Should I build a PC, and how?
October 18, 2005 7:08 PM   Subscribe

PC building 101

So it's time for my bride to have a new PC in time for Civ4, and I (we?) thought it might be fun to build a machine to order. I have not built a whole machine before, but have done the usual adding memory, drives, cards, etc. I freely admit that I am mostly just nervous and want some hand-holding. I am eyeing these parts:

Chip: Athlon64 3700
RAM: 2x1GB
HD: SATA 160--250GB (favored brands? ones to avoid?)
Video: Nvidia 6600GT or 6800 (is the 6800 $30 better?)
DVDR: NEC 3540

And then the Likely Scenario:
Case: Antec Sonata2 w/450w psu
Mobo: Biostar NF4UL

Other possibilities are the SFF Aspire X-Qpack case/psu, or the Antec Aria case/psu, with a FoxConn microATX board and a video card that'll live with a 300w psu.

So... is that reasonable? Should I favor an SFF box?

More to the point, am I getting myself into a real hassle here? I expect this to be about an evening of pain in the ass, with a couple of trips to the net to figure problems out and get ancillary things (onboard 1394, etc) working. Is that laughably low for a newbie?

What do you wish someone had told you before you built your first machine?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The only machine I've ever built was years and years ago so I can't comment specifically on all the shiny new stuff, but at the time the only difficulty was making sure that my motherboard had slots that matched all the things I needed plugged into it. AFAIK, there still isn't complete standardization in this area, so be sure you're buying what you need. Apart from that it was maybe 20 minutes of work once I had everything I needed. Good luck.

(Civ 2 will probably still be better)
posted by moift at 7:16 PM on October 18, 2005

Its really easy to build a computer from scratch now, the new cases are really easy to setup and windows does a lot of stuff automatically now too.

The one thing that is sortof annoying is getting windows to install onto a SATA drive.
Look this up beforehand.
You will probably have to get some of the motherboard drivers onto a floppy disc and then press some key when the windows installer is starting up (it prompts you).

Other thing is many review places seem to say that 1 gig of ram is still enough, and that you might get more out of your money by spending it on a more expensive video card instead.
posted by Iax at 7:19 PM on October 18, 2005

Recommended hard drive brand: Samsung.
posted by box at 7:23 PM on October 18, 2005

I had a SFF for a while and it was a good little machine but kinda loud (a Shuttle SN85G4). This was partly because they have a faster fans but also because most SFFs sit on the desk rather than under it because they're so pretty, These days I'd either get a big server-style case or a laptop. I don't know your model of SFF though and whether that has the same problem.

I wish people had told me that PC assembly is easy, but that I'd have to push down hard on the cpu heatsink to get it fitted. Here's a good guide for assembling your computer.
posted by holloway at 7:36 PM on October 18, 2005

So...first you need to consider what your motivations are.
Yes, you want to play Civ 4. But there are other things to consider. One is (since I assume this is a second machine), where is this thing going? If space is an issue, you might consider SFF. Personally, I value silence, and so I went with an Antec Sonata and an accompanying sound-dampening foam kit and an extra-quiet CPU fan that throttles up and down in response to the CPU load. Something like a Thermaltake Silent 939.

I recommend that combination heartily, as do a couple of my friends who use it. It's very quiet, especially with the case door closed, which is most of the time. Also, the Sonata's drive mounts are on rails, which greatly eases installation. Good for first-timers.

Motherboard-wise, I also have an nForce4-based motherboard and like it a lot. Socket 939 will provide some future-proofing, as will the PCI-E slots.

Checking the latest Sharky Extreme CPU Price Guide shows that the 3700+ is one step up from the current 'sweet spot.' You could save about $60 by going with the 3500+.

2GB of RAM is probably more than you need, but if you're gonna install it in pairs you might as well go for the gusto. Just pick a well-known brand like Crucial or Micron.

Hard drives...Storage Review is your friend here. It's pretty much the hard drive review site.

