Help needed building a PC
January 30, 2008 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I want to build a PC and, while I'm not quite at the summit of ignorance, I'm high in the foothills and the air's getting thin. I need people who know more than me to tell me what to do. Please. Vastly longer explanation follows.

Partly because I need one and partly because anything is more interesting than one’s own supposedly ‘challenging and rewarding’ work, I’ve decided to build a new PC. The need bit is because I mainly use Ubuntu these days and my AGP X1650 Pro card and it will never, ever be friends. So I looked into getting an NVIDIA card and came to the conclusion that as my ageing dell 4600 is about 50% replaced anyway, I may as well finish the job.

So far my mid range wish list is:

Motherboard: Gigabit p35 DS3L
Processor: E8400
RAM: OCZ / Corsair PC6400 2GB
Case: Lian Li PC60 Plus / PC7 Plus / PCG 50 PCV 600
Graphics Card: ???? Something by NVIDIA PCI-e

PSU Already have, coolermaster 500W
DVDR Already have, Samsung
HDD Already have, 500GB SATA, 16GB, Seagate
Monitor, KB, M Already have

OS - Ubuntu / XP

My only other stipulations are:

I use mostly Ubuntu so the card has to be NVIDIA. I don’t play games (unless solitaire counts) but do use Photoshop and want something that’ll give a good looking picture and last a few years. A lot of people seem to think the 8800 series is great. But I really don't need this, do I?

As for the case, well everything other than Lian Li either seems to look either cheap or like a special effect from the Alien Franchise (to my eyes anyway). I just want something understated and tasteful and quite like brushed aluminium / aluminum.

Anyway, please anoint my ignorance with your cleverosity. Thanks.
posted by rhymer to Computers & Internet (20 answers total)
If you're not a gamer the 8800 graphics card is vastly overkill. If you're not doing 3D work just about any graphics card is fine. I had a 6800GT for a while that I recently upgraded to a 7950GT for gaming.

What will be your primary use for this PC? That will help guide suggestions.
posted by pombe at 4:08 PM on January 30, 2008

The latest Wine apparently actually does okay with Photoshop, so you could try running it on Linux. But if you have a copy of XP anyway, that would probably be simpler (it wouldn't surprise me if trying to use it on Wine generated some sort of headache.)

What you describe ought to be powerful enough to handle what you describe, and to continue to do anything you're likely to want to do for a few years, esp. given that you can easily add more memory and another drive.

I'm a Silent PC Review fan, and concerns about quiet inform pretty much all of my parts choices. So, before I go on about what I'd do, do you care about how quiet it is?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:35 PM on January 30, 2008

I have this case and I'm very happy with it

I think this video card would even be enough for your needs, and at $32, it seems like a steal it.
posted by mhp at 4:40 PM on January 30, 2008

I see that the motherboard will take faster RAM than what you've got listed. Is that something you already have or are you just going with it because it's cheaper? Even 1066 RAM is super cheap right now, so it might be worth bumping up.

If you're not going to be doing anything fancy and have a reasonable resolution on your monitor(s), you can stick with a low end PCI-e Geforce card. I'd be inclined to go with the 8-series but you can maybe find an earlier one a bit cheaper, though the 8400s are under $40. Resolution aside, Photoshop is not going to be taxing the video card -- that's pretty much all processor and RAM.

The other option would just be to change your motherboard for something with onboard video. It doesn't sound like upgrading the video card is going to be something you need to do too often, so I'd consider that route if you're flexible on the motherboard -- some subsidiary benefits would be that it's quieter, and likely would generate less heat and consume less power.
posted by camcgee at 5:05 PM on January 30, 2008

Be aware that for what little testing is done with mainstream PCs for various drivers and "intergration" issues, there is even less being done with some aftermarket parts. Things like making sure the firmware on the motherboard is compatible with the latest processor you might purchase.

Another issue with homebrew PCs that wasn't so much of an issue in years past, is cooling. Specifically, processor cooling. Some of these things put out 80 watts of heat under full load.

So, if you're up for solving weird problems, by all means go for it. It IS fun and rewarding when you get something working just how you want it.
posted by gjc at 5:13 PM on January 30, 2008 is your friend. I just put together an 8800GT system last week from them., including this Lian Li desktop case.

2nding the onboard Intel X3000 video, though if you're going Linux this might present issues.
posted by panamax at 5:29 PM on January 30, 2008

No problem. I'm typing this using Ubuntu and an Nvidia card right now. Everything worked right out of the box for me.

I built a system with that same motherboard and have had no issues yet. I, too, asked on the Green before I got started. My final build is here.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:36 PM on January 30, 2008

Check if your motherboard requires a 20 or 24-pin power supply. If it's a 24 pin motherboard and you have 20-pin PSU, some motherboards don't care, while some will refuse to work.

I wanted to get the best video card I could afford, and that would do it for my basic computer stuff: Photoshop, World of Warcraft. Anything in the 7 series would probably have worked fine for me, but I wanted something in the 8 series because of DirectX 10. Just in case. So I went with the Nvidia Geforce 8600 GTS.

