It’s hard not to be fascinated by Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer digital currency developed by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto (presumably a pseudonym). The Bitcoin network went online as the first truly successful attempt at creating virtual money in early 2009, though it received little attention until last year when the currency’s value jumped from $ 13 to $ 1,000 on public exchanges like BTC-E .
Many who mined early and actually kept their loot suddenly realized they were millionaires. Others scolded each other for not having got on board earlier, but one thing was clear: everyone wanted to participate – and not necessarily get rich quick. For hardware enthusiasts like me, it’s just another opportunity to build and optimize a system, though I wouldn’t complain about making a few dollars doing it.
There are two ways to get bitcoins: buy them or mine them. The mining of bitcoins requires a lot of effort (computing power) to create a new currency (mine). The process behind mining is extremely complicated, so for the sake of brevity I’ll skip most of the deep stuff and break it down into layman’s terms instead. If you want the long version, I recommend reading or checking out this article by Michael Nielsen:
Essentially, computing power is used to solve complex math problems and miners who solve them first are rewarded with bitcoins. Traditional desktop CPUs were previously used to solve these problems, but as more and more people got into mining, more processing power was required to get similar payouts. People quickly realized that GPUs could solve these problems 50 to 100 times faster than CPUs.
Despite the increased mining speed, GPUs turned out to be less than ideal because of their power consumption and the resulting heat. Bitcoin miners eventually switched to FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays), which resulted in a five-fold improvement in consumption levels. In mid-2012, FPGAs lost their appeal with the introduction of fully functional application-specific integrated circuit systems (ASIC), today’s standard for Bitcoin mining.
Needless to say, bitcoin mining is now a serious venture and if you’re not ready to compete with professional mining companies like this one, don’t waste your time. Fortunately, however, the success of Bitcoin has spawned many other virtual currencies, with nearly half a dozen cryptocurrencies ranked as the “most important” cryptocurrencies on Wikipedia. Of these, Litecoin is one of the most popular alternatives to Bitcoin.
As the name suggests, Litecoin is based on Bitcoin’s technology, but differs in that it targets a faster block rate and uses Scrypt as a proof-of-work scheme when mining. In contrast to the Bitcoin network, which can only have 21 million coins at a time, the Litecoin network will allow 84 million coins once they are all mined. To use a common analogy, people say Litecoin is the silver to Bitcoin’s gold.
With the network still in its infancy, Litecoin mining is still financially viable and is still best done with traditional desktop graphics cards as ASIC Litecoin miners don’t (yet) exist.
If you want to consider virtual coin mining a hobby, litecoins are probably your best choice right now and we’ll show you how to get started by selecting and configuring the hardware and software you need. Also note that we are targeting this article at PC enthusiasts who likely have replacement hardware and are separating our project from milk crate builds.
Preparing the hardware, building a Litecoin miner
Before you start building from scratch, I recommend doing an inventory of your replacement components. It can’t hurt to see if your friends or family have old bits either. As a hardware enthusiast, I already had access to a case, disused hard drives (solid state drives are a waste here), an old optical drive and a replacement keyboard. I also got an AMD Sempron 140 from a friend. As you will learn in a moment, CPU performance is usually not an issue.
GPUs are important if you want to mine Litecoins. The Litecoin Hardware Comparison Wiki does a great comparison of mining performance, but here it is short: Forget about Nvidia and target AMD’s Radeon R9 series. You get the best performance with a 290x card, but it’s also the most expensive. The 7950 is another popular choice, but they are harder to come by with their age.
The R9 280x is currently considered the most popular choice for Litecoin mining in terms of value for money. Unfortunately, between Christmas shoppers and coin miners buying the R9 series, you can expect a premium of more than $ 100 than when the cards first hit the market. For a month it was virtually impossible to find cards in stock at a major online retailer, but the market is not quite as dry now.