Personal recommendations? I use a Western Digital 740GD as my OS & Applications drive. It's the only 10K RPM SATA drive on the market, and more than competitive with many SCSI drives. It is a little small by modern standards, but I keep my media on a larger 7200 RPM drive. Storage Review has a nice article on some of the newer large-capacity SATA drives.

Video cards...accept that whatever you buy will lose its shine within 6 months and be 'obsolete' within 18. I bought a 6800GT and have been very happy with it. Runs Half-Life 2, Far Cry, Doom 3, World of Warcraft, etc at 1280x1024 with virtually all the options on with nary a hiccup.

As far as how much of a pain all this is going to be to guess is not much. So long as whatever OS you install understands SATA drives, you should be fine. I know XP does. I'm not sure if 2k does out of the box. Modern linux distributions have good support for the nForce4.

Stuff like onboard Firewire (as you mention) is not a problem, or at least shouldn't be. To be honest, the thing I had the most trouble with was the second ethernet port, but since the first one worked out of the box, I had a working internet connection to fetch the newest drivers with.

One BIG piece of advice: consider pre-patching your install CD if you're using XP (sorry for the Free Republic works in mysterious ways and it's a decent article). This should save you some time and help avoid having your computer get compromised between hooking it up to the internet and contacting Windows Update.

Anyway, I hope some of that's useful.
posted by jedicus at 7:40 PM on October 18, 2005

Tom's Hardware just posted a guide to building a competent $500 gaming rig. Seems like good advice.

4 years ago, I built my first PC. It will also be the last PC I build. The constant trips to tiny component stores, internet ordering hassles, mistaken charges, and dud parts turned me off. Then again, I have resigned myself to playing games on consoles for the foreseeable future, since buying a PC that's game-worthy is too expensive. Perhaps if I did not feel that consoles offer everything (and every game) a PC can, gaming-wise, I'd still be willing to build.
posted by Pacrand at 7:48 PM on October 18, 2005

Wow, that's going to be a pretty pimp system! I've built my last several PCs just because I'm stingy; they were made up from cast-offs, leftovers, and the cheapest components I could find.

The only thing that's tricky is seating the heatsink. Depending on the design, you'll probably have to use much more force than you'd want to use on several hundred dollars of electronics.

The most time-consuming task is installing the operating system(s). It now takes several hours and at least five reboots to bring a vanilla Win XP install up to SP 2 and apply all of the necessary security patches. (Most Linux distros are actually easier to install these days, but none hold a candle to the OS X install -- the best part of getting a new Mac.) Definitely consider prepatching!
posted by Eamon at 7:51 PM on October 18, 2005

jedicus wrote...
But there are other things to consider... where is this thing going? If space is an issue...

Upon reading that, I sincerely thought you were talking about space... you know, that big black vacuum in the sky.

posted by chota at 7:51 PM on October 18, 2005

Thanks, this is muy helpfulioso.

But there are other things to consider. One is (since I assume this is a second machine), where is this thing going?

It's going where her old HP minitower is. Unless she puts it somewhere else. There's no pressing need for an SFF machine, but by damn they can be cute. It'll be an XP box.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:52 PM on October 18, 2005

The most important thing I learned from my first PC building experience was to really do your motherboard research. You'll find a lot of people saying great things about one board and it's the only one that has all the features you want, but then you get it, and you find there are problems, and then you really do some research, and find that a lot of other people had the same problems. Mobos are quirky mofos. Luckily, some other schmuck has found that out for you, and probably posted about it on the internet somewhere.

The second PC I built was great, not a hassle at all... nor any of the ones since then.
posted by dsword at 7:54 PM on October 18, 2005

Good question.

First off, read some reviews on that motherboard. Motherboards come with everything but the kitchen sink, but you might find out that the sound card is buggy or the driver for the network card is poor. I ended up tossing a creative card on this machine because of the crappy audio chipset and support. Make sure the motherboard has gotten some good reviews.

Leave some RAM slots free. Don't fill up the bay because you might have that machine 4 years from now when you'll need 4 gigs to get stuff done.

Make sure you know how to read pin-out diagrams. You'll find that connecting LEDs, USB ports, power switches, etc and other things built onto the case a bit of a hassle at first.

