DIY PC Building: Not Just for Nerds Anymore!

Sometime last fall I got it in my head that I needed a new computer.  My old one had been upgraded as much as the motherboard would allow, and was starting to lag a bit.  Nothing that noticeable during daily tasks, web-browsing, etc., but since I spend a fair amount of time gaming on my PC (the newest console system I own is a PS1), I needed more POWER.  At the time I was looking forward to several new titles that were coming out this year (or not even confirmed yet), and knew that my old system just wasn’t going to cut it.

So I started looking around on Alienware and CyberPower, and immediately grimaced thinking of the damage that would have been done to my wallet.  I mean, yeah, I could have found something in my price range, but it would have come with a lot of compromises, and of course I would be needing to either upgrade or buy a new computer again in a year or two.  To me it just didn’t sound like a smart investment.  What I really wanted was something with top-end performance, but without all the bells and whistles like 3D and stuff.  Part of the problem I was facing was that, yeah I could get the hardware and performance I wanted, but a lot of times it came “bundled” with games/software I didn’t want or options I didn’t need.  As a result, I found myself diving into the hardcore custom builds and basically picking and choosing every aspect of the system.  What I ended up with really hurt the wallet: the Alienware Aurora.  And even that had a few compromises here and there, and a few options that weren’t 100% necessary.  So after a week or two of browsing and creating roughly comparable systems on other manufacturers’ websites, a strange thought occurred to me:  Maybe I should build my own!

At first, I brushed these thoughts aside as the feverish musings of a mind too long devoted to terms such as VRAM, SATA, CAS latency, and BCLK (don’t worry, you don’t have to know what these mean).  From there, I worried that I might end up looking something like this guy and (in typical Nerd fashion) not realizing the inherent wrongness of such a thing:

credit: http://neil.fraser.name/news/2009/04/19/

After all, my knowledge of computers was limited to the “operating” side of things, and not the programming and circuitry side.  Hell, I don’t even know any HTML or Java (the extent of my programming knowledge is some basic C++ I picked up in college), and the only thing I’d ever done hardware-wise was to plug an after-market video card into an empty PCI slot on my old computer.  But the more I thought it over, the more plausible it became, and finally I took the plunge.

After all was said and done, this is what I ended up with:

Back when then Core i5’s and i7’s were still pretty new, the i7’s were just a little too pricey for me, so I went with the top-end i5, which happens to be one of only two versions of that chip which is quad-core (like the i7’s) instead of dual-core.  It is also well-known to be very stable even when overclocked.  Factory speed is set to 2.8 GHz; I currently have mine clocked at a modestly respectable 3.6 GHz, and haven’t experienced one BSOD.  I decided to go with an after-market cooling fan, because the Intel ones are supposedly pretty underpowered, and I didn’t want to risk overheating the chip during overclocking and heavy gaming loads.  Good that I did, too, because the CPU runs at a nice, cool 45-50° C under peak conditions.

This is the one place where I just knew I couldn’t cut any corners.  The MB is the very heart of your computer, and it will be the upper limit to all future upgrades and overclocks.  Practically speaking, this means that all the money in the world to buy the fastest, newest, most high-tech processors, RAM chips, and graphics cards don’t mean squat if your mobo (as the computer nerds are wont to call it) isn’t compatible.  Check out the specs on that thing!  HD audio, 7 PCI slots, 4 DIMM slots for up to 16 GB of dual-channel RAM at speeds in excess of 2600 MHz (the industry standard is 1333/1600 MHz), capable of handling the top-of-the-line Core i7 processors, on board voltmeter/thermometer/debugging tool/multimeter thing…  After much drooling, and then searching and not finding a single place that had one in stock, I ended up getting a sweet deal on a brand new one on ebay.  Saved about $100 off the retail price.  And I’m quite confident in being able to upgrade the hell out of this thing, and not have to buy a new computer for at least 4-5 years, if not more.

Not much to say about this, except that Corsair is a well-known and well-respected brand, and the RAM runs stock at 1600 MHz, assuming your system can handle it.  Had a little trouble with this at first, as my BIOS kept defaulting to 1333 for some reason, and I was having major stability issues trying to run it at 1600.  After much frustration and a deal of research, it turned out that the CPU (which I was running at stock speed at the time) was experiencing difficulty communicating with the memory at that speed.  Once I overclocked the CPU, I had no problems getting the RAM to run at the right speed, and the system has been solid as a rock with no crashes ever since.  The other nice thing about this RAM is that the individual sticks are 4 gigs a piece, which means that I have two free slots in my motherboard, which in turn means that I could buy two more of these bad boys and double my RAM today if I wanted to.  It’s nice to have that kind of headroom in a system and not actually need it for the time being.