I bought two 290x GPUs and a single 280x GPU from three different manufacturers – not because I wanted different brands, but that’s all I could get my hands on at the time. Specifically, I use a HIS 290x, another 290x from Sapphire and a PowerColor 280x. The two 290x cards are essentially identical as they are both reference designs with AMD’s cooling solution, while the 280x has an aftermarket heat sink.
Surprisingly, most of the mining tutorials suggest putting your hardware in a plastic box and using a box fan to cool it, but that didn’t work for me at home. The crate (or milk crate) you choose determines the capacity of your miner. I used the Cooler Master Cosmos II – partly because it’s my favorite chassis, but mostly because I had it on hand. Plus, it’s a huge case and that means more GPUs can fit.
With three cards from the R9 series in my miner, I opted for a mainboard with four PCIe x16 slots (Gigabytes GA-990FXA-UD3). While your memory choice isn’t particularly important – I bought two 4GB sticks of Crucial Ballistix memory because it was on sale – you should definitely be looking for power supplies that have the advertised wattage and 12V rail outlet need to compare with those of your GPUs.
Final specifications of our Litecoin miner:
- AMD Sempron 140+ heat sinks for retail use
- Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD3-Mobo
- 2x4GB Crucial Ballistix 1866MHz RAM
- 400 GB hard drive
- HIS Radeon R9 290X
- Sapphire Radeon R9 290X
- PowerColor Radeon R9 280X
- x16 to x16 PCI Express riser cables
- SilverStone ST1500 power supply
- Cooler Master JetFlo 120mm + NMB 120mm fan
- MediaLink Wireless-N USB adapter
- Cool Master Cosmos II
- Windows 7 64-bit
I chose the ST1500 from SilverStone, a 1500 W, 80 PLUS Silver device. Aside from being able to meet my power needs, the ST1500’s modular design is useful for maximizing airflow. I’ve had great luck with SilverStone power supplies over the years and this model has proven itself no different. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on here. Get evaluated for more than you need to. You’ll be surprised how much power three high-end GPUs consume.
These parts are not necessary, but I found them to be worth buying. I took a single PCIe x16 riser cable to spread the cards out as much as possible for cooling. I also bought the Tripp Lite UltraBlok Isobar Protection, a Medialink Wireless-N USB adapter (ethernet is fine, wireless was just more convenient for me), and a Kill-A-Watt power consumption monitor to see exactly how much Achievement Your miner has drawing.
Installation and cooling tips
After dismantling, I upgraded the Cosmos II’s pre-installed fans. I started by replacing the stock 200mm intake fan with a Specter Pro from BitFenix, which supposedly moves more air at 148.72 CFM at 900 RPM. It was a disappointment, but since the fan felt like it was barely moving air and since the main fan was supplying air to the graphics cards, this wasn’t enough.
I replaced the BitFenix fan with a 120mm x 38mm model 4715KL-04W-B49 from NMB – from a Dell tower server. More important than a specific fan recommendation here is to point out that the noise of your case fans should be a secondary issue to their airflow, not least because your GPUs are likely to be louder than any other fan, so don’t be discouraged from using one with one high dBA value.
Along with a second NMB fan (120mm x 25mm rated 92 CFM) that evacuates air from my GPUs from the left panel, I have three Cooler Master JetFlo 120s as top inlets, another one as a rear outlet, and one Used as an inlet at the bottom front and two more to blow air into the lower chamber for the power supply (picture below). This may not be an “ideal” layout on paper as hot air rises, but it is also not a traditional layout.
I came up with this configuration after countless hours of trying it out. Aside from removing the side panel and using a box fan to flood the case with air, this is the best layout possible given the hardware and cooling I have available. If you can’t keep the temperatures under control with case fans, you can reduce the GPU a few degrees by replacing the standard thermal paste.
Remember that if you are using a high performance fan, you should plug it directly into your power supply instead of a motherboard header or low power fan controller to avoid damage.
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