OEM heatsinks suck. They work fine, they're just tough to get on. If you have a pal who has done this kind of thing you might want to ask him or her to do that part for you. You really do need to apply a lot of force with a screwdriver to get that heatsink on with the added bonus of not being able to see the connector youre trying to reach. On the bright side, I've managed to slip up a few times and smack the motherboard with a screwdriver and not damage it. But that's called getting really lucky.

Video: I'd spring for the extra 30 if you're already buying a high-end card. You can google for benchmark results and decide for yourself if you should buy the 6800. If you're not gaming much or dont care about performance you can get by with a much, much cheaper card.

Obligatory static warning. I'm pretty lazy about this and just make sure to touch something big and metal to discharge myself before working on the machine. Some people insist on wearing little anti-static wristbands. I think that's overkill.

Its not a huge hassle, but it is a real hassle, especially if you dont have much experience with PC hardware. If you can find a pre-built system at a good price, you will be saving yourself a lot of trouble.
posted by skallas at 8:01 PM on October 18, 2005

I built my first PC earlier this year. It was pretty fun and not as much of a headache as I expected.
Like other people have said, the motherboard is the most important thing. You can get a lot of the important components built right in. Also, make sure you know if you are getting the OEM parts (bare bones but cheaper) or retail (documentation and other goodies, but a little more $).
I found this site pretty helpful. Good luck!
posted by starman at 8:07 PM on October 18, 2005

Re: anti-static wristbands, they're really not a bad idea. If you can just pull the shielding off some random wire, tie it tightly around some random piece of your anatomy, and tie the other end tightly to some random piece of metal crap you can lug within reasonable distance of the computer, you'll protect yourself from some potentially expensive sparks with pretty minimal expenditure.

OTOH, you can probably get away with returning anything thusly sparked as defective out of the box.
posted by moift at 8:12 PM on October 18, 2005

I know a lot of people have said "oh it's really easy, you'll just hit a few minor snags", to which I would like to say "bullshit."

You should build a computer yourself for one of the following reasons:
  • You want precise control of the components (for performance, noise, or other special reasons.)
  • You're an 'enthusiast' and want to learn how it all goes together.
  • You have bits and pieces of various spare parts lying around, such that you only need to purchase a few key parts new.
You should absolutely not built it yourself if your only motivation is to save money and/or time. In fact, you should not do this if your time is worth more to you than the $50 that you might end up saving.

The reason I say this is that I've done it myself a number of times, and I've tried to help people that have done it themselves. It always seems easy: Everything is standardized, so you should be able to just throw it together and install Windows and be on your way.

The problem is that it NEVER WORKS THAT WAY. There will always be some driver that doesn't quite work right, and you'll have to track down the right version of it. Or you might get a dodgy DIMM of RAM, and have to troubleshoot random system lockups until you finally get to the point of concluding that it's RAM - and then you get to play the RMA dance and deal with being the UPS man's bitch - hope you don't get a "softknocker" that just leaves the "missed you" slip even if you're home.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. It can go on and on. All the while, you may have an unstable or nonfunctioning system. So my advise is not to go buy a Dell or anything sold at Best Buy, but do find a competent "white box" retailer that will assemble the PC to your specs. If you choose someone local you will be able to just drive to their shop and complain if something doesn't work. Fry's also sells systems at various stages of assembly. And of course there's a ton of choices online.

Putting together a PC from scratch can be fun, and it can be really exciting when you get it all worked out. I don't want to discourage you if that is the ultimate goal - to build something yourself. But if your ultimate goal is to get a working PC and you don't really care about the intermediate steps, then you really should NOT do this.

I know that this is not a popular opinion, and there will probably be lots of people saying "ohh it's not that hard." If only it was....

