A Thoroughly Considered Purchase: The Gaming PC (Building the System)

There are two main steps in building a new computer. The first is to pick the component and the second is to put them together. If you are indecisive and particular like I am, the first step is unimaginably harder. If you’re a normal person, the second step is likely to prove more challenging. After all, you can have someone like me just tell you what to buy and receive it all in a nice little box at your door.

Of course, if you’ve done it before, you’ll know it’s not really that difficult, especially if you plan ahead. In essence, you’re just fitting very specifically shaped things into their very specifically shaped places. In general, it’s hard to put something in the wrong place, and if you’ve forgotten to plug something in, you’ll know about it pretty quickly. Nevertheless, allow me to provide some step-by-step guidance.

1. Inspecting the Case

If you have any desire to have a well-organized case (whether for aesthetic or air-flow reasons), it is essential that you take a good look at your new case. In particular, you want to identify areas where you can route cables and the future locations of your hard drives, DVD-drives, and power supply. My suggestion is to remove both sides of the case (not just the side where the component go) and have a look around. In general, the best place to hide cables is behind the opposite side of the case. Thoroughly consider what cables you will have to run (power cables, SATA cables, headers for front inputs) and visualize where they will go. Look at your motherboard layout as well and plan ahead so that you can sleeve and shrinkwrap cables that originate and terminate in similar places.

2. Installing the Power Supply

All builders do not agree on what component to install first, but I always go with the PSU. It’s heaviest thing that you’ll be putting in the case and it the possibility of dropping it on the motherboard always scares me. Most cases mount the PSU on the top, but mine mounts on the bottom. You may notice that your power supply has an intake fan on the top/bottom (not the fan that is on the back). If your case has a vent on the top or bottom of the case near where the PSU will go, I find it best to place this fan against it. This ensures that it will be taking in cool air from outside the case, not sucking hot air from the innards. Place all of the power cables out of the way for now.

3. Installing the Motherboard, CPU, and RAM


Before installing your motherboard, take a look at the holes spaced around the board. These are will it will screw into the case. Well, not the case exactly; the motherboard screws into metal spacers that you will screw directly into the case. The holes are pre-drilled to fit a number of motherboard sizes, so examine the hole layout on your motherboard and screw in the spacers in the proper positions. You can also take this time to pop in the little metal faceplate that comes with the board onto the opening in the back of the case. This faceplate will match the various input/output holes on the back of the mobo.

Before screwing in the motherboard, take a look at your CPU cooler manual. Although I generally prefer installing my CPU once the motherboard is already mounted, some aftermarket coolers like mine require access to the back of the board. If this is the case, you will install the CPU before installing the mobo. Essentially, for CPU installation, you will need to remove the plastic piece guarding the CPU input and then line up your CPU properly. In general, processors have a little arrow in one corner that matches a small arrow on one corner of the input. Line these up and carefully put the processor into place on the board. Use the small spring mechanism to lock the processor in place.

In case your CPU cooler will cover your memory slots, now is a good time to install your RAM as well. Pull back the small clips at the end of each slot and line up the small notch inside with the notch on the memory stick. In most cases, you will have 2-channel memory. This means that if you have 2-sticks of memory and 4 memory slots, put the sticks in alternating slots. Press them firmly in place until the clips at either end click into place.

Yeah, I realize I followed my own guide out of order.

If you are using an aftermarket cooler, check out the instruction manual on installing it. Mine, for instance, had a backplate that had to be attached on the back of the motherboard. I then had to apply a small drop of thermal paste.

This is WAY too much thermal paste, by the way. I had to remove and reapply it later.

Next, place the heatsink carefully on top, and screw it into the backplate. Stock coolers often come with a pre-applied thermal patch and simply snap into place on top of the CPU.

When everything is set, carefully place the motherboard on top of the spacers and screw it into place. You shouldn’t have to force it into place if everything is set up properly; it generally just sits atop the spacers very nicely.

4. Install your hard drives and optical drives

This step is pretty straight forward. Screw these components into their proper places in the case (refer to the case manual) and route the proper power/SATA cables from the PSU/motherboard into them. Optical drives (and other front panel drives) generally go in a spot on the front of the case that has a space-holder covering the slot. These usually pull out or have little tabs that must be pressed to pull them out. Hard drives nearly always go on the front of the case somewhere below the front bay drives.

5. Plug in front panel headers, motherboard power cables, and fan power cables

I put this step here because large graphics cards and sound cards often block access to the necessary areas on the motherboard. Check out your mobo manual to find out where the front-panel headers (small cables that came attached to the case for power, reset, power LED, HD activity LED, front USB, front ESATA, and front audio) plug into the motherboard. They literally get pushed down onto small pins, so be careful when installing them. In addition to being labeled in the manual, the motherboard often has each pins purpose printed on the board itself if you look closely. Please note that if you have a dedicated sound card, the front audio headers may very well plug directly into that card once installed.

With all of the headers in place, you can run power cables to the motherboard. This usually includes a 20 or 24-pin power cable (comes attached to PSU) and sometimes an additional 4-pin connector elsewhere on the motherboard. Push these firmly into place on the board.

Finally, run the cables for your case fans and CPU cooler. The CPU cooler will plug into a 4-pin connector on the board near where the CPU is installed (looks like the front-panel pin connectors). This allows the motherboard to throttle power to the cooler. Several other 3-pin and 4-pin connectors can be found around the motherboard as well for controlling case fans. If you have more pins than headers, connect the fan power cables directly to the cables from the PSU.

6. Install PCIe and PCI components (GPU and Sound Card)

Finally, install your remaining components. In general, you will want to place your GPU in the PCIe slot closest to CPU. This is usually the slot designed with the greatest speed. Before installing PCIe and PCI components, make sure to remove the place-holders at the rear of the case that correspond with where your cards will go. These generally have a screw holding them in place. Unscrew it, remove the little slat, place your card into the mobo, and use the screw to secure it in place.

