Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Building a new (modestly cheap) computer for DUMMIES

So with WAR ito be released imminently, and my computer barely able to run it at minimum specs, it's time for an upgrade.

I've decided to get a serious gaming rig, and I want some bang for my buck, so I'm going with a desktop which I'll build myself (with the help of Crimson and his leet computer skills, I'm hoping).

This required me to spend many hours scouring the interwebs to figure out how exactly a computer works and what factors I need to consider in such an endeavour, since I knew only the absolute basics before. I've decided to give you the cliff notes, in case you're in the same position as I was a few days ago and don't want to waste a bunch of time.

Disclaimer: I assume you don't know much about computers. Feel free to skip to the section you're interested in. This is a loooooong post, but will save you a lot of time if you're in a similar boat to where I was a few days ago.

My goals were:
1) Keep costs down, I'm not loaded. I'm shooting for 1500-2000 g.p. (ok not gold pieces... AUD), including the monitor.
2) Maximise future upgradeability. I don't want to have to go through all this nonsense for several years, so I want a set of components that is going to accommodate new technology.
3) Overclocking potential. If you're completely clueless, overclocking = making the various parts of your computer run faster than the factory settings (with the risk of decreasing the life of the components if you push it too far). I've never overclocked a computer before, however I intend to when the new computer eventually starts to not be able to run the latest games, so I can again get the most bang out of my buck and delay future purchase of a whole new computer.
4) Run fairly quietly, I don't want to feel like there's a jet engine in my room.
5) And most importantly, comfortably run any game out at the moment, and hopefully future games for quite some time, with the settings up fairly high.

And on to my advice:

PC vs Mac: Macs require a windows shell to be run for many games, and cost more for a given level of performance. PC all the way.

Intel vs AMD: Don't bother with AMD at the moment. The performance of their gear, dollar for dollar, is lagging behind Intel (although such was not the case 1-2 years ago I gather).

CPU
----

Probably the first thing you should pick. After picking this, we'll pick our RAM, and then we'll pick a motherboard that is compatible with the two.

Quad core is just not an advantage at the moment for gaming, as few if any games have built to take advantage of it. They therefore cost more than dual core, for the same performance. However, quad core will probably be the way of the future - you'll want your motherboard to be able to support it for future upgrades (see below).

So go for dual core. The particular model I've chosen is the E8500, which seems to be fast (3.16 GHz at factory speeds), is reported to overclock very well, and is not too pricy.

RAM
----

DDR3 is much more expensive than DDR2 at the moment. Moreover, modern CPU's are just not fast enough to take proper advantage of the faster data transfer speeds and higher bandwidth of DDR3. So, performance improves in games by around 5% or so.

There's a really nice table describing this limitation at this URL: http://www.nehalemnews.com/2008/05/editorial-need-for-imc-and-why-fsb-is.html

Basically, if the front side bus (FSB - controls how fast your CPU and RAM can communicate) is 533 Mhz or more, we will have reached the limit of what DDR2 @ 1066 MHz can achieve. Given that our chosen CPU is only 333 MHz FSB, and motherboards available at the moment only support 400 MHz FSB, DDR3 will just not be needed.

If we choose a really nice system in terms of overclocking, however, we'll be able to almost reach that limit of what DDR2 can offer (overclocking a 400MHz motherboard to 533MHz is considered pretty darn good).

You also want a respectable brand of memory, especially when overclocking. I chose Corsair, as it came highly recommended and is competitively priced.

Motherboard
-----------

Probably the most important part. It has to support your CPU and your RAM, or your computer isn't going to work.

Two of the main options are Intel based boards, or Nvidia based boards. The Intel boards are reported to be less buggy than the Nvidia ones, except for the most recent high end Nvidia boards (790i series). These, however, are more expensive than their Intel equivalents, so I've chosen Intel.

There are then several types. In terms of modern board options that are remotely reasonably prices, you have the P35, the P45, the X38, and the X48 models. The difference between the "P" and "X" series is primarily the support for "Crossfire". Crossfire is a technology that allows you to plug in 2 graphics cards to work together. You won't get double the output, you're looking at ~20 - 60%, usually 30-40% improvement depending on the game (the game Crysis treats Crossfire poorly, the improvement is even less here). The Nvidia equivalent is called "SLI". Crossfire is only supported on Intel boards, and SLI on Nvidia boards.