On the topic of particular hardware recommendations:
  • The Athlon 3700+ still carries somewhat of an "early adopter tax" in that you will get a much better bang for the buck with a model one or two notches down.
  • Take everyone's hard drive brand recommendation with a huge grain of salt. EVERYBODY has a story of "3 of Brand X hard drives died on me, I will never use them again." Everybody. Some people swear by Brand X, some people loathe them. The plural of anecdote is not data.
  • 450W is outrageously overpowered for a basic system. For some reason people have come to think that they need hundreds and hundreds of watts of power. In reality the quality of the power supply is much more important than some power amount. Don't get me wrong, Antec makes good powersupplies, but if you have a choice to pay for less definitely take it. I have an Athlon, 3 HDs, two optical drives, and a nvidia 5700 on a Antec 300W powersupply and have never had power related problems. 300W might be on the low side for new systems these days, but a solid 350W should cover just about anything. Don't believe for one moment that you will need anywhere near 450Watts of power for a basic system.
  • The nvidia 6800 non-ultra should spank the 6600GT. It has 2 more vertex shaders and 4 more pixel shaders, as well as a 256 bit memory bus. The 6600GT is clocked slightly faster (325MHz vs 500Mhz, 700MHz vs 900MHz) but the 6800 should still come out on top. It is especially well suited overclocking, and you can even unlock some or all of the "hidden" shaders to bring it to GT levels (although there can be visual artifacts, so this isn't always a guarantee.) But even stock it should beat the 6600GT.

    posted by Rhomboid at 8:24 PM on October 18, 2005

    You're an 'enthusiast' and want to learn how it all goes together.

    This is me. It seems like fun. Frustrating fun, but interesting.

    but do find a competent "white box" retailer that will assemble the PC to your specs

    That's what seemed like the hard part. The local box-builders that I've seen over my many years seem to know even less than I do, on average, and I'd trust them about as far as I could comfortably carry Wilford Brimley.

    450W is outrageously overpowered for a basic system.

    Just what's in the case, which seemed attractive enough, well-liked, and expandable. I'm only looking for 350 + a little cushion for whatever the next video cards eat.

    The idea with this box is that it's a 4--5 year machine if we get a 64X2 chip and a new video card around a year and a half, two years from now.

    The plural of anecdote is not data.

    Heh. Did I go to grad school with you?
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:50 PM on October 18, 2005

    I usually start by just laying the motherboard on the (Nonconductive!) table, installing the processor fan and video card on it there, hooking it up to the PS and monitor, and giving it a minute or two run to make sure it works - It's a pain to get everything screwed in, spend two hours tweaking cables and fiddling - THEN find out they sold you a pre-crisped motherboard.

    Add items to the case one at a time and check between each item to make sure everything works. Minimizing the variables makes troubleshooting easier.

    Rhomboid's right about HDs. Make an image back up of your system the minute you've got everything up-to-date and the drivers/software sorted out. - I usually make two copies and tape one inside the case.

    Save your receipts. Run it for a week or two straight after you get it working, to catch any marginal parts in time for the 30-day store warranties to be in effect. An overnight run of MemTest86 will give the memory a good shakedown and flush out any possible memory problems for you.
    posted by Orb2069 at 9:32 PM on October 18, 2005

    Heh. Well I guess convincing you to not do this is out. :) Since you're going to proceed, here are a couple of tips that I suggest for someone that's never assembled a PC from scratch.

    The CPU heatsink/fan can be a real bitch to put on. It used to be back in the day that you just clipped them on, but now you have to deal with thermal compounds, and the fact that the heatsink itself has to be held against the core with something like 15 - 25 pounds of force, so getting that clip on there can be tough.

    You can buy a "retail" CPU and it will cost a little bit more and come with a real warranty (if that's important to you) but it will have a stock heatsink/fan, and you can almost always do better in terms of cooling and/or noise from aftermarket models. So plan on buying a quality cooler. The alternative to retail is an OEM cpu which generally has a 90 day warranty and comes with no cooler, but is cheaper. Whether or not you plan to overclock will also play a part in this decision, because you will almost certainly need a better-than-stock cooler, and because overclocking voids the warranty - but you don't necessarily have to inform the manufacturer that you did.