With many modern video cards, you will have to run dedicated power cables to them. Take a look at the rightmost portion of the card for any power inputs. Find the cable from the PSU with a corresponding number of pins, route it through your case, and plug it into the card.

6. Boot up the machine and install windows

If you did everything correctly and didn’t have any DOA components, the machine should start up and post BIOS. These are the series of messages that you always see when booting a computer. Look for messages that say “Press DEL for BIOS” or something of the sort. Press the corresponding key to load the BIOS. Under one of the tabs you can select boot devices. If you have a Windows disk, set the optical drive as the boot device. If you are installing windows from a USB drive, make sure the drive is inserted, and select it from the list of drives. Save and exit bios, let things boots, and install Windows. Enjoy the new computer!

Epic Adventures: Mountain Men

In many ways, last weekend was a tale of two trips. First, there was the trip from Baltimore to New Jersey. Then there was the trip from New Jersey to the Adirondacks. Let us go in chronological order.

After work on Friday, I came home to do some dishes and throw out the trash (to avert toxic fumes upon my return) and finished packing my trusty backpack (the big ol’ backpacking one). Forecasts for the Adirondacks were expecting temperatures to go into the 20’s overnight, so even with the suddenly Fall-like temperatures that had descended upon Baltimore at the end of the week, I had to take extra precautions in packing my clothes.

Speaking of that Fall weather, I was positively delighted when I felt it roll through. I’d been having serious end-of-summer sadness, so it felt like a bit of closure knowing that another season that I love was rolling in. It also meant that I wouldn’t have to stress out about finding time to force a beach visit when I was in NJ.

Even though I knew that I would only be spending a few waking hours in Jersey, I was as excited as ever. That drive home, especially in the crisp evenings of Fall, just really gets me excited. I know you may all be sick of hearing about how much I love NJ, but it really makes me feel alive. I passed the hours in the car listening to the Gaslight Anthem, Bruce, and some of my old favorite ska albums.

That evening, I hung out with my parents, ate dinner, and retired early. My stepdad and I woke a bit before 5:00 AM the next morning to head to the Adirondacks. We wanted to get on our way early, because we had a long hike into the mountains later in the day, and nightfall comes quickly in the forest. Although we didn’t weigh them in advance, our packs each weighed about 30+ pounds.

"Did you remember to pack your brick collection? Good, me too"

After a quick stop on the parkway for McDonald’s breakfast, we drove the rest of the way into New York and arrived in the Pharaoh Mountain Wilderness around 11:00 AM. After a quick once over of the packs, making sure we had some freeze-dried meals, trail mix, water, sleeping bags, tent, stove, and various other necessities, we started hiking in.

The Adirondacks is really one of the best places on the East Coast (THE SAME EAST COAST THAT CONTAINS NEW JERSEY). The steep slopes, dense foliage, and massive lakes seem to belong to a different world. However exhausting long hikes with heavy packs can be, I didn’t once stop to think about it; I was too enchanted by the sun filtering through the leaves and the many streams that we had to cross.

River, consider yourself forded.

Believe me though, it could be exhausting. We decided to hike up Treadway Mountain to get a nice view of the surrounding lakes and forests. For some reason, this didn’t strictly involve climbing a steep slope. Instead, it involved climbing steep slopes, then suddenly climbing down a drastic drop in elevation, and repeating. I swear, for every mile we moved, we zig-zagged 3 vertically.

Shortly before another ascent...

Once at the peak of Treadway mountain, we admired the views, ate a quick lunch of trailmix, got temporarily lost (How does one get lost on a peak? We will never know.), and made our way back down to the main path.

What we saw shortly before nearly losing our way back down the mountain.

The path we chose for the 2-day adventure wound its way around Putnam Pond, which is most likely the world’s largest pond. I’d love to hear someone explain why it isn’t called a lake. Anyway, in order to get back to NJ relatively early on Sunday, we decided to do the majority of the hike on Saturday. We therefore picked a lean-to about 3/4 of the way around the pond to set up camp for the night.

That's one hell of a 'pond' to hike around, isn't it?

Just before nightfall (about 6:00 PM up there), we reached the site and set up our tent. Our total mileage for the day was about 8 miles.

Where we almost slept.

Despite their daylong absence, swarms of mosquitoes arrived as it got dark, negating the lean-to as a sleeping option.

Where we ultimately slept.

We fired up the camp stove, boiled some water, and made the freeze-dried chicken and rice. It was surprisingly excellent. We then made hot chocolate, ate a granola bar, and put all the foodstuffs into a bear-proof container that we planted about 50 yards away.

Two things became suddenly apparent to me over the 2 days we were there. First, I found that I eat much better without access to a time telling device. If I don’t think that I should be eating, I just eat when I’m hungry. Second, I found that I sleep much better without a time telling device. Again, when I don’t know when I should go to bed, I sleep when I’m tired. It was in this way that we ended up asleep around 8:00 PM.

Pictured: The last thing I saw before passing out.

The next morning, we got up around 7 and made a quick breakfast. The weather was nice and brisk for our 2-mile hike out.

LOOK AT HOW CRISP THAT MORNING IS. LOOK AT IT.

It was especially enjoyable winding our way around a number of smaller ponds in the area and watching the foliage change. Some areas had dark, dense forests, while other spots open up into something resembling glades. It was also interesting to watch well-beaten trails devolve into nothingness at random spots along the trek. Even with the trail markers, we had to pause and examine our way forward several times.

Once back to the car, we took off our packs and set off for NJ. Thanks to our incredible swiftness, we were able to make it all the way back to NJ by 3:30, including a stop to buy burgers to grill. Although I had initially planned on taking Monday off and staying in NJ for the night, I made the painful decision to eat with my parents, watch a bit of football, and come back to Baltimore that night. Sometimes, being responsible sucks.