Not the highest-end graphics card by any means, but it has HDMI output, 1 GB of memory, and it’s made by the highly-respectable folks over at EVGA.  I originally was going to buy two of these guys and run them in SLI for some truly crazy graphics, but I decided that I should just test out the one and see how it performed on its own.  Let me tell you, I’m really glad I did.  The thing is bad-ass!  I can run the above-mentioned Witcher 2 at more or less peak settings and barely drop a single frame.  I’m sure eventually I’ll want to pick up another one, but in the mean time I saved myself around $200 (prices have gone down a bit since I bought mine in January) by not diving right into the SLI setup.

Nothing all that special about this guy, but Western Digital is a well-respected brand.  I could have gone bigger on the capacity, but I didn’t feel like I really needed it.  I have about 35 GB of music, don’t really have any movies or anything like that, and even the top-end games these days tend to only use about 4 or 5 gigs of HD space.  If I really need it, I’ll consider adding an extra drive or two and setting them up in some type of RAID format.  That should provide better performance than a single, large-capacity disk anyway.

Nothing special, but it’s a Sony.  24x speed, reliable performance.  I still have a few empty slots in my case, so I’m considering putting another drive in at some point, probably a Blu-Ray or something to watch some HD movies.

This thing is a beast, and at 900 Watts it’s quite a bit more power than I currently need.  However, it gives me room to grow when I decide to add more drives, another GPU, etc., etc.  Plus, it friggin’ glows!  I keep mine set to green.  Sooo purrdy….

Another friggin’ beast.  This case just rocks, take my word for it.  4 fans for max cooling (with room for one more); the option to upgrade to liquid cooling (which I haven’t needed at all); acoustic-dampening foam to keep things (relatively) quiet; plenty of room for everything you could possibly fit in it; 6 ports on the front panel for easy access (USB, audio, IEEE 1394); and of course, gorgeous & shiny LEDs to make the thing look like it can talk, and possibly seal you in an escape pod and launch you directly into a wormhole created by a strange, millions-of-years-old black monolith of unknown origin and purpose.  I added an extra neon tube in there as well to make it more convincing.

"Oh my God, it's full of stars..."

Wait, what were we talking about again…?  Oh yeah….  After a little bit of thought (and not wanting it to get any homicidal ideas by researching it’s namesake while I’m not looking), I decided against naming it HAL.  I opted for Deep Thought instead.  While not technically the second-most powerful computer of all time, it is nonetheless pretty awesome in my opinion.  And the total cost?  About $1100, all told.  I know it isn’t directly comparable in terms of specs and performance to the Aurora I referenced above, but it’s pretty close.  And at half the cost, I’m certainly not complaining.  Not only that, but I learned a lot about how computers are put together (and how they work in general) and actually had a lot of fun building it myself.  It obviously took a bit longer than just ordering one (I finished building it in March), but I could also space out the cost by buying a piece or two at a time, instead of dropping the whole bill all at once, or worse, charging it to a credit card.  Here is the finished product:

And here’s a close-up of the mobo in action:


That “33” in the bottom right corner is the current CPU temp, in Celsius.  It’ll run at that temp all day under general computing tasks, only climbing if you ask it to do some heavy lifting, like stream HD video or play a graphics-intensive game.  Can’t stress enough the importance of an after-market cooler for your CPU and a good thermal compound like Arctic Silver.

So yeah.  I guess in retrospect I did turn out to be pretty nerdy after all during this whole project.  But the important thing is, you don’t have to be if you want to build your own.  There are really only eight basic components you need (not counting monitor and mouse/keyboard – see the above bullet points), and the only hitch is making sure your CPU fits the socket in the motherboard and your RAM is compatible with the bus speed of your mobo.  Don’t worry, it sounds more complicated than it is, and all the info you need in that regard is provided with the product descriptions.  In the end, all it takes is a little reading, a little time & patience, a Phillips screwdriver or two, and steady hands – preferably wearing powder-free latex gloves while handling bare components.  And be sure to discharge any static electricity by touching a grounded metal object before touching any of your expensive, sensitive circuitry – static discharge can and will wipe your chips clean if you give it the chance.

So go ahead and build your own!  And if you want to build the next HAL 9000, by all means go right ahead.  Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.

"Good morning, Dave."
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