    When you get the stock CPU it might have a piece of "thermal foam" on the core. This is the bottom of the barrel in terms of thermal compounds, and you generally want to remove it completely. Use a solvent that does not leave a residue, and then get a conductive thermal paste like Artic Silver. Make sure you follow their directions for using the paste because it can be kind of tricky.

    You want to make sure you thoroughly clean both surfaces of any grease or dust (again using a solvent that doesn't leave a residue) and then you want to apply as little paste as you can possibly get by with and still coat the entire area of the core. Ideally you'll want a very thin film of the stuff spread evenly - not a large dollop of goo. The instructions should go into more detail.

    When you're installing the heat sink, make sure that you don't tweak the CPU core which is very brittle. All of the loading force should be perpendicular to the surface - never apply any kind of rotational or diagonal force because that can cause the core to crack. You want to always be pressing at 90 degress to the surface. Various heatsinks have various ways of attaching themselves, and again you should really read their manual first. Some have a clip that you have to really force to get it closed, some just screw on and then tighten down. You may want to do a little research to see if the cooler you selected will fit with the given motherboard and case layout, because sometimes the power supply is in the way. But most of the time it's not a problem unless you're using a very small or nonstandard case.

    When you're putting the MB in the case, make sure you use all the standoffs and screw-posts as you can to secure the motherboard. This will keep it sturdy, but it can also solve potential grounding issues since some of those screw-holes have ground pads attached to them and are meant to be connected to the case via the screw. If you slack off and don't use all the standoffs you might not have a good ground connection on the empty ones which could lead to problems.

    The alignment here can be a bit of a pain because it always seems like they just won't all line up. But if you're persistent you should be able to get them all in. Don't force anything though, and make sure to be careful when tightening these screws that your screwdriver does not slip and gouge out a trace on the MB.

    It pays to be neat with the cables inside the case. Get a big bag of plastic ties and cinch things up. For example, I like to route the little "case headers" (thin wires that connect the reset button / on-off switch / case speaker to the motherboard) along the edge of the case and tie-wrap them in place, so that they're not just hanging there. If they're just loose, you might catch one of them when installing a card and not notice, and they are a real PITA to put back on since the silk-screen lettering on the MB is tiny and hard to read. I do the same thing with power connectors. It probably doesn't affect anything, but it's nice to be neat about it.

    I find that the cheap "rounded IDE cables" that you can buy online are a good deal - not because they improve performance or airflow - but because they are easier to route in the case and make working in there a little bit less of a PITA. Of course if you have a large case with only a single HD then it won't really matter, but if you had for example a small case with 3 or 4 hard drives it really starts to get cramped.

    When you're installing Windows, if the target drive is a SATA you will need to do something about the drivers beforehand. I think someone already mentioned this above. Find the MS KB article on that and read it before starting, if that applies to your situation.

    Even if you plan to overclock, always start with the "Baseline" or non-optimized settings in the BIOS. You can always tweak later, once you're sure everything is stable. But the worst thing you can do is to crank everything up as soon as you first assemble the PC and then try to install Windows and find out that you didn't pick stable settings.

    If you experience any kind of unexplained crashes once you have windows installed, always make sure you have the latest stable (not beta) driver installed for everything. There can be a lot of these - motherboard, chipset, SATA/RAID, sound, video, etc. Check the website for the manufacturer of each of those components, don't trust the cdrom that comes with the mobo. If that doesn't fix the crash, then run some testing software. I like memtest86 and the prime95 "Torture test." I'm sure there are others. If you can reliably run both of those without crash then it should indicate that you've achieved stability. This is a real tightrope that you walk, because there are tons and tons of "optimization and tweak" guides out there, and you have to be mindful of which options will affect performance at the cost of stability. Another way of saying this is don't go crazy turning all the clocks/voltages/bios settings to max, unless you approach it scientifically and test each change to make sure the system is still stable. If you're not into overclocking then you can save yourself a lot of trouble here.

    That's about all I can think off right now... /end rambling
    posted by Rhomboid at 9:48 PM on October 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

    "I usually start by just laying the motherboard on the (Nonconductive!) table, installing the processor fan and video card on it there,"

    Don't forget the memory!