On the drive home, I got to thinking about the mental transformation I undergo when I leave NJ each time. At the beginning, I’m in a place I know so well and that I’m completely comfortable. Crime doesn’t exist, I don’t have a job to worry about, and I have friends and family abound. The closer I get back to Baltimore, the more independent I feel. I transition back into having my own little life where I have to be responsible, go to work, and deal with my own problems. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but the two sides are just very different. My goal is to somehow find a way to connect the two feelings. That is all.

Musings: Aaaaaaand we’re back

(Funny story…I thought I posted this last Monday)

As expected, the building of my new computer got in the way of my blogging. System building is the type of treacherously satisfying process that consumes the mind with a fear of DOA components and unidentifiable errors. It’s also a process downright saturated with both excitement and trepidation. Nevertheless, I am happily blogging from my new system as we speak and it is absolutely spectacular. In the one day I’ve had to give it a spin with some games, it has performed astoundingly well. The only remaining issue is that my CPU has an unusually high idle temperature, even after removing and reapplying thermal paste. I’ll sort it out and see how it does under load later. Anyway, the more technical blog posts will follow later in the week. For now, it’s time to catch up.

As much as I expected to miss some blog posts while I put the system together, I certainly didn’t expect to feel so guilty about it. Over the weekend, I realized how long it had been since I posted anything and felt terrible. I felt like I was slipping away from blogging, allowing my blog to devolve into one of the thousands that seemed like good ideas for a few weeks but were ultimately left to decay. At work today, I saw the little “Site Stats” link for my blog in my history but felt too ashamed to check it. If anyone had been checking in since I stopped blogging, I didn’t want to know about it. After a hardy workout after work, I now feel like I’m ready to get back to business with this writing mumbo jumbo.

So what have I been doing since we last spoke, you are undoubtedly not asking. Let’s start with Labor Day weekend. This summer, for some unknown reason, has been the fastest of my life. I’ve only made it to the beach twice and in my brain, summer should just be kicking off. Unfortunately, the world continues its refusal to conform to my will, and September has come kicking through my face when I least expected it. Needless to say, Labor Day weekend became a symbol for summer’s last stand.

Leading up to the long weekend, I was trying to meticulously plan a weekend that would encompass everything that I could possibly want to do in the summer. Go to the beach, visit my grandparents, tour NJ, visit NYC, etc. Sadly, as good as I am at planning, doing everything was a logistical impossibility. Instead, the three best friends decided to tackle the latter two ideas with a road trip to NJ and a daytrip into Manhattan to check out the Harry Potter exhibition (on its last weekend in town) and stroll around the Big Apple.

After having a blast replacing my car battery on Saturday morning, I begrudgingly began the drive to NJ with the TBFs. After some fancy driving around Baltimore, which was overwhelmed by the Grand Prix, we made good time back to my home state. We quickly dropped our bags at my house and drove over to Double Trouble for a stroll. After all, a trip to Bayville isn’t complete without some DT time.

You may not be able to tell, but I'm thrilled to be home.

Afterwards, we headed back home for dinner. As usual, we consumed a delightful dinner (grilled onions, squash, and london broil) courtesy of my step father. Then, the three of us and my younger sister headed out to Seaside for a little boardwalk stroll. On the way, we stopped by Rich’s to get some ice cream (the canoli sundae was awesome but nearly killed me). After spending so many nights at the Seaside Heights boardwalk in high school, it’s definitely interesting going back as a bit more of an adult. As awful as it sounds, it’s nice to have a bit more age and maturity on your side; it makes looking down on the scum that much more justified.

After the boardwalk, we returned to my house and retired for the evening. The next morning, we got up bright and early and headed out for Hoboken around 7 AM. On the way, we grabbed bagels at Oh What A Bagel. Mmmmmm…Jersey Bagels.

Where was I? Oh yes, driving to Hoboken. We got to Hoboken around 9 AM, parked, and took the PATH train into Manhattan. We strolled around the Penn Station area for a while before heading to Discovery Times Square for the HP exhibition. I wish we had some pictures to show, but sadly, photography was prohibited. It was very cool to see so many costumes and props from the movies though. It taught me two things: I am much larger than the entire cast of the HP films and the props are detailed as hell.

After the exhibition, we began our eating tour of NYC. We grabbed some pizza by Penn Station and started walking towards a Chinese noodle place that one of my coworkers suggested. By the time we were nearly there (it was down by the Brooklyn bridge and I prefer walking everywhere whenever possible) we decided to take a detour to Pomme Frites instead. I was severely dehydrated by this point, so I pounded a bunch of water with my fried potatoes and we decided to call off the noodles.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN ALL THIS SODIUM IS JUST GOING TO INCREASE MY THIRST?!

After temporarily giving up on eating and checking out Noho and Soho, we swung by Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village for some cupcakes. Several pounds later and severely exhausted, we decided to forego the walk back to Penn Station and instead caught the PATH from the nearby Christopher Street Station.

'Nuff said

When we finally managed to liberate my car from the parking garage in Hoboken, we hopped on the Turnpike to head back to Rockville; however, we still had to make a final, obligatory NJ stop: a diner. For the sake of efficiency, we decided to not drive out of the way to my regular stomping grounds and instead hopped off the Turnpike to check out Marlton Diner. Two pork roll, egg, and cheese’s, a cream-chip beef on toast, and some coffee’s later, I was ready to never leave Jersey ever again. Sadly, I need to earn a living, so we drove back down and got to Rockville a little after 1 AM.

The next day I chilled in the morning and stopped by College Park to tailgate for the Miami game for a bit. Almost all of my old roommates, including the ones who live pretty far away now, were there, so it was a jolly time in spite of the rain. After that, last week was mainly devoted to building my computer and modding my headset (to be covered soon) and last weekend was spent straight chillin. I’m getting wordy, so goodnight!

A Thoroughly Considered Purchase: The Gaming PC (Choosing the components)

For a first time system builder, or the system builder that has been out of the game for a very long time like myself, choosing a full list of PC components can be a daunting task. Technology changes quickly, not just in speed and capacity, but also in formats and technologies. For this reason, it is important to first identify what you want out of your new computer before deciding what parts you should research.

