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!

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.

Musings: The one where everybody loses respect for me

People always seem to be surprised to find out how much of a nerd I am. I’m not exactly sure why either. Perhaps it’s because I’m active, have friends, eat decently, and love the outdoors. I personally like to think that it’s because of my rugged good looks and roguish charm, but no one asked me. Either way, there usually comes a point when I’m talking with a new acquaintance (or sometimes an old one) when they say something along the lines of “I didn’t know you were that nerdy”, and never in a good way. There’s not much I can say either, because I know I am. In order to avoid this awkward moment in the future, where I see a little bit of respect choking to death in the back of someone’s eyes, I’ll lay it all out now.

Prepare to see me differently.

On any given night, I would MUCH rather chill at home and play video games than go out to the bars. My junior year of college, I played Pokemon for 12 hours straight one day. Then I battled my roommate. I’ve owned every console from the last 4 generations of consoles, excluding the Gamecube, but definitely including the Dreamcast. During the summer of 2008, I built an arcade unit from scratch with my grandfather. My heart rate actually quickens when I think about building my new computer this fall. I’m in a clan. Hell, I’ve been in the same clan for the past 8 years. It even has a ridiculously overdone theme. Don’t believe me? Check it out: it’s called the Insane Army. I don’t care either; the people are cool and I’ve made some money from tournaments, so suck it.

Yeah, the ladies love it.

To my credit, I’ve never played World of Warcraft, the definitive game of the nerds. No, I played Lord of the Rings Online instead, because I’ve read the entire series and thought it would be more immersive. Dammit. There’s really no winning this one.

But seriously, it's the Shire. What's not to like?

I’m also an avid Harry Potter fan, but that one might not make things any worse. I’d say about 50% of the people in my age group grew up reading the series and another 25% claim to have “just read the first few” when they were young. That group has definitely read them all, but doesn’t want to admit it. On the other hand, I’ve made t-shirts for most of the movie premiers and handcrafted two wands one summer (the same summer as the arcade actually), so maybe this one does make things worse.

Anyway, it’s nice to get this all out. I’m proud of my inner nerd. Unashamedly proud. I think it adds character. Besides, as a competitive person, does it get any better than being able to pwn a friend in a FPS, beat them at Harry Potter trivia, prepare superior woodwork, and then outrun them? Probably, but not for this guy.