    For antistatic, I usually just plug the power cord into the power supply (which is turned off.) Then the case is grounded, and you just keep some skin in contact with an unpainted part of the case while you work, which you'll probably be doing anyway.

    The big stuff is easy and all keyed to only fit one way. The things you can screw up are the tiny miscellaneous connectors - front panel USB and audio, power buttons and LEDs. (To help with the LEDs, the black wire is ground/negative, while the colored wire is positive.) Consider doing these little things first once the motherboard is inside the case and your AGP/PCI cards installed, before the other cables get in the way.

    Make sure you use the bronze standoffs in between the motherboard and the case. I've seen it done once where someone managed to attach the motherboard to the case without them, and of course the entire backplane was shorted all over the place. (The board still worked once it was properly installed.)
    posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:54 PM on October 18, 2005

    The 6600GT beat the 6800 vanilla in PCI-E benchmarks run by

    Don't waste your money for the 6800.

    I'd recommend the Western Digital Caviar 320GB SATA drive, its often on sale for 120 dollars.

    Go for the 400+ watt PSU.

    Also, just a little heads up, Quarter 1 of 2006, AMD is discontinuing their current chip/socket line.
    posted by mhuckaba at 10:01 PM on October 18, 2005

    As someone who was in almost the exact same position a couple of months ago (instead of building from scratch, I gutted a system by replacing everything but the hard drive, PSU and video card), I think I can say that someone of your experience level should be able to piece a PC together with little hassle. A lot of things can go wrong, yes, but if you do some research beforehand you should be alright.

    First thing I'd advise, in terms of components, is to source a very good case. I've never dealt with an SFF before, so I could be wrong, but they just look like they're more trouble than standard cases because of their size; may want to save that exercise for another time. A slide-out motherboard tray helps tons, and any case worth its salt will have rounded metal edges so you don't bleed all over your computer.

    When doing research on your parts, the key is to find out if there are any issues between the motherboard and any of your other parts. One place where a lot of things can go wrong is the motherboard's chipset; various video cards don't play well with VIA chipsets, for example, so there may be workarounds you'll have to keep in mind. That said, I bought a motherboard with a VIA chipset, and it's been fine.

    The scariest part is when you stick the heatsink on the CPU, as everyone else has already mentioned. I'd second removing the thermal pad on the bottom of the stock heatsink, not because it's a poor thermal conductor but because if you ever want to replace that heatsink with something else, the pad will harden into this nasty stuff that'll require you to use a lot of force to remove the heatsink—not a fun time if you're paranoid about destroying your CPU, let me tell you. If you're really worried, there are various heatsinks that don't use the standard clip, and can in fact be easier to install (in that you gradually tighten a couple of screws instead of trying to force a clip). Of course, you'll have to buy that seperately, but since you're thinking of buying a 3700+, I'm assuming paying $40 for a heatsink isn't a huge concern.

    Other than that, the process is fairly simple, if at times tedious: cram the PSU and motherboard in the case, plug in a bunch of cables here, slot in a bunch of cards there, fire up the machine and hope nothing dies. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it's the driver and software installation that ends up being more troublesome than the hardware install. It's not that frustrating of an experience, you should be able to get everything set up in an evening, and you'll feel a small sense of pride that you built the thing yourself. Plus you'll know everything in the box is quality. I say go for it, and good luck.
    posted by chrominance at 10:24 PM on October 18, 2005

    Lots of good stuff here.

    Let me add:

    1) Definitely splurge on a good case. The tiny little enhancements make a huge difference when you're rooting around in there. You want soft edges, good heat dissipation, easy access. Lian Li is the gold standard here. I don't know if they make super tiny cases though.

    2) You will always put the power switch/hard drive LEDs on the wrong way on the first try. This makes no difference, but it's irritating. Between reboots, pop the case off and turn them all around.

    3) Check the northbridge cooler on your mobo. If it's a heatsink with a fan, expect the fan to die within the first month and have to be replaced with something better.
    posted by Caviar at 10:55 PM on October 18, 2005

    Incidentally, someone mentioned that you have to press a key when the Windows install CD fires up for the first time in order to load your SATA drivers. That key is F6.

