to your data if one of the Drives fails? Wouldn't this be a big problem? Whereas two separate drives would mean you would potentially only lose the data on one. Isn't there a version of RAID that allows Disk Mirroring but this then requires at least 4 HDDs and is only necessary in critical storage areas?

    - When/if I get all the parts and manage to somehow assemble them and then - big breath - power the PC up and load some software I'll give a breakdown of everything thats gone into it. What will be apparrent is that I have almost certainly, way over specked for an HTPC but this is deliberate for several reasons:

    a) I want to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practical, my HTPC has a reasonble life expectancy before needing to be upgraded and/or repaired

    b) By going for quality, researched components (not necessarily the best of the best) I am hoping that there is less risk of hardware or software matching problems and that, if I do encounter a problem, there will be good support

    c) I got a bit excited and carried away!!!

    - I'm still concerned (may be uneccessarily) about this 137Gb disk limit. I've read quite a few comments all over the web instructing on how to get round this problem. But nothing has gone into detail as I guess they assume the reader knows the basics!! So, will the fix apply to all drives no matter how many I fit? Or do I have to do something a bit special (like have a bath) to each and every disk?! I was (and still am) thinking of fitting a third drive in the spare 5.25" bay (as I've gone for the Accent HT100S single external bay model) but I don't want to do this if there is a potential problem and that's assuming there is a facility to connect a third drive to the Motherboard?

    - Dave, can you advise how and where the front Firewire and USB sockets are connected to the Motherboard (assuming that is where they go) as you have the same one?

    Phew always queries, queries, queries. Will I ever be at a stage of answering any!!!
     
  11. deadhammer

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    Hi Richard

    There are lots of different RAID levels. Some are for fault tolerant so that if a drive fails no data is lost, some are to give speed improvements. I have configured my drives in a striped RAID array (RAID 0) this brings about a speed improvement of about 20% in certain circumstances. However this does not give me any fault tolerance, so if a drive fails I lose all my data. I will be backing up any important data onto a DVD or tape anyway so I'm not to worried about a drive failing. You could mirror your drives (RAID 1) this would mean that in the event of a drive failure you would not lose any data, but you would only be able to use half of your total disk capacity, i.e. of 2x300Gb = 600Gb you would only be able to use 300Gb. As an aside don't expect to have this available - by the time you have formatted the drives etc. you will lose plenty of Gbs..

    RAID 1 - Mirroring only requires 2 drives but can use any even number that the controller supports.

    RAID 5 - a better version of RAID1 where you only lose 1/n of your disk space where n is the total number of drives. Used mainly in server environments O.K. if you can fit the drives in and you aren't too worried about noise and heat. In your case provided you could fit them in the case this may not be a bad idea as presuming you have 3x300gb drives - you will only lose 1/3 of this so usable will be 600Gb and you will have the advantages of speed and fault tolerance. It will also be hot and noisy - personally I would look at having a seperate server elsewhere in the house and networking the two together as someone else recommended. My PC is almost identical to the one you are specifying and it is already louder than i hoped, but I am a perfectionist, you may find it acceptable.

    BTW set up your RAID array before you install XP. This uses your hardware to do the RAID XP also

    Hard drive query - exerts taken from :-

    http://www.seagate.com/support/kb/disc/faq/137_winxp.html

    "As of January 2003, new copies of Windows XP Full Versions have incorporated 48-bit Addressing for ATA interface disc drives. You can confirm that your copy has this support by inspecting the installation CD artwork. It should say "Windows XP Home (or Professional) Edition Including Service Pack 1.""

    "If your Windows XP CD does not indicate SP1, then your boot drive partition will have a maximum size of 137GB. After the OS and SP1 are installed, any additional gigabytes will show up as unallocated space on the drive and you can easily create a second partition with DiscWizard 2003 or the Windows disk management tools. Also, if you prefer to have a single partition, third party applications such as Partition Commander from VCom or Partition Magic from Powerquest may be able to stretch the partition to annex the newly found capacity."

    Personally I have had some bad experiences with third party partition extenders so wouldn't use one. I was fortunate enough to have XP with SP1. You could always just create a small partition (10-40Gb) for your O/S and Apps and then install XP SP1 then create your larger second partition for Media etc. I'm not suggesting anything here - but if you are not using a pukka copy of XP don't expect to be able to install any Service Packs - Microsoft know about most of the copies going around and SP1 detects it, stops, and displays a warning for you to contact Microsoft..

    The USB port is connected to some very handy pins on the motherboard inside the case - very neat, but the firewire loops out of the case into the external port. I would prefer mine to stay in the box and will probably confgure it to do this at some point but I have to say now it's all conected these wires just blend into the background..

    What sound card are you going for?

    Dave
     
  12. esta56

    esta56
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    Hi Dave

    Thanks for the RAID info, I will have to read up abit more on that area. I do like the idea of having a second PC located elsewhere carrying out the noisy tasks and this is where I could look at having a RAID set-up. Though I may be missing the point here but I can't see why I would need a RAID set-up at home as I thought that this is only useful if HDDs are required to carry out a high number of Read/Writes such as in a server. An HTPC whilst needing large storage (if you want to rip DVDs to it) should not be carrying out high numbers of operations - or am I wrong?

    Useful info re the USB and Firewire. As it happens, and am sure you know, Paul at QuietPC advised that they provide a PCI blanking plate with a hole for the VFD cable to go through, so I assume I could use this for the Firewire?

    As to Souncard I've ordered an Audigy as I believe it can handle DVDA and apparrently the quality has just been improved. Not really sure what I'm doing here as there is an output from th MB which I can send to my amp, so Im guessing I'll have a connection from the Creative as well.
     