In my case, I knew from the outset that I wanted my computer to be for gaming. I don’t do any intensive graphics work, so certain hardware and technologies were low on my list of priorities. Hyperthreading, for example, isn’t of much use for gaming due to the way modern games are designed, so paying extra for it isn’t necessary. If it happens to be included with what you decide on buying, of course, it’s a nice extra. I also knew that I would use the new system sometimes as a HTPC; however, the system requirements for a decent HTPC are so far below those needed for gaming, very little consideration needed to be given to this usage.

Once you’ve decided on the type of PC you’ll be building, it’s time to do the dirty work and pick your components. From this point forward, I will describe my process for doing this and the components I selected. Obviously, your choices may vary based on budget and needs. Speaking of budget, I had a fairly simple budget mindset when it came to this build. Essentially, I was willing to pony up the money for any hardware that would make an appreciable difference, but would search for deals within those components and avoid expensive parts that yielded minimal rewards.

The first thing that you’ll realize while picking parts is that some items are no-brainers. They receive universally remarkable reviews from both pro and amateur reviewers and clearly outpace other components in their category in value, performance, or both. It’s obviously nice when this happens, but the VAST majority of your parts won’t fall into it. Most parts will be subject to mixed reviews, with people complaining about DOA components, poor customer service, excessive prices, etc. As a good consumer, it is your job to weed through the noise and sort out the bad hardware from the bitchy reviewer. And now, for my components and reasoning.

Case: Cooler Master HAF X

Computer cases are constantly taken for granted by people who have  never built a system. Aside from possible aesthetic pros and cons, most people never think twice about the hunk of metal and plastic housing their precious components; however, when building a high performance machine (and more importantly, building it for yourself), you will quickly notice how much of a difference it can make.

First and foremost, you’ll discover the difficulty of working inside of a cramped case. For me, nothing could be worse than wriggling my mammoth hands inside a tiny cavity of metal nooks and crannies. Add to this the difficulty of cable management in small cases and having to worry about fitting large graphics cards and/or CPU coolers and in my opinion you’ve got not choose but to get a full tower case. I understand that some people may balk at their obtrusiveness or complain about their large footprint, but believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll never have to worry about squeezing in a new part down the road and your well organized cables will greatly improve airflow within the case.

The other two important aspects of a computer case are the aforementioned airflow and the ease of adding/removing components from a case. Personally, I wanted a case that had large, quiet fans in a push/pull setup and tool-less installation. Given all of my requirements for a case, I quickly honed in on the HAF X.

Essentially, the only negative reviews of this case involve its size, and as I already stated, that’s not a con for me. The case features a very nice mechanism for inserting 5.25″ drives with just a push of a button, has plenty of holes for cable routing, features a nice I/O panel on the front of the case, and comes with large, quiet fans on the front, back, top, and side of the case. Additionally, it comes with an attachable duct that can be outfitted with a 120mm fan to directly cool a GPU. I couldn’t be happier with this selection.

CPU: Intel i5 2500k

The first thing that everyone says to me when I tell them that I bought an i5 for my new system is “Why didn’t you get an i7?”. When they ask me this, I want to punch them in their uniformed faces. Some people just don’t understand that not all i5’s and i7’s are created equal.

Despite the commoners ignorance on this topic, this was probably the single easiest component for me to pick.It has received tons of awards from various websites, and as some reading will tell you, it equals or bests the next-step-up processor, the i7 2600k, in gaming. The reason for this, in short, is that gaming simply doesn’t utilize the added cores or hyperthreading technology of the 2600k. For a gaming-centered machine, the i7 2600k is not only overkill, but a complete waste of the extra $100.

There’s not much else I need to say about the 2500k. It’s a reasonably priced, extremely well performing processor. Just make sure to NOT get the i5 2500. The 2500k is unlocked and is extremely well suited for overclocking, while the 2500 is not.

Motherboard: ASRock Z68 Extreme4 Gen3

Picking a motherboard is much more of a pain than picking a CPU. There are more to choose from, they are more likely to be DOA, and there is a much longer list of features to consider. I started my search by narrowing down the chipsets that I would consider.

It is generally known that the two best chipsets for Sandy Bridge processors (such as the i2500k) are the P67 and Z68. I’m not much of an expert on this topic, but I know that Z68 motherboards are newer and incorporate on-board video functionality. Of course, on-board video is completely useless for a gaming PC, but I ended up looking primarily at Z68 motherboards anyway. Since they are newer, it was my experience that they also tend to incorporate more brand new features than the P67 boards. I may not be 100% right about this, but at the very least, I couldn’t find a single reason not to stick with the Z68 boards.

After scouring Newegg for a while looking at their Z68 boards, I ended up choosing the ASROCK Z68 Extreme4. It’s priced very reasonably, especially compared to some MSI and ASUS boards, but doesn’t skimp on any major features. One Toms Hardware rundown I read even showed it outperforming the more expensive Z68 boards.

Immediately before purchasing the board, I decided to Google it one last time to make sure I wasn’t missing any crushing reviews, when Google’s predictive search made a little breakthrough for me. Although Newegg’s search feature had somehow skimmed over the product, Google suggested a search for a “gen3” version of the Z68 Extreme4. As I quickly found out, the gen3 is a brand new version of the board that incorporates the up-coming PCIe 3.0 standard, as well as using all gold-caps and just being a damn sexy piece of hardware. There are limited pro reviews of it at the moment, but I have found it to perform admirably.

Power Supply: Cooler Master Silent Pro M 1000W

Much like a case, non-system builders rarely think about power supplies. Pre-made computers are typically made with a PSU sufficient to run the installed components and unless the PSU dies, it rarely requires much thought. As unsexy a component as it may be, picking a good one is still crucial.

