Adventures in PC building
It ’twas a dark and stormy night. I had just made the journey home from work when I noticed something out of place near my front door. There were footprints. Lots of footprints. I carefully opened my door and peered inside. Lo and behold, there was a surpise waiting for me; a mountain of boxes!
That shape shifted into a tower of boxes!
This looks like a job for scarf and goggles!
I’ve been duped. It’s a trap!
It’s morphin’ time.
You might be wondering what the hell you just saw. Well, that sil(ly) collage of trickery is only to prepare you for the event to come. I needed to carefully and cautiously consider the task at hand. I needed to be warey of black-magic-shape-shiftery. I needed to heroically provide order and justice! I needed to kick butt against nefarious ne’er do wells (as you may see later). What you saw is the beginning of a new computer adventure. This is the first computer I have built in a very long time. It is actually the first one I have placed every part and screwed every, uh, screw. And it showed. Building a computer may be a lot like grownup legos, but you will want to be relatively informed about what you plug in, where, when, and how. Welcome to my adventure.
I had been scouting parts for awhile on Newegg. Newegg has become one of my favorite place to pick up parts in a pinch. It has a great selection, good price, and the reviews are sometimes actually helpful (surely you jest, you must be thinking, but it is true!). I do hate their tempting rush order for only $2.99 (with caveats). Just don’t click it. It is practically worthless and never worth it. Neeevveeerr. Much to the dismay of some of my friends, I went with an AMD build. I have always had a soft spot for AMD. The first desktop I helped assemble was an AMD Athlon XP 1700+ built back in 19 ot 6, I mean, 2002 ish. Still runs to this day. It does not run much, but I do not need it to. So I probably have a soft spot for AMD. That, and on price point, AMD is still a good processor at a good price. Sure, it cannot touch the i7 benchmarks, but those i7s are damn expensive. The cheapest is still twice what I paid for what I got. Now that we’ve been properly introduced, let’s take a look at what I actually got.
Pay no mind to the anime in the corner. Okay, you can pay a little mind. That sure is a lot of shiny looking items there. I am not exactly sure why there is a space in the middle. I must have thought it lined up better this way, somehow. Don’t judge me! Lets start at the logical place, the motherboard. It is kinda the central piece that connects us all after all. The motherboard I went with is the illustrious ASUS M4A89TD PRO/USB3 AM3 AMD 890FX. Now you might be thinking to yourself that sure is a lot of fancy letters and numbers you have there, but what does it mean?! Well, the answer my friend is, iuno. It is a socket AM3 which means it is AMD. That’s about all I got. I’m sure they are relevant to something. The board in general is a little pricey, but I like to splurge a little on the board so that I am free to upgrade later. Lets face it, my last desktop still runs well today, and I can thank a good board for that. It has crossfire support if I ever feel the need to pair in another graphics card. Supports a decent amount of memory, and has some nice overclocking features. SATA 3 for some screaming peripherals. And it is made by ASUS, another brand I am fairly confident in due to my previous computer. It also had a nice rebate on black Friday, but shhhh :x! Pro-tip, remember to screw in the standoff screws at on the case before you connect the motherboard, unless you want to buy a new motherboard.
Next we have the oh so shiny processor. I had never really handled a new processor before. I felt like I had to be super careful otherwise I might break it. I was amused that the processor only took up a fraction of that box, and was kinda set off to the side. The rest of the box is for the heatsink, that I didn’t use D:. I picked up the AMD Phenom II X6 1100T. I got it for a steal on black Friday at cheaper than its immediate predecessor. I liked the option of 6 cores, and the ability to turbo charge to 3 cores if I wanted. The Phenoms benchmarked better on single threaded processing than AMD latest Bulldozer architecture, and I am not usually a fan of buy first run electronics. I like the kinks to be worked out first, so goooo Phenom! *pets*
Since I have never placed a CPU before, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. It comes down to a few basic rules. First, don’t touch the pins at the bottom. The are the singularly most important part right now. If one is bent or broken, you are S.O.L. Second, the CPU should fit in ever so nicely. There should be no forcing it into place, no snapping or popping of parts. Should be like slipping on slippers.
Now I said I ignored the heatsink that came with the CPU, and for good reason. I bought a beast of a heatsink for practically nothing. It is the most reviewed current heatsink on Newegg. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus is monstrous. It barely fits in my case. I have about 2 mm of space between the copper pipes at the top, and the side of the case. It has a variable speed 120mm fan, which is really what I wanted. There was a lot of complaints about the stock fan being too noisy. I wanted a good heatsink, that would adjust fan speed. It forced me, again, to do something new: apply thermal paste to the board. Oh was that fun. I’m glad I still had a nice box knife around. They turn out to be really handy and evenly spreading the paste around. It was hard to tell exactly how much paste to apply. There is no real directed amount. I applied till it was thinly covered and slapped the two together. My only real complaint about this heatsink, is that for AMD sockets designs, the screws are so close to the aluminum fans that it is really difficult to screw it in place. Works like a champ though. I bet it’d make a really good cyber punk mace head in a pinch as well.