Anyway, The "X" series boards have full Crossfire support, namely, they allow both boards to operate at 16 channels. The "P" series boards on the other hand, only allow each card to operate at 8.

The actual difference this x16 vs x8 issue makes in modern games has received conflicting reports... one website reported a large difference, but several follow up tests from other sites showed neglibile difference. The consensus supports the latter viewpoint... at the moment. There is a theoretical x2 improvement in performance to be had with 16 vs 8 channels, it's just that current games don't take advantage of it.

So, an option to consider is upgradeability using Crossfire... perhaps buy one graphics card now, and when that's no longer enough, buy a second version (which will be much cheaper by then) and up your performance. If you want to go this route, you want an X series board. The X48 is an upgrade to the X38 series, they are more stable/less buggy, you'll probably want an X48 board if you choose X series.

The P series boards are preferrable if you don't want to go Crossfire (ie you just want to use a single graphics card). The reason for this is, with 1 graphics card, you get the full 16 channels, and the P45 board is also cheaper and a better overclocker than the X series. I decided to go this route and just buy 1 decent graphics card (it seemed more efficient in terms of cost vs performance).

The P45 boards are newer and apparently more reliable (along with some features I don't care much about) compared to P35. So I've decided to go with P45.

I wanted a board with good overclocking potential, and one that supports the highest FSB possible at the moment (for that future upgrade to faster quad cores that I'm sure will be out in a couple of years). I also wanted a board with high overclocking potential, to reach that magical 533 MHz mark. And one that supports DDR2 1066 MHz RAM. The Asus P5q deluxe fit all of these features, although is a little pricier than other options. I would have gone for a cheaper board, but I couldn't for the life of me find a decent review of many of the board models, and I know some are poor overclockers, so I decided not to risk getting an unknown.

GPU
----

I was going to make a table with the rough ranking of each GPU in terms of price and performance, but it didn't come out very well in the html. So instead:

Best performer and most expensive right now is Radeon 4870X2
Next on both counts is Nvidia GTX 280.
Radeon 4870 and Nvidia GTX 260 perform about the same. The 4870 is a little cheaper.
The Radeon 4850 and Nvidia 9800GTX perform about the same. The 4850 is a little cheaper.

So, which type of graphics card to go with? If you've gone the X48 route, you'll want ATI Radeon, since you're going to use Crossfire. An economical and popular option right now is to choose 2 4850 GPU's for Crossfire mode. They're not much worse off than 2 4870's in Crossfire in terms of performance, but cost a fair bit less.

Personally, I'm going for a single 4870. I'm just going to buy a new GPU when I need one, pretty easy upgrade to make. There's a 1GB version that hasn't been reviewed yet (only the 512 MB version has), which costs the same as a GTX260, but should perform a little better. Plus, with a Radeon GPU and my chosen motherboard, I can do Crossfire in the future if I decide to.

Be warned that 4850 GPU's run a bit hot - aftermarket cooling is recommended.

Hard Drive
----------

Hard disk space is cheap at the moment. I wanted a Hard Drive that was going to be fast, quiet, and reasonably priced. I don't need OOOOODLES of disk space, but wanted a fair bit. I read some reviews and ended up choosing:

Western Digital Caviar 640GB WD6400AAKS

There are slightly better performing drives, but the price climbs a bit high for my care factor.

Power supply
------------

Don't forget one! You want to run all the above stuff don't you? You need really only ~450W worth of juice to run a non-overclocked, non-Crossfire/SLI rig. If you aren't planning those fancy frills, you may as well just go for a lower rated supply like that. Many cases (see below) come with such a supply, which is a way to save a little more.

However, I want overclocking and possibly Crossfire potential, and I also want a power supply that is going to be nice and quiet. A good level of power for this is around 600W, I decided to go for a 620W supply. Several brands came in highly recommended. One of these was Corsair, and they are priced well. Model was: Corsair HX-620 620W

Cooling
--------

There are a lot of options in terms of after-market coolers (fans and heatsinks that you can install in your case in addition to or in replacement of the coolers that come with the case).