There are three main things I look for when picking a PSU. First, it is essential that it be reliable. At best, a crappy PSU will die on you and at worst, it will fry your components. Although some power supplies are better deals than others, a very cheap supply is probably not of great quality, so don’t cheap out. Second, it needs to have enough power for your components. Newegg has a nice calculator that estimates the power needed for whatever components you have/will have. It is my opinion that you should always over estimate your power needs, plan ahead for future upgrades, and round up. For this reason, I wanted a 1000W supply just in case I ended up buying another GPU in the future and running SLI. Finally, I prefer modular supplies, because they make cable management much easier.

The supply I ended up with fulfilled all of the above criteria, had good reviews, and had a $30 rebate going at the time, so it packed plenty of value.

Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-1600

Like the CPU, this is a pretty easy product to narrow down. You’ll want your memory to be stable, reliable, of sufficient volume, and at a fast speed that your motherboard supports. Fitting all of these criteria is the G.Skill Ripjaws.

This particular line of memory is constantly on sale from Newegg and has countless positive reviews. They are nice and stable and well priced. My motherboard supports DDR3-1600 memory without overclocking, so I picked up 2x4GB sticks of these for $40 when they went on sale one day. Memory in excess of 8GB has little usage for most tasks. On a side note, these WILL fit under a Noctua DH-14 cooler on the Extreme4 mobo.

Hard drive: Corsair Force GT 120GB

These days, SSD’s are all the rage. Although they may be prohibitively expensive for many people, the prices are quickly coming down. I personally became interested after reading for the 100th time that they were the single most noticeable upgrade that you can make to a PC. If I was going to spend all this money on a top-notch computer, of course I wanted such a major upgrade. For the record, it has been my experience thus far that a SSD is absolutely worth the price of admission.

You can read elsewhere about all the benefits of a SSD. In short, they are silent, consume less energy, and more importantly, completely blow regular HD’s out of the water in read/write times. What does this mean? It means that my computer now fully boots Windows in under 30 seconds and all of my applications are immediately useable, as compared to the usual long process of booting a traditional computer and then waiting to be able to load Firefox, Photoshop, or any other application. As an example in gaming, maps in Battlefield Bad Company 2 load in under 10 seconds now.

You’ll quickly find that there is a ton of variety in the SSD’s available today, but the most important thing is to get one with good read/write speeds, solid firmware, and a good controller (Like the current Sandforce controllers). Huge threads exist on this topic on various enthusiast forums, detailing good and bad drives, but allow me to save you some time. Get a 120GB Corsair Force GT. This drive offers incredibly fast speeds, is currently available with a $30 rebate, has no major stability issues, and has enough space to store Windows and a few large games, but not so much space to make your wallet cry. It’s also red, which adds a nice touch of color to your case if that’s what you’re into. I am. Just use an old (or new) traditional drive for large file storage.

Sound Card: Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD

Sound cards get a pretty bad rap these days. Most people simply don’t understand why they’re necessary, with onboard audio almost universally available on motherboards. I’ll admit, when I started looking into the hardware, I expected prices to have dropped substantially for sound cards over the last 10 years and was stunned to see the prices for the better ones lingering around $200. It seems that onboard audio took over the general market, leaving nothing but pricier cards for the enthusiasts.

Although I’m not an audiophile (being in a band did a number on my hearing), I do appreciate good, crisp sound for my games and music. Onboard audio, for that matter, tends to be pretty muddy. In my research, I found that HT Omega cards and ASUS Xonar cards are very well received by audio enthusiasts. Creative, on the other hand, has a pretty bad reputation for driver support and customer service. For this reason, I was moments away from getting an HT Omega card.

Then, I started researching simulated surround sound software. I do listen to music on my computer, but I primarily care about game audio and surround positioning. It quickly became apparent that Creative had a pretty popular surround sound technology, CMSS 3D, that only their cards used. Furthermore, I read that their cards really excelled at gaming audio and that their driver support has been getting better recently. When I found the X-Fi Titanium HD, a card I previously had heard nothing about, my decision was made.

The HD offers a few things that other Creative cards don’t. For one, it is specifically made for Windows 7, so all of the crappy driver support that their other cards have suffered on the latest OS is not much of an issue. Next, with this card they have made a push towards audiophile quality sound. The card even has swappable op-amps if you’re into that sort of thing, although I’m not. In any event, it seemed to be a popular card for gamers and had very good professional reviews, so I decided to try my luck. So far, I have found the sounds quality to be superb and the surround positioning via my AD-700’s to be incredible.

Graphics Card: EVGA GTX580 DS Superclocked

Graphics card ares a controversial little topic. AMD vs Nvidia? Single card vs. dual card solutions? Value vs. performance? How much power is really necessary? It’s all made worse by the fact that I’m upgrading primarily for Battlefield 3, a game which has no official system requirements yet. Nonetheless, I ended up settling for a GTX580. How did I do it?

I was nearly sold on several different options. I considered getting dual 6850’s for a while and running them in Crossfire. It’s a very powerful, fairly economical high-end solution, but limits upgradeability and Crossfire can be a headache. In a moment of frustration, I even considered Nvidia’s top-of-the-line-and-cost GTX590, a beast of a card that has no real place in the world yet. Finally, I read somewhere that EA’s demoes of BF3 have been shown on a machine running a GTX580, which was all I needed to hear. It isn’t cheap, but it was in my budget, and I didn’t want to take any chances. Although you can get comparable performance from the dual 6850’s at a lower cost, dual card setups are a major headache as I mentioned, and I wanted to leave myself the option of getting another 580 in the future if I needed to.

In regards to the particular model that I settled on, I picked it because EVGA has a great reputation, there’s no reason NOT to get the factory overclocked version, and the DS (which features an extra fan and backlit EVGA logo) is just incredibly nice looking and only costs a few extra dollars. It also had a rebate going at the time, so I think it was cheaper than the ugly version.