During my extensive reading of reviews of what I had selected so far, I came across many mentions of qualified vendor list (QVL) when it came to memory for the motherboard. This list essentially tells you what memory is officially supported by your board, in as much detail as size and number by brand and speed. It is certainly likely that other memory combinations will work, but there is no guarantee. It would be a shame to put in all that effort, and not be able to start the computer because of a incompatible memory selection. In the future, BIOS updates may let you use the memory you want, but I played the safe route and went with four 2GB sticks of Corsair memory. Good news, it’s quadruplets!
Coming into this, I had no idea how wattage I needed for my setup. I did not really want to overpay on a power supply, so luckily I was shown a nice site that I do not remember (my bad) to calculate your estimated power consumption needs. And then my friend proceeded to try to design a computer on the site that would consume the most power possible. I do not remember the exact figures, but I think you could buy a car every year with the amount of power that machine would consume annually. The power supply I picked up and I had fun little time. Sometimes it really helps to pay attention to the little things it is telling you. I picked up a Antec BP550 Plus 550W. It is a modular design, which I thought was interesting. No one likes to have extra cables dangling around. They get in the way, and cause violence inherent to the system.
Oh the ever so shiny solid state drive (SSD). I am so glad I was talked into one of these. I was wary at first. Reviews were sketchy at best, and the price was not that great. Early on, there have been a lot of controller issues with SSDs causing crashes and headaches alike. It is a checkered past for these little guys, but when you find a good one they are screaming fast. I picked up a 60GB Corsair Force Series GT for a steal. So worth the price. When I received the package for it, it was so light I thought I had be duped. They are light, quite, power efficient, and fast as can be. When I got everything up and running, Windows (boo) was booting is 6-8 seconds. At one point I ran a virus scan and it completed scanning over 1 million files in 1 minute and 51 seconds. To put that into perspective, my work computer scans approx 1.4 million files in over 4 hours. Granted, that computer is terrible, so it may not be a real comparison =(. There is a number of tips and tricks to work with SSDs in order to get the full potential out of them. The one thing you want to be really conscious of is the number of writes that are going to happen to the drive. SSDs suffer from a relatively limited write per block lifespan. In general, you probably will not encounter this as a problem, but it does not hurt to be good to your expensive shiny drive. Obviously you cannot actually count these yourself, but you can limit this in a number of ways. I’ll link some sits at the bottom that helped me.
During my initial parts list I had planned for a 1TB hard drive. Due to the sad and unfortunate flooding in Thailand, that became a very difficult item to procure at a reasonable price. The 1TB Western Digital drive I was looking at was initially priced at $80. At that price, I knew I could do better during a black Friday sale, so I waited. Boy was I ever wrong. Around black Friday it was listed as high as $260. Maybe I’ll pick up another drive at some point, but for now I settled on a Seagate 500GB 7200rpm drive for about the same price as my initial 1TB scouting. Nothing fantastic, but gets the job done.
Just because I felt the need to add some more ASUS parts, I picked up a cheap ASUS dvd burner. It was cheap and had a billion reviews. Sold!
A good graphics card is one of the more important choices in PC building, so no wonder it was the 3rd most expensive part. I went a a pretty recent generation card since I wanted this computer to shine. It is not the latest, because, well, I still wanted this computer to be on somewhat of a budget. I went with an AMD Radeon 6850. I had read good things about this line, despite the concerns of my nvidia friends. I figured AMD cards would work well with an AMD processor and an AMD board chipset. I do not think I was wrong. It is a beast of a card, size wise anyway. It is the one piece I failed to remember to take a picture of before hand. It was the last thing I put in, and I was super tired to take it all apart. Everything was so snug and comfy looking. I could not possibly take it apart (except I had to later, oops!).
