Dell E520 + ATI X1950XT = dual monitors don’t work
I recently purchased a Dell E520 computer after one of my colleagues tipped me off about a good deal on Dell’s website. The deal has since ended but both myself and the IT Manager at work managed to nab one for a princely sum of Â£329.
- Intel Core2 Duo E4300
- 2GB 533MHz DDR2
- 250GB SATA HDD
- 19″ Dell Flat Panel LCD
- 16x CD/DVD-+RW
The idea I had was basically to replace my current main machine which is now getting a bit long in the tooth. Albeit still being a perfectly capable machine it was time to move on to PCI-Express, SATA, Core 2Duo and DDR2 RAM.
After buying the Dell I got it hooked up and it was fine as an entry level machine but it didn’t have dual monitor outputs so, with it having a PCI-Express x16 slot, I thought I’d just invest in a new graphics card. Problem is, I had to find one that would fit. Basically the E520 is a BTX design which means that the motherboard is mounted on the other side of the case to a normal ATX motherboard. Admittedly the BTX design is far better for managing the heat generated by today’s modern machines and the airflow is far superior to ATX designs but it doesn’t lend itself well to the plethora of graphics cards on the market that use a dual bracket/heatsink slot design
The main reason I had to go with this particular card was that it was the best spec’d card I could get that might fit in the Dell case. The shroud that Dell mount around the Scythe Ninja type heatsink just gets in the way, especially in BTX designs. I was effectively limited to a single slot design too. Anything faster than than an X1950XT was always dual slot design and, as well as the shroud issue, the PCI-Express slots on BTX designs are always at the top of the board so there’s literally nowhere for the mounting plate in a dual slot design to be.
So I had a problem, but one that I thought would be easily solved with the purchase of a card that would only take up a single slot. Finding such a card isn’t the easiest task in the world either, that I can tell you! Needless to say, with the assistance of a colleague, I happened upon a PowerColor Radeon X1950XT 26MB PCI-E for a fairly decent price so I bought it online and awaited its arrival.
When the card arrived I was a little horrified to see that although it looks like a single slot design on the imagery on the website, it’s actually a dual slot bracket supplied with the card! D’oh! Undeterred I whipped the mounting bracket off the card and attempted to fit the card. It slotted in beautifully. There was literally 2mm between the end of the heatsink on the graphics card and the CPU shroud, but, it fitted just nicely! Next problem was that this dual mounting bracket simply wasn’t going to work. I toyed with the idea of cobbling one together out of a normal blanking plate but that was just never going to work out right, so I decided to modify the bracket supplied with the card and chop the other side off.
Half an hour later I had a single slot bracket/mounting plate and a card that fitted just nicely. All that was left was for me to whip the 550W Antec power supply out of my old case and plumb it in to the Dell box. Fortunately, Dell choose a normal ATX power supply for their builds but I had a bit of minor modding to do to the Dell case to get the Antec power supply in and all the power hooked up.
When I turned on, everything burst in to life as expected and I had display through the new graphics card. After making some minor alterations to the BIOS at the behest of a warning message kindly provided by the Dell’s Power On Self Test, I was ready to install Windows XP Professional. For those people that want to install Windows XP on a Dell E520 you MUST change the Drive Configuration to IDE in the BIOS and not leave it set to AHCI/RAID. Otherwise once you boot from the Windows XP installation CD the computer will blue screen as it attempts to complete the boot process.
After I’d installed Windows XP I went about installing the graphics card drivers for the new ATI card. Once completed, I rebooted as requested and… err, well, the monitor went to sleep. Hmm, perhaps the drivers had set a daft resolution/refresh rate on the card? So I rebooted, pressed F8 and went in to VGA only mode. Great, we have action. So I’ll just set the resolution and click OK…and…err…. the monitor goes to sleep again. Oh dear. Believe me when I say I tried absolutely everything I could think of. I re-installed Windows XP about 5 times, tried Vista Basic that came with the machine and even Ubuntu but I just got no love from the card at all. I now faced the possibility that I had modified the mounting bracket on a duff card and would need to RMA it with a modded bracket. Oh crap!
One word went through my head; it began with S and ended with HIT. I thought about what I could do for a couple of days. I could send the card back “as is” and pray they don’t notice or, buy another exactly the same card, hope the new one works fine, swap the mounting brackets and nobody is any the wiser. After some serious thought I decided to go another route entirely. The PowerColor card that I bought fit like a glove so I thought why not maybe get an aftermarket VGA cooling fan such as the Zalman VF900Cu and a different card altogether? Storming idea! I’d get one that came with the infamous dual bracket and it didn’t matter about the heatsink that was on it when it came ‘cos I’d just whip it off and put the Zalman VF900Cu on it instead. This way I could swap the bracket, avoid the issue with sending back a card with a modded bracket and avoid the BTX design issue and shroud all in one go! Trouble is, it was going to cost me more money.