CPU Cooler: Noctua DH-14

Whether or not you need a CPU cooler is primarily dependent on if you want to overclock your CPU. If you paid the extra money for an i5 2500k, I’m going to assume you want to overclock at some point. I’m waiting to see if I really feel that I need the extra performance, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

The Noctua DH-14 is know for two things. It is mammoth (seriously) and it has unparalleled cooling potential. At $80, it may seem excessive to the casual user, but keep in mind that it comes with two of Noctua’s top-of-the-line fans (despite being ugly as hell) in a push-pull configuration. If you followed my advice and got a nice, big case, you shouldn’t have much of a problem fitting this behemoth in your case, but you should check Noctua’s compatibility page, as some mobo’s are laid out in such a way that the heatsink will hit your memory. On my Extreme4, there was no issue, even with the Ripjaws’ huge heatsinks.

This concludes my incredibly long rundown of what components I recommend buying (and that I bought). In the next couple of days, I’ll write about assembling all of your new components into a fully-functioning beastly machine. At the very least, I can assure you that the configuration detailed above has been providing me with incredible performance over the last few days. In the end, the entire build cost me about $1700. Although I know this may seem like a staggering number, you must consider that I saved tirelessly for 9 months, never eat out or take vacation, subsist largely on rice and beans, and that it will likely be my last full build for at least 5 years. If you are looking to build a similarly high-end machine while skipping a few of the pricier add-ons, allow me to suggest the following substitutions:

  • GPU: Dual 6850’s instead of GTX580
  • Hard drive: Use an existing disc-based drive instead of an SSD
  • Case: Purchase a slightly lower end case for around $100
  • Sounds Card: Use onboard audio
  • CPU Cooler: Use stock heatsink
  • Power Supply: Purchase a reliable 600-700W supply for around $100

With these suggestions, you can drop the cost of the machine down closer to $1000. It may not provide all of the swanky extras or the future-proofing enabled by superior cooling and upgradeablity, but it should still last you for quite a while at nearly half the cost. Happy building!

A Thoroughly Considered Purchase: The Gaming Headset (aka the AD-700 mic mod)

To kick off the rundown of my little computer how-to/the tale of my new system, I will start with the only external component of the system and one that applies almost exclusively to semi-competitive gamers. That is, of course, the gaming headset.

When I had finally decided to save up the dough to build a dream system, I chose early on to include a new headset in the budget. Although it is often overlooked amidst the performance stats of PC hardware, having a good headset can make gaming both easier and much more enjoyable. Over the years, I have gotten by with a jumbled combination of audio devices. In the beginning, I used the free mic that came with SOCOM for PS2 for voice chatting with the clan and a crappy set of headphones for audio. Over time, that gave way to an actual headset with an included mic that broke after a few years, and then pretty much nothing for a while. When I decided to start gaming online again last spring, I picked up a Logitech desktop mic to use in conjunction with my Sony MDR-V6’s.

This setup was pretty decent, but suffered from a few increasingly annoying issues. First, the Sony headphones are very nice for music, but have a limited depth of field that is very apparent in gaming. They also don’t seem to fill out the nuances of sound effects as well as they do music. Next, the desktop mic had a habit of pissing off clan members by picking up loud keystrokes on the keyboard and the rumbling and wailing of buses and police cars outside my window. I live in Baltimore, what can I say?

Unfortunately, if reviews around the internet are to be trusted, there’s no such thing as a single, great headset. Seriously, go read around for a bit. While one person may insist that a set has the single best audio they’ve ever heard in their life, there is inevitably another to give the headset a serious lashing, claiming that the audio lacks depth, clarity, or any semblance quality. Of course, when you’ve budgeted enough for a high end headset, it is incredibly frustrating to not be able to simply throw money at a problem. When professional reviews and Amazon ratings fail to clarify, the savvy 21st century consumer has to get creative.

With mounting frustration, I began to read massive threads on gaming and audiophile forums alike, searching for the best available options. It came to a point where I decided to just give up and buy the most expensive headset available, the Astro A40. At $250 they cost a pretty penny, especially considering their wildly mixed (but mostly positive) reviews.

What's that weird echoing noise? Oh, it's the cavernous, empty insides of my wallet.

I actually went to go purchase them at one point, but they were completely sold out. Over the next few days I waited for them to come in stock and continued researching here and there. Then I made a breakthrough.

In all of my searching for a headset, I had neglected to look into headphones. After all, I wanted to get away from using my desktop mic. This negligence led to me completely overlooking a universally praised set of cans: the Audio Technica AD-700’s. I initially was turned onto them on some forum where a reader was reviewing a different headset and mentioned how they didn’t even compare to the famous AD-700’s. Several searches later, it became apparent that these headphones were extremely popular amongst the professional gaming crowd for their insanely large depth of field, spectacular audio positioning, and wonderful comfort. Even better, they were only $90.

Once I had decided that I was sold on the AD-700’s, I started to look into microphone solutions. As it turned out, there was an entire community of modders who had worked out various ways of adding a mic to the headphones. The simplest involved cutting apart a cheap headset and velcroing the mic to the headphones. The nicer ones involved adding a mic-jack to the headphones for use with a removable mic. I went with this approach.

In spite of countless threads showing pictures of these mods, I found a very limited amount of how-to information on the topic. I will therefore describe the step-by-step process of converting the AD-700 to a headset. Please note that I made one major mistake in the process that could be remedied by purchasing replacement parts, but I’m happy enough with how it turned out.

