Welcome to the 2nd PC Building Issue!
It’s finally here! The second PC building issue, and what an issue it is. Instead of rehousing an old computer, like my media centre project, it’s a new computer built from scratch. And the first project for Newforge Computers! As usual, I started out at bit-tech/Custom PC. Since my dad first bought the Custom PC magazine a few years back now, it has been one of my first ports of call when it comes to building PCs. To be perfectly honest, I’ve disassembled many many more computers than I’ve built. My main supplier this time was Scan, which was a departure from my normal supplier, Overclockers UK. I hadn’t really thought of using Scan before, as shipping costs were previously prohibitive, but when I was pricing things up this time Scan came out significantly cheaper than other retailers. Of course, I can’t speak for every configuration of computer, but the parts I was using were a good deal cheaper at Scan than at other retailers. And a lot of websites have scrapped their ridiculous surcharges for delivery to Northern Ireland.
The PC was being built for photo editing and general day to day multimedia usage, and needed to be on a platform which was readily upgradeable in the future. And of course it would help if it was something I had worked with before.
So you wanna build a computer? Lets run through what you need in short, and in the order you’ll require them. I’ll also explain the component choice I made for this project.
1) Case – A case is the foundation of your computer, and can vastly affect cooling. You also need to make sure there’s plenty of room for expansion, and to accommodate larger graphics cards and CPU heatsinks depending on your other components. It helps if it looks nice too. A suitably well built case can last for years and be used in future builds, so spend at least £40.
This build: I chose the Antec Three Hundred as it is relatively cheap, spacious, and reliable. Also it is sleek, simple looking, exactly what a case at this price point needs to be.
2) Power Supply Unit (PSU) – Next you’re going to need a power source for your components. You want plenty of headroom here too, so generally avoid lower wattage PSUs. Large graphics cards and high end processors can consume a lot of power. To get a rough idea of what you’ll need, take a look at the power supply calculator. Avoid cheap and no-brand PSUs like the plague. They may save you some money initially, but if a PSU goes bang, it’s gonna take everything else down with it. Invest!
This build: The Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU was ideal. It’s 600W so there’s plenty of power to spare, and it has an 80 plus efficiency rating, so cheaper to run in theory. Corsair is a dependable brand so quality is assured.
3) Processor (CPU) – I normally fit the CPU into the motherboard socket before screwing the motherboard into the case, hence the order. This is the powerhouse of the computer, and without a good CPU, you will bottleneck everything else essentially. These days there’s no reason to have a single core processor – you should be aiming for a dual or quad core model. CPUs with higher number of cores are available, but programs have to be written to take advantage of them, which isn’t always the case. The choice of processor determines your choice of motherboard, and for all intents and purposes, Intel is the one to go with. Now you may disagree, citing that AMD provides affordable performance and is perfectly adequate for most situations, but when it comes down to pure power, Intel wins out every time.
This build: I chose the Core i5 2500K for this build for a few reasons. First off, I built dad’s computer around an i5 2500K last year, and it’s a great processor. It’s also a “K” model, so the multiplier is unlocked allowing easy overclocking to squeeze a lot more performance out of it if I need to. And it’s a tried and tested Sandy Bridge. Ivy Bridge processors are available now, but they are limited as far as overclocking goes, and haven’t been on the market for too long.
3) Motherboard – there are a lot of choices in this area. First off, are you buying an Intel or AMD processor. The processor sockets are different for different manufacturers, and different lines of processors, so make sure you get the right one. And which form factor? ATX, micro-ATX, mini-ITX? Depending on your case, ATX is pretty much standard, and ATX-size cases will accept ATX and micro-ATX motherboards. Given the option I would always choose an ATX motherboard as it is bigger and can accommodate more PCI slots, and sometimes extra USB headers too. It varies a lot from board to board. I sound like a broken record here, but it’s worth investing in a good motherboard, as a bad one can bottleneck the performance of your other components, and may not live as long. The better boards have solid capacitors now, and other life extending measures.