There are CPU coolers, motherboard coolers, GPU coolers, cooling paste, etc...

If you're not overclocking, and as long as you choose a fairly well ventilated case, the stock coolers you get are going to be fine. Since I'm not planning to overclock right away, I've chosen not to get any coolers yet. However, if you want to overclock from the get-go, good brands include Zalman, Coolermaster, Thermalright, Xigmatech.

An important thing to consider is whether your CPU cooler will be able to fit your system. For example, I read that several aftermarket coolers were hard to fit on my chosen motherboard due to the position of the stock heatsinks, but I read that a Xigmatek HDT-S1283 fan would fit no problems. Your best bet is just to google both the model number of your motherboard, your CPU, and something like "best cooler" and see what you can find in forums from people with similar systems.

Case
-----

All this stuff has to fit in somewhere right? With cheaper cases, you've got to make a choice between having a cool PC (as in temperature), which is important for overclocking, and having a quiet PC (if the PC isn't well ventilated, your fans will need to work harder, which means the PC will be louder). There are several cheap cases great for one or the other, but not both. For example, the cheap Antec cass are fairly quiet, but don't cool so well, and the cheaper Coolermaster cases are cool, but make more noise (the more expensive versions in both brands are great, but we're trying to keep costs down remember!)

I eventually went for a moderately priced case, since I'm trying to make the thing fairly quiet and want that overclocking potential. The Antec P182 came highly recommended.

Steer away from non-tower cases (they tend to be less well ventilated).

In general, try to pick cases with mounting slots for 120mm fans. Smaller fans (80mm, 90mm) have to spin faster to move the same amount of air, so are noisier.

Again, it's wise to google your case model number and see if there are any issues fitting particular coolers and power supplies in.

Monitor
--------

Some people like massive monitors. I'm not a big fan. I was going to go for a 19", but the price to go 22" isn't much more at the moment, and it'll be better for watching dvd's etc. Keep in mind that to take advantage of the resolution of a 24" monitor for gaming puts a lot bigger strain on your graphics card. When it comes to the time that your system starts to fall behind, you may end up decreasing the resolution anyway...

Now, some important things to consider for a monitor are: response time (how fast individual pixels can change), color reproduction (exactly what it sounds like), and viewing angle (you know that annoying effect with cheap LCD screens where you can't see squat if you're off to one side? This is a low viewing angle).

First of all, CRT's (those big bulky things we used to all use as monitors) beat LCD's in all counts. They also achieve better framerates, whereas LCD tops out at 60 Hz (not that you can see higher framerates than that under most conditions anyway). CRT's are also cheaper. But, let's face it, they don't look as cool. They're also hard to buy at the moment. So I'm assuming you're looking at an LCD.

Monitors have this thing called a panel. You'll hear people preach about "TN" panels vs "PVA" panels. These are different technologies. PVA is more expensive, but reproduces colors properly (24 bit color, or 16.7 million colors). TN panels on the other hand have to "dither" (blur surrounding pixels) to trick you into seeing more colors. PVA panels also have a slower response time, TN panels are quicker. TN panels also have crappier viewing angles. But, as you might have guessed, TN panels are much cheaper.

Let's break down these issues. Response time is a marketing scam. The listed times for PVA panels are maybe 8-12ms. Considering the screen can only refresh 1000/60 = every 16.7ms, it's not going to make any difference to you by using a TN screen with a 2-5ms response time.

As for the color reproduction: Most people don't know the difference. If you're a graphic artist, or someone else who needs to see colors faithfully reproduced, you need a PVA (or better) panel. Everyone else may as well stick with TN if they're looking to keep costs down. Especially since, there are few if any NON TN 22" panels on the market. To find out what sort of panel is in a monitor you're wanting to buy, try this URL: http://www.tftcentral.co.uk/panelsearch.htm

Anyway, having said all that, there are some really crappy TN based LCD monitors out there. So you're going to want to google a review of the particular monitor you want. The monitor I went for is slightly more expensive than other 22" monitors, but came highly recommended: Samsung 2243BW 22".