First, make sure you get all the components you need for the mod. These are:

  1. A cordless drill with some bits
  2. AD-700’s
  3. Some high-density sleeving for organizing the cables
  4. A microphone with a 2.5mm of 3.5mm jack (I bought a replacement Turtle Beach X-41, which has a 2.5mm jack, for $8 here.)
  5. A 2.5mm or 3.5mm panel-mount jack, depending on the mic you bought. I bought this one from Vetco. PLEASE NOTE: My mod ran into a problem because the threading on this jack was not long enough to reach through the hole I drilled in the headphones. A longer jack, or some fancy drilling, may be needed for a cleaner mod.
  6. A 3.5mm cable of sufficient length (about 9 feet to match the AD-700’s cable is good). This will be used to plug the mic into your soundcard.
  7. A solder gun and solder

With all your supplies in place, begin by removing the padded earcup from the left side of the headphones. This is achieved by slightly stretching the faux leather portion of the cup slightly to remove it from it’s groove. Once removed, it will look like this:

Using a small screwdriver, remove the screws that you see spaced around the now-exposed left-headphone. Removing these will allow the driver and it’s molding to lift up, giving access to the innards of the casings where our mic-mount will go. When removed, it looks like this:

Once inside, you’re going to want to locate a good position to drill a hole for the 2.5mm or 3.5mm jack. I personally chose a spot on the front, bottom portion of the headphones, just next to the one screw-hole. Be careful not to drill into the screw-hole, or else reassembling the headphones will be difficult. Also notice that the purple-mesh is covering where you need to drill; however, it can easily be drilled straight through and into the plastic. Making sure to pick a drill bit that will accommodate the slimmer, threaded part of the panel-mount jack (but not the thicker part), carefully drill a hole straight through the mesh and the plastic.

Insert your jack and screw on the securing bit from the outside of the headphone casing. This will lock the jack in place (unless your jack doesn’t reach, like mine). You’re now ready to bring in the 3.5mm wire and fit it through the existing headphone-wire hole. First, cut one of the 3.5mm jacks off the wire (you will only need one male connector left attached). With this bit cut, carefully strip the wire to expose the wires inside. For a stereo cable, you will find two shielded and one unshielded wire. The shielded wires should also be carefully stripped. Since we only need mono sound for a mic,¬† the shielded cables can simply be twisted together; just make sure to keep the originally unshielded cable separate.

These are each mono cables, but stereo are the same but with red AND white shielded cables.

Next, you’ll need to remove the bit of plastic holding the headphones cable in place. I personally whittled it down a bit with a knife, being careful to not nick the audio cable, until it was pretty thin near the headphone casing. Then, I yanked out the bit of plastic completely and finished cutting it out. It will look like this once removed from the casing:

In the extra space now vacated by that piece of plastic, pull through the stripped end of the 3.5mm cable. You can also take this time to pull some high-density sleeving and shrink wrap up on the outside of the headphones to keep the mic and headphone cables nice and organized.

On the inside of the phone, it’s time to solder some cables. If you bought a stereo-jack, it will have three prongs. If it’s mono, it will only have two. As an example, here is the jack I am currently using:

For this jack, you’ll want to simply use the two short prongs. Solder the combined previously-shielded cables to one of the posts. Solder the unshielded cable to the other. I personally worked out all of my soldering business before putting it in the headphones and tested the mic to make sure I knew what to solder where. When everything is nice and soldered, it’s time to close up the headphones. There is limited space inside, so it will take some shuffling to get things to close up completely. Don’t worry, there is a way, it just takes some trial and elbow grease. Once in place, screw things back together. If you used sleeving and shrink wrap, go ahead and shrink that up now. Mine looks like this:

Finally, you’re basically done. I will now shamefully reveal my ugly drilling incident that I used to make my jack fit through the casing. I still may go back to fix it later, but this is how it currently looks.

Hideous, I know. But it works! Here it is with mic attached.

So far, it has been working nicely in Teamspeak and is easy to remove the mic when not needed. The lack of space inside the cans keeps the jack nice and secure, even without the threading screwed into place. I’ll talk more about my full PC setup tomorrow, but when paired with Creative’s CMSS 3D on my X-Fi Titanium HD, they have beautifully detailed sound with pinpoint accuracy in games. Not too shabby!

Stuff That I Like: PC Gaming (Part 2)

As my freshman year or high school wore on, I continued fervently playing BF1942 on my PC. In addition, I started playing some other titles, such as Morrowind, which have sculpted the way I view games forever.

For instance, I learned that not all cats suck.

By the time I entered my sophomore year, social obligations, swimming, and various other activities were eating more and more of my time. This, coupled with a PC that was very expensive to upgrade, led to a slow migration towards gaming primarily on my PS2. I still played with the clan, but popped in less frequently. It wasn’t until my computer actually broke sometime over the ensuing year that I made a partial system upgrade.

It was at this point that my standard PC procedure was established. It went something like this:

  1. Upgrade PC with whatever parts are necessary to get it working.
  2. Salvage all the old parts that still work
  3. If it cannot play a game you absolutely NEED to play, consider striking a deal with your parents to give them your computer to help finance new parts

Since I wasn’t gaming too heavily on my PC at this point, this worked out fine for a very long time too. By late high school, it was rare that I used my computer for gaming; however, I would occasionally be sucked back into it by a major release. In 2005, for example, Battlefield 2 launched and I was back to full time gaming with my clan. I utilized the above procedure to acquire the parts necessary to make the game even remotely playable.

In 2006, once again, I became extremely excited for the followup to Morrowind, which was Oblivion. A technically demanding game, it required me to make a somewhat significant upgrade to my computer to be able to play it. After logging about a hundred hours in Oblivion (cool, I know), I went on a pretty long computer hiatus. Once I was at college, I continued to play BF2, but more with my roommates than with the clan. I drifted slowly from the computer again, primarily playing console games with friends, and returning only on vacations to put in significant PC time. It was just too expensive to keep upgrading for such limited bouts of PC gaming. Aside from Portal 1 and Portal 2, I didn’t play any new PC games for a few years.

This brings us Christmas of this past year. I caught wind that Battlefield Bad Company 2 was getting an expansion based on the Vietnam War. I’m extremely interested in the history of Vietnam and became pretty excited about giving it a whirl. I asked for a copy of BFBC2 for 360 and spent the majority of my break playing the hell out of it.

Suck it hippies, you don't even have your own game.

The only downside was how frustrated I got over having to play alone in a teamwork-heavy game. In early spring, the PC version of the game went on sale for $7, so I decided to see if my old clan was still around. I bought a new mic, popped on to chat with the guys, and decided it was totally worth it to get the game for PC. I sold my 360 copy later that day.