  13. deadhammer

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    Faster hard disks are always a bonus as it effects almost everything you do on the PC, from bootup to ripping CD's or DVD's to opening applications. When capturing to disk the faster the disk writes the better. Don't get me wrong - it's not essential just better all round IMO. As it is a mechanical process it is one of the biggest bottlenecks in today's PC's.

    You said "I have almost certainly, way over specked for an HTPC but this is deliberate for several reasons: etc." - well there are your reasons to go for RAID 0... :)

    My blanking plate has firewire, VFD and IR cables going through it no problem. They actually supply two - one with the case and one with the IR.

    As you know DVDA is handled by Audigy 2 zs just don't be convinced by anyone (Creative included) that you can use the spdif out and a digital coaxial cable! To use DVDA and multi channel audio in games (7.1) you will need three cables; 1x Stereo (3 pol) minijack to 2 RCA , and 2x 4 pol minijack to RCA. The latter cable is the same as a Sony camcorder lead - don't use the Panasonic camcorder one, it looks the same but has the wrong internal wiring. Also don't forget you have limited space when plugging in to the back of the soundcard so good quality cables and connectors are great but probably won't fit! Check before you buy...

    I have a Denon 3803 so I use the 8 analogue ins on the back of the Amp. I haven't done a back to back against my Denon 2900's DVDA but will do when I get a chance.

    Cheers

    Dave
     
  14. esta56

    esta56
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    OK, you lost me there a little on the Soundcard. I had in my mind that I would have one Coax from the S/PDIF out from the Motherboard to my amp for DVD and then I would connect from the the Soundcard (which I assume is the connection your talking about) to 6 or 8 inputs on my amp which I would switch to (on the amp) for DVDA and Games. Don't know if this is correct?

    If I understand you correctly, the Creative has 3 outputs which have to be converted into 6 or 7? Do they not provide a cable for this?

    Fair point on the RAID. I guess I need to be confident in the HDDs (which is why I've gone for the Maxtors). If I understand right, you have to start RAID from day one?
     
  15. deadhammer

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    Perfect for the soundcard connections!

    No they do not provide a cable. They may on the Platinum Pro but didn't on the Standard (non oem) version. The cables come with the speaker packages usually.

    Best to use hardware RAID - i.e. the one built in to the RAID controller. XP also has RAID but this is software RAID and won't be as quick as using hardware RAID. Because it's best to use hardware version you will have to set it up on day one as if you change the RAID setup you (usually) lose all info on the drives.

    Hope this makes sense?

    Did you go for the Gyration keyboard and mouse?

    Dave
     
  16. esta56

    esta56
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    So, this RAID set-up, is it started before XP is installed? Hopefully the Motherboard comes with some instructions on this.

    Yep, I went for the Gyration set-up. The idea being that, as the PC will be in the lounge, I can have the keyboard on my lap and operate the Mouse in the air, while sitting back comfortably on sofa. Something that occured to me, is there a Joystick that can work through an RF connection?

    I'm pretty frustrated tonight as two 'Attempted Delivery' cards were waiting for me when I got home. I was hoping to have all the parts for the PC delivered for the weekend but Dabs and Overclockers don't allow a first time buyer to specify an alternate address or Saturday delivery on the first order!! QuietPC were happy to deliver to my work address and Ebuyer were happy to deliver to my home on Saturday despite me being a first timer with them as well. So tomorrow, I've got to try and contact the delivery companies and make other arrangements. Aaaahhhh!!
     
  17. Epithet

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    Hi Esta56

    If you are going down the HTPC route I would strongly recommend that you build the machine yourself. Others on this forum can recommend very good sources of ready built HTPC machines but when it comes to the inevitable tweaking it helps to know your hardware. When I decided to bulid my first PC (less than 18 months ago) I did a search on google for "build PC" and came up with several articles similar to this one:

    http://www.pcmech.com/byopc/index.htm

    I read 3 or 4 articles similar to this before purchasing my components. Provided you take things slowly and steady I believe that you will suceed and be in a better position to fine tune and develop your system.

    You will be very impressed with the Gyration mouse/keyboard. Some members have reported problems but mine continues to work smoothly after 6 months (fingers crossed).

    Good luck

    Tony M
     
  18. Ivan8192

    Ivan8192
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    I've got integrated RAID on my motherboard (Promise FastTrak). After the main BIOS screen has been displayed there is a second screen where you get prompted to press a key if you want to set up the RAID function.

    You choose the RAID configuration here (striping/mirroring etc) and it's stored away as part of the BIOS settings. No need to do it again unless something happens to the array. I expect other RAID implementations have similar setups.


    XP may also needs a driver, which should come with the motherboard or RAID card. Easy enough to do:

    During initial installation (have the BIOS boot to your DVD/CDROM drive) after a few seconds the XP installer shows a prompt (at the bottom of the screen) for a function key to be pressed if you want to install a 3rd party driver (or words to that effect, can't remember exactly). You then feed it the floppy disk with the driver and then it goes through the rest of installation showing the RAID drives as you've configured them. I get shown a single 40GB physical drive (2x20GB striped) that can then be partitioned.

    Note that if you ever want to boot to old DOS, you may not be able to see your RAID drive(s). At least I've never been able to with my setup.

    Regards,
    Ivan.
     
  19. esta56

    esta56
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    Thanks for the advice guys.

    Some bits and pieces have arrived and I'm hoping (certainly not expecting) that I get the rest tomorrow! Then let the head scratching begin!
     

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