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!

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 haveĀ  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!