The more I gamed with the clan, the more I remembered how fun it was. I was suddenly taken back to being 15, playing BF1942. It was also fitting that I got back into PC gaming when I did, as Battlefield 3, the first official sequel in the series since 2005, is set to release this October. Furthermore, Skyrim, the sequel to Oblivion and Morrowind, is set to release in November. Both titles are anticipated to be amazingly beautiful, which is cool, but also equates to being technically demanding of ones computer. For this reason, I decided to start a computer fund.

If there is one nice thing about working full time, it is that you have the ability to earn enough money that you can organize it into budgets. For the past 8 months, I’ve tucked away all my extra money into the computer fund, looking forward to finally building my first top of the line machine since 2002. As of Monday night, the money had accumulated in my account and I was face with the extremely stressful decision of whether I could actually go through with it.

WWSMD?

You see, I like having nice things and all, but I feel incredibly guilty for buying them. I can’t help but think if I’m being selfish or if I could be putting the money towards something more productive. My default mindset is to put it into savings or use it for an awesome trip. It took a few hours for me to convince myself of three things. First, I reminded myself that I needed a new computer if I wanted to play those games. Second, I realized that I didn’t have the vacation days available to take a big vacation at the moment. Finally, I accepted that it’s the perfect time for a tech upgrade.

The worst thing about buying computer components is that something better always comes out almost immediately. It’s incredibly frustrating to buy a premium product, only to see it go on massive sale and be replaced by something far better at the same price. Although this will undoubtedly happen again eventually, I’m content knowing that the next big processor and video card releases aren’t until an unspecified date in 2012, well past when I’ll need the new rig. This realization finally pushed me over the edge. I swallowed hard, braced myself for the punishment my bank account was about to take, and started adding to the cart.

A few of the components arrived today and I’m extremely excited. Over the next few days, the rest should arrive, and I plan on doing a little rundown of the whole thing. Specifically, I’ll explain why I picked the components I did and then do a little how-to on system building for anyone interested. If I suddenly stop posting over the next few days, it probably means the new parts didn’t work and I’m without a computer. Wish me luck!

Stuff That I Like: PC Gaming (Part 1)

Buying things, much like blogging, can be a fickle friend. Depending on what it is and how much it costs (or what you’re blogging about) it can take a lot of time and effort to muster up the energy to go forward with it. Other times, you need to slow yourself down and think carefully about a purchase (or a blog post) before blundering on and looking like an idiot.

Within the last 24 hours, I’ve juggled all of the possible scenarios mentioned above. I’ve wanted to write a blog post badly but also felt uninspired to put words down. More mentally taxing then that has been my struggling to decide whether I should buy the parts to build a new computer. Let me explain.

PC gaming and I have a long, storied history. In essence, it is a lifelong love that I lose touch with for years at a time, before stumbling upon it again and savoring its sweet embrace. Like many gamers born in the late 80’s, I was practically weened on PC gaming. My first games were text-based adventure games without any images at all, followed by Sierra adventure games and Doom; however, as the only gamer, and youngest member, of a household, getting the family computer regularly upgraded to play new games isn’t really going to happen. It was for this reason, around the age of 7, that I moved on to console gaming for a while.

GAH, ONLY IF I HAVE TO.

Aside from occasional forays back onto the PC, when my aunt would upgrade and fix our computer and throw a few PC classics my way, I mainly gamed on my SNES through early elementary school. After all, consoles were cheaper than PCs and I was allowed to rent a game from East Coast Video on the weekends. Eventually, towards the end of the 16-bit generation, I was given a Super Genesis as well, granting me access to an entirely new library of games (Multi-platform games weren’t much of a thing until the 32/64-bit generation).

From there, I moved on to a Nintendo 64, PSX, and finally a PS2. My only real ventures onto the PC were at friends’ houses. We would spend countless hours taking turns playing the latest games. I still vividly remember when my best friend got a new desktop with a NVidia TNT2 that could play Soldier of Fortune 2. I was awful, but it was a darn good time.

A bloody good time, if you will.

During the summer of 2002, I began hearing about a game called Battlefield 1942. Unlike the other first person shooters that I had spent a ton of time playing, such as Medal of Honor, it was a large-scale, multiplayer-only game. Even better, it would let you drive jeeps, fly planes, drive boats. Promotional footage showed people crouching on the wings of flying planes to parachute in to capture a base and landing craft bearing down on bloody beach heads. In short, I needed to play it.

With my birthday approaching at the end of the summer, I began lobbying my dad. I pulled out all the stops. I reminded him of how my brother got to go to Space Camp and a slew of other activities that I missed out on. I insisted that having a modern computer was a necessity. Finally, he agreed to allow me to have a custom rig built. Thus began a month or two of rigorous research into the best computer parts available for a reasonable price. It would have RDRAM, a proprietary memory format that was twice as fast as the competition (which also became obselete and impossible to upgrade 2 years later). It would have an NVidia Ti4600, the fastest mainstream GPU available. Ahhhh, the memories. My dad gave me the number of the computer guy that his company used, who I contacted and reeled off the specs to. By August, the computer was ready for pickup, along with a 19″ CRT monitor and a set of Klipsch 5.1 Promedias. To this day, it was the biggest gift I’ve ever been given.

Whoops, sorry. Second biggest.

With everything setup in my room at home, I waited patiently for the Battlefield 1942 demo to release. I spent my time playing Operation Flashpoint all night, eating leftover Chinese food and my mom’s iced tea and sleeping late. I left my room so rarely that when I showed up for the beginning of high school, my friends asked if I was sick since I was so pale and thin.

Sick? More like sick awesome.

When Battlefield 1942 finally launched, I was smitten and wasted even more time playing it. Entire weekends were lost that fall to the game. Eventually, I impressed a clan that I had been owning enough to get an invite to try out. I dominated the try out, was offered a spot, and joined. I’ve been in ever since.

This marked my first return to PC gaming. This post is WAY longer than anticipated, so I will clue you all in to where this is all going tomorrow. Godspeed.