Yes, my brain was hurting too after I’d been thinking about it for a few days. I ordered a Sapphire Radeon X1950XT 256MB PCI-E and Zalman VF900Cu from Pixmania and waited…and waited and waited. After four days of waiting for my order I got an email apologising for a technical issue they had in their distribution centre and that my order would be dispatched any day now. Oh great, cheers. I’d been given 14 days from the day I’d requested an RMA on this PowerColor card to send it back and already it had been 10! If I sent it back outside of the RMA, I wouldn’t get a refund and I’d probably have to pay for them to send it back to me again! Thankfully, on the 12th day my Pixmania order arrived so I did the necessary. I whipped the old card out, swapped the brackets, removed the heatsink from the Sapphire card, fitted the Zalman and stuck it in to the Dell case. Again it fitted perfectly. Hopefully you can see the issues I had to face from the next couple of shots that I took of the Sapphire card with the Zalman VF900Cu fitted and installed.
This image is of the Sapphire card with the manufacturer’s cooler still on it.
So, the PowerColor card was on its way back to the retailer with an unmodded dual bracket, the Sapphire card had the Zalman VF900Cu fitted to it and it was in the E520. Woo! Everything was going smoothly so it was time to re-install Windows XP Professional again for the 85th time. I set about that and then of course the latest Catalyst Drivers from AMD’s website. Reboot and…… it worked, with one monitor (well, it didn’t put the monitor to sleep at least!).
In to the Catalyst drivers I delved to set it to extend my desktop on to the secondary monitor that I had plugged in and….err dude, it doesn’t work. It would not under any circumstances let me extend my desktop on to the decondary monitor. I tried the Omega drivers, XP Pro 64 and associated drivers and Ubuntu but AGAIN I still could not get the desktop to extend, hell I couldn’t even clone the desktop! The ATI Tool in the Omega drivers kept reporting “No DDC” and after a bit of googling that turned out to be a Display Data Channel, whatever the hell that’s for. So here I was again, back at stage one. I had a Dell E520, a Sapphire Radeon X1950XT 256MB PCI-Express graphics card with a Zalman VF900Cu fitted to it and I still couldn’t get dual monitors to work. Arse!
I thought about it logically and the only thing I could come up with was a motherboard issue. Perhaps the Dell E520 board simply doesn’t support two of these DDC channels? Yes it was a stab in the dark but it was the only component that was not made by someone else. Intel processor, Sapphire graphics card, Dell motherboard. Myes, Dell… motherboard. They’re not exactly renowned for their manufacturing prowess in this particular field are they?
So a choice was made, I’ll just buy a decent motherboard. Hell, all this had been going on so flipping long I’d been paid again anyway so I thought I could spare a few quid and bought myself an Asus Commando ATX motherboard. The idea being that I’d gut the Dell E520 of its processor, RAM, SATA CD/DVD and use the new ATX motherboard, my old power supply and case and I’d be better placed for future upgrades.
I got the Asus Commando motherboard with a Zalman CNPS9700 cooler (a really big CPU cooler) on a rapid delivery from Amazon and set about rebuilding my new machine in to my old Antec Sonata case with the Antec NeoHE power supply on Friday afternoon after I had returned from work. Amazon were actually the cheapest for this board, selling it at just Â£131 when I bought it on 24th May 2007.
Everything went really well with the rebuild, even the cable routing went far better than I expected. It was a rather nail biting moment after I had installed Windows XP Professional and then acquired the latest Catalyst Drivers from AMD. Installation went without a hitch and after a reboot I was sitting staring at two monitors showing me exactly the same thing. My god it was actually doing cloning! Huzzah! This was obviously a step closer than I had been with the Dell motherboard so I did a celebratory dance (stop laughing!) and sat down to tweak the drivers to extend the desktop to the second monitor. A few bites of my nails later and all was perfect. I finally had an extended desktop on two 19″ monitors. Amusingly, there really wasn’t very much left of the E520. I’d literally paid Â£329 for just a few components and a 19″ monitor. There are a few elements that contribute to this rather tragic story; stupidity, impatience, more money than sense and stubbornness.
So the upshot of all this is; if you want to put a decent graphics card in to a Dell E520 to get yourself an extended desktop over two monitors, don’t bother, it won’t work. Just buy yourself a decent computer to begin with!
Thanks to Nick at work who helped me find the graphics cards and offered additional options when I was fresh out of them. Cheers!
Some pics of my system.