Speakers
--------

You can get really cheap speakers for $30 or so that sound pretty good, unless you're really picky when it comes to sound. A couple of good brands for cheap speakers are apparently Logitech and Altec Lansing. You're looking for "2.1" type speakers if you're stingy like me.

I got Logitech X-230 2.1 speakers.

Mice, keyboard, DVD drive
-------------------------

You're going to feel pretty dumb if you forget to order these. There aren't really a bunch of differences in cost or functionality.

Summary
-------

Intel E8500 processor
Asus P5Q Deluxe motherboard
Corsair 2 x 2 GB RAM
Radeon 4870 (1GB) GPU
Western Digital 640GB HD
Samsung 22" monitor
Antec P182 case
Corsair 620W power supply
Logitech 2.1 speakers

Total price comes to ~1,800 g.p. (AUD).

If you have any further insights, particularly if I said something outright wrong (my level of computer knowledge a few days ago was ~10% of what it is now), feel free to share!

4 comments:

Crimson Starfire said...

Damn, that's one hell of an article. Wish I had of done more research on DDR2 and DDR3 RAM before I went ahead and bought DDR3 for 4 times the price. Mental note: "be more smart!" ;)

One thing you could have added is RAIDing hard drives to get increased read and write performance. If you buy two hard drives and RAID 0 them, you almost get double read/write speeds. This only makes a very minor difference to gaming though and can be avoided if you don't want to spend the extra.

After we build your PC, we'll post performance comparisons versus price for our difference rigs.

Openedge1 said...

Some fine equipment there.
My only question is why not get a motherboard that will be ready for DDR3 when prices go down.
I went with the ASRock 4Core 1600P35+.
With DDR2 AND DDR3.
But, name brand is always good I guess.
I prefer to find the obscure goodies myself.

I also have the 4870, but the 512 model, and am happy as punch.
It is an awesome card.

I also own the WD 640. For a single drive it is the fastest I have ever used.
I love it.

I see no complaints about your system, and I say, go for it.
Enjoy.

Melf_Himself said...

One important thing I forgot:

If you want 4 GB of RAM, you need a 64-bit operating system.

32 bit XP and Vista can't actually count high enough to recognise more than 4 GB of memory. The problem is, this 4 GB limit is split between your RAM and stuff like your graphics card.

So most 32 bit systems only end up recognising a little over 3GB of RAM. I actually plan to just stick with a 32 bit system, and upgrade operating system later as a "free" memory upgrade.

That ASRock board is a good board openedge, the brand gets good reviews. I was originally going to get a DDR2/DDR3 motherboard, but after reading that article I linked under the RAM section, I realised that a 1600 FSB board can only JUST be pushed to the limit of what DDR2 @ 1066 MHz can offer.

Boards can't utilise the DDR3 benefit properly yet... it just seems that RAM is way too far ahead of the game compared to other components at the moment. Once faster motherboards come out though, DDR3 is the way to go.

Zygwen said...

A couple of weeks ago I priced the following in Canadian dollars which should be powerful enough to run WAR even at 1920x1200

ASUS GF9 EN9600GT 512M 145$
S775 ASUS P5K GREEN P35 119$
OCZ 800MHZ DDR2 4096MB 85$
OCZ 800MHZ DDR2 4096MB 85$
CORE 2 DUO E8400 195$
SATA2 250.0 SEAGATE 85$
500W POWER OCZ STEALTHXSTREAM 79$
MS-WIN VISTA HOME PREM 135$
Case 55$
DVD+/-RW 37.00$
Total 1020 $ CND

The computer was meant for Photo editing plus sneaking a couple of games on it.

My current computer had 4 gigs ram and Vista 64 and works fine but I read a review that suggest using 8 gigs for better performance.

Personally I don't think overclocking is worth the hassle nor is the extra 0.16 gHz of the E8500.

An Ati4870 is overkill. I selected a 9600GT for reduced Power Consumption and Heat Generation. If you don't want to go that cheap a 8800gt will do fine.