    I, too, am a firm believer in the one fast and small plus one cheap and big hard drive theory. If your application drive fries or gets a virus or gets jammed with spywayre, its a simple matter of firing up Ghost and imaging the disk, with no need to spend hour after hour writing all those mp3s and DivX files back to the disk. Or if your media drive goes, you don't have to re-install Windows. This system works even better if the "cheap and big" drive is external.
    posted by ChasFile at 11:16 PM on October 18, 2005

    Nothing much to add, other than I stuck with PATA drives in my first (and painfree) build a few months ago. I've read quite a few tales of woe on enthusiast sites about problems with SATA, which may not be entirely down to user error. I didn't find the marginal performance gain to be worth the perceived risk of wobbliness.
    posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:34 AM on October 19, 2005

    Not much to add - excellent responses, chaps - but seconding the Antec Sonata. Great case: strong, quiet and the finish is beautiful.

    Oh, and:

    Ask Metafilter: The plural of anecdote is not data.

    posted by blag at 5:46 AM on October 19, 2005

    Thanks all.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:15 AM on October 19, 2005

    It was as a Linux server, not for a gaming rig, but I bought an SFF PC (ideq 220q) earlier this year. Compared to putting together a system inside a traditional tower case, it was a lot easier, since the motherboard and cabling were all installed already. Instead of wasting an afternoon with things like figuring out where to place the motherboard spacers, I had an OS installed an hour after I opened the shipping boxes.

    Past experience has shown me that I often upgrade the RAM and hard drive capacity, but never the CPU. So this time I maxed out the RAM to begin with (2x1GB), and got a 300GB SATA drive. (I can put another SATA or PATA drive in the case later, or add an external drive with firewire or usb) I went with a mid-grade CPU (retail sempron 64 3000+) and an old AGP video card. (Oh, and the motherboard is socket 754, which was cheaper but limits the CPU possibilities)

    Unlike the last time I bought a new machine (summer 2003 for a windows gaming rig) this hardware has been rock solid. '03 was an experience so frustrating and drawn out (including 3 separate RMAs, one of which was lost for 4 weeks by UPS) that I nearly decided to buy a name-brand PC instead of assembling my own.

    If you want to read more about my experience (but pretty heavily tilted by the linux server angle), continue here
    posted by jepler at 6:17 AM on October 19, 2005

    I heartily recommend building your own PCs, I've been doing it for myself and others since the 486 days. The cost savings comes in terms of the price/performance you can achieve while staying slightly behind the curve in terms of cutting edge. Use pricewatch to detect where the big jump in price comes for the next incremental increase in speed for any given component, and buy right below that. Oversimplified methodology of course, there is a bit of compromise, but thats the general idea. Overclocking is another cheap boost to price/performance and you should buy components with that in mind. Wait until the system has been running stable a while before you go there.

    More often than not these days, I find that systems come up and stable without a hitch. Every so often you will get a defective component, or fry something installing it, but I don't find that cuts into my cost savings much. Getting drivers on the internet now is a snap, I remember the days when that was the biggest challenge.

    If at all possible, I would try and talk a good friend/family member into building an identical or similar rig at the same time. It is far more easy to troubleshoot a hardware problem, if you have easy access to replacement parts. Just swap things until you isolate the defective component. This is the main advantage a computer shop will have over you building it at home.

    If you don't plan to upgrade your system at all, then you can actually save a few dollars by watching for a sweet deal from a vendor like Dell. But I find that these systems often incorporate lesser quality and less generic parts than you will be buying for your system, and can be frustrating to upgrade.

    As Rhomboid said, use Artic Silver paste and spread it thin. I use a combination of slickdeals, fatwallet, pricewatch, and newegg for purchasing components. Newegg is the baseline, if you are not saving significantly more elsewhere, buy it at newegg for the customer service/delivery time.
    posted by Manjusri at 11:34 AM on October 19, 2005

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