This build: The Gigabyte GA-Z68AP-D3 was chosen; again as a result of bit-tech recommendations. It’s worth investing a bit more in a motherboard if you can, because if it goes wrong, it can be a massive pain. The GA-Z68 has a decent feature set, including some nifty options to shorten system start-up times and access BIOS functions from the desktop. It has a couple of USB 3.0 ports too, and an HDMI, though it’s not needed if you have a discreet graphics card.
4) RAM – RAM is incredibly easy to fit, and you just push it into the slots. I’d say you should use at least 4GB in a modern computer running Windows 7, and with the price of RAM, you have no excuse to cheap out here. If you’re going to be doing a lot of video editing, rendering, or 3d work, then more is better. DDR3 is the current standard for the foreseeable future. The flashy coolers on some modules are not always effective at cooling, and unless you’re going to be messing around with overclocking them, whether you have heatsinks or not isn’t going to make a huge difference. They do look nice though. RAM is normally installed in pairs, and the motherboard slots are coloured to correspond with each pair.
This build: Corsair Vengeance DDR3 8GB (2x4GB kit). They look great, and deliver good performance. Make sure you have a 64-bit operating system though, otherwise you’ll only be able to utilise 3.25GB RAM, wasting the rest.
5) Graphics Card – Graphics cards are important if you’re gaming, or doing a lot of video-editing, but for this build a low-end discreet card was all that was needed.
This build: I probably could have gotten away without a graphics card at all thanks to the integrated graphics chip in the i5 2500K, but I went with a cheap and cheerful 1GB MSI Radeon HD 6450. It should handle games at low/medium settings if needed, and is fine for everything else. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had an inclination towards ATI (or now, AMD) over Nvidia, and most of my builds reflect this.
6) Storage – The choice is between HDDs and SSDs here. HDDs provide lots of storage space cheaply, though have moving parts and slower read and write speeds. SSDs are much more expensive per GB, but the prices have dropped a lot recently and they are much faster than traditional HDDs, and have no moving parts so should require less power. They’re silent too, so for a quiet build, a must. If your operating system is installed onto the SSD, there will be noticeably faster boot-up times, and installation of Windows 7 only takes around 10 minutes.
This build: I chose a 2TB Seagate hard drive for bulk storage, and a 128GB Samsung 830 Series SSD for the operating system. The Samsung SSD looks fantastic, and has a good reputation for reliability and speed.
7) Optical Drive – This isn’t strictly necessary, though makes installation of the operating system easier. I no longer have an optical drive in my laptop, as I so rarely use DVDs now, but it depends on personal preference.
This build: The LG DVD-RW, with support for M-DISC, was a good budget option as I needed a SATA optical drive. I have plenty of IDE optical drives lying around, but a lot of motherboards have slashed support for IDE as it isn’t really used any more. M-DISC is an interesting new disc media which is supposed to be a lot more resilient than traditional DVD.
8) Operating System (OS) – There is a massive selection of operating systems, from Windows to the many flavours of Linux, but most of you will probably stick with good old dependable Windows 7. Windows 7 is a great operating system, and unlike it’s predecessor, works and isn’t a resource hog. We all love Windows XP, but unless your company uses software written only for Windows XP, then you should upgrade to 7. You should go for a 64-bit OS to utilise more than 3.25GB of memory, as I mentioned before, and some newer applications will work only in 64-bit.
This build: A choice between Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate really, and for most purposes, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit is adequate.
Picking out everything was the hard part – the actual building of the PC is a dawdle. One of the trickier parts is cable management, that is, hiding everything to look like there are as few cables as possible. Mid to high-end cases have plenty of space for cable routing behind the motherboard and in other places. Unfortunately, as good a case as it is, the Antec 300 doesn’t have any cable routing options so inevitably the case was going to look a bit of a mess. More like the old days, really, just a few years back when nobody cared about the massive jumble of wires crammed into the case.
The post took a vastly different direction than I thought it would, but hopefully this has given you a few tips and ideas. I’ll have to put a step by step guide to PC building at some stage, but I thought an explanation of the components I was using might be more helpful as there are many good guides and tutorials online. Building a PC is a lot of fun, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in technology.
Just as an aside here’s my latest video – I was experimenting with how-to videos, and decided to film the process involved with fitting an SSD to my laptop. It is pretty long at ~11 minutes, but hopefully someone will get some use out of it.