Ahhh! real monsters. I mean I almost forgot! The case! Picking out a case was exceedingly difficult. They are all so hard to get a feel for form a couple pictures. I know I wanted a metal case, aluminum or steel, I did not care which. I wanted an mid ATX tower. But that is about it. Oh, and no power supply. I knew I was getting my own, I did not need an extra cheapo one laying around. So after browsing every metal case on Newegg (yes, I really did look at all of them) I settled on a couple. One really grabbed my attention, the Asgard II case by Xigmatek. I’ll be honest, I was sold at Asgard. Norse mythology? Hell yes please. It is a nice case. It is tool-less (chrome wanted this to be topless), for better or worse. Once I realize what I was supposed to do, everything fit in okay. The PCI and friends slots on the back, are a little bit of a pain sometimes. The orange clippy thingy does not come off, so I had to angle the 6850 in carefully. Some of the drive bays are set for a particular screw size, I am assuming 3.5 floppy style, which I don’t know what else has. The SSD and HDD did not fit, so I am wondering why they had two bays for that. Would I recommend it? Maybe. It is constructed well otherwise. I’d probably go for a non-tool-less next time.
Construction time: approx 3 hours.
The First Boot
By the time I had everything in place, it was late, and my hands were tired so I called it a success. It felt like a success. Everything was in place correctly, in theory. I did not have my Windows install disk yet anyway, so it was a good stopping point.
The next day was show time, only someone forgot to tell the computer that. The first boot, was an utter failure. Lights were green, so power was good, but the CPU light was red, and it wasn’t going anywhere. No post, no nothing (which means there could be something, oddly enough). At this point, I got a little paranoid and remembered that the thermal past leaked out the sides a little bit (it had actually been bugging me all day). Not enough that it was like rolling down the sides or anything, but enough to where I wanted to clean it regardless. So I got out some cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol and cleaned the sides of the processor. Worked really well, thanks internet! Did not help, but I felt better. Sadly I forgot again to take a picture of the 6850 since I had to completely disassemble the computer. At least I am really good at putting it back together now!
I tried all sorts of various memory configurations, thinking they could be bad. Spent probably an hour searching on the internet before I said screw it, and put in a ASUS support request. Soon as I filled in all the wtf RMA questions (asked all sorts of things I had no idea on) I got the confirmation email and I clicked the link. There was already a response! It could not have been more than a minute. I was shocked, and possibly dreaming. Granted, the response was probably a bunch of standard here is how to check for the basics response, but it was an actual response. I tried their guidelines, resetting the CMOS, check cables, power, etc. Nothing really helped.
At this point, I felt like kicking my computer in half. So I put on my robe and wizard hat, I mean mask and tabi and got to work. This is a reenactment of what may have happened.
I realized about halfway through the first kick, that I am kicking these boxes directly into my anime collection. Maybe this is not such a good idea?
I eventually, skillfully executed my google-fu and came across a Tom’s Hardware link: “No POST”, “system won’t boot”, and “no video output” checklist . That certainly sounds promising. What did I not do, you might ask? Literally the first thing on the list. The first image, with giant green arrows pointing to it. At least it is common. I forgot to plug in the 4/8-pin CPU power connector located near the CPU socket. As soon as I read that, a giant light bulb turned on in my head. Remember how I said my power supply was modular? Well, there were three cables that were not. One was the giant 20/24 pin connector that goes into the motherboard, for everything else apparently. One was the PCI-E power connector for the graphics card. The other was this odd looking 4/8 pin connector that was ATX on it. What’s an ATX I thought. Surely not important. So I stuck it to the side.
Plugged that sucker in, and life was golden. The motherboard lights up at each important stage during post, which was kinda cool. From there on it was smooth sailing. I installed Windows, much to my dismay, but I want to play games on this so that is the direction I went for now. The first thing I did? Spend an hour or so trying to find the right background. It is serious business! I went with Maka Albarn for the name. I think it is very important to name certain things, computer being one of them. I had another name picked out for it, but it has totally escaped me now, so Maka it is! I think it does the name justice.
Post construction headache filled time: approx 3 hours.
The notes on the SSD
The SSD is beautiful. I tweaked a number of settings to limit the number of writes. I moved my profile to the HDD by following these steps. It is a pain to do, as it requires a separate temporary admin account to do it, but is fairly simple in the end. Makes it easier to manage music from the music directory since Windows likes to put lots there by default. I followed a good number of the tips here. I turned off the deframentation schedule for that drive. SSDs do not need it and it will remove a lot of writes. I turned off prefetch / superseft in Windows to stop it from trying to save the programs it thinks I run frequently to load them more easily. They load just fine, thank you!
So it is time to bid you adieu, Galaxy Express 999, I mean Avalon. You were a marvelous computer for your time. I’ll still be able to use you for some old school gaming. Might be a good time to fire let it up the Linux partition as default.
It has a ways to go on stickers, but say hello to Maka Albarn!
Quest turned in. XP acquired. Adventure complete. Time to make more. p.s. I like stickers.