As for the case: I went with the gunmetal silver Antec P182, after weeding through many other cases (outmodded, overly LED-ded pieces of teenage junk! *shakes fist*). An earlier edition is the white P180 and black P180B ... but the P182 is only $89.99 after rebate. A little pricier than the $40 Lian Lis, but I love the case's understated elegance and unique inner design. The odd design did require me to get an extension ATX cable for the PSU (the main 24-pin line), but that was only $10.
posted by Xere at 9:13 PM on January 30, 2008

I like Ars Technica's system guides; they give some context to their choices of components.
posted by hattifattener at 9:53 PM on January 30, 2008

Here's a 56 dollar card that will do what you want and perform when you need 3d acceleration.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:05 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all your help - especially on the graphics cards. Just to clarify, I use my PC mostly word processing. But I do watch the odd video and use photoshop a fair bit. I should also have mentioned that I live in the UK (for those who didn't spot the dual spelling of aluminium). Damn, but I wish there was a But there isn't, alas.
posted by rhymer at 2:14 AM on January 31, 2008

Second the recommendation for cooling, such as Zerotherm. Definitely include a quiet fan for the CPU. A good one will extend the life of your system - you do mention you want to keep using this system for years.
posted by ptm at 5:34 AM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: Also, I don't want something that rumbles like an earth mover in the corner, but it doesn't have to be whisper quiet either. I'm a bit middle of the road, I'm afraid. Although my dell is rather noisy.
posted by rhymer at 6:28 AM on January 31, 2008

Damn, but I wish there was a But there isn't, alas.

Well, in the UK you do have which is so similar that newegg was looking into buying it out at one time. It might be worth checking out.
posted by samsara at 6:48 AM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: OK, a few more - hopefully final - questions

1. Is the 8600 GTS a good card in terms of price / performance? I don't mind a bit of overkill in terms of what I actually need but I think the 8800s are probably excessive. This is the single thing I'm most confused about because everyone seems to have different opinions.

2. I'm quite tempted by this Lian Li desktop case. Yuk, yuk. I know, not a tower. Thing is though, my monitor is currently on a pile of books, so it may as well be on something useful. Or am I missing a very, very obvious point about non towers.

3. Is it worth getting 1066 RAM? If it is I'll do it.

4. And do I need another PSU fan? Bear in mind, until recently, I thought overclock meant a place on the wall near the ceiling.
posted by rhymer at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2008

Opinions, no more.

1) If you're not doing 3D anything any video card made in the last two years will be more than sufficient. I'm typing on a... 03:00.0 VGA compatible controller: nVidia Corporation NV43 [GeForce 6600 GT] (rev a2) and it's more than sufficient. That's at least three years old. I can't quite watch 1080p video without a bit of choppiness but *shrug*.

2) Entirely a taste thing. My desktop at home is a SFF case which is tiny. It's nice, quiet and portable, but it's sort of a pain to work inside. The next box I buy (which is yours but with more RAM, see next point) will have a full-size desktop case.

3) All things considered you'll never go wrong having more ram. 32-bit OSes (including Ubuntu) can't use more than ~3.5Gb of ram, but your chip supports a 64-bit install. It's a bit more pain-in-the-ass factor (installing a chroot to get flash working in ubuntu) but once set up it's pretty seamless. I'm running it now. And you can use a whole but-ton of ram. My next box will have 4G of 800MHz ram to start and I'll probably move to 8G soon after. The speed differences between 800 and 1066 RAM are frankly tiny but if you're willing to pay for it, go crazy.

4) No. If you keep firebreathing graphics cards out of your case you should be fine with the PSU/case/CPU fans.
posted by Skorgu at 11:16 AM on January 31, 2008

1. Everyone has different opinions because everyone has different standards and needs (and huge number of hardware sites' reviews assume a readership of hardcore gamers.) High-end cards are mostly competing on 3-D graphics and speed. Photoshop isn't graphically taxing compared to modern games -- Photoshop CS3's stated requirements are for just 64M of graphics memory and a 16 bit video card capable of at least 1024 x 768. I'm not at all sure you could find a PCI/E video card that doesn't beat that. The 8600 GTS is a 128-bit card with 256M of memory. Total overkill.

If you don't want something that sounds like an earth mover, one of the best places to cut down on noise is to get a passively cooled (i.e. heatsink only, no fan) not-gratuitously-overpowered video card. Get a GeForce 7xxx card for dirt cheap, and know that you can eventually replace it if your needs change (by which time prices will have continued to plummet.)

2. Tower vs. desktop is mostly a matter of fashion and footprint. There can be some airflow advantages in a tower case, but a lot of modern heatsinks are so heavy that it's a little scary to have them hanging onto your motherboard sideways.

That case sets off alarms for me for having an 80mm fan and two 60mm fans. A smaller fan has to spin faster to move the same amount of air as a bigger fan. Faster fan = more noise. Why they wouldn't have put a 120mm fan in that big honking case, I don't know. And aluminium isn't as good as steel at absorbing vibration, so tends to be noisier.

The P182 Xere mentions, or the Antec Solo, would be high on my list if I were building a machine with a full-sized ATX motherboard (I've become fond of microATX.)

3. Inh. You'll probably be hard-pressed to notice a difference, but the price difference is small enough that you might want to just get as fast as the motherboard can handle.

4. A PSU has its own fan (the exceptions not being relevant here); I've never heard of anyone installing "another PSU fan", per se. (Replacing the PSU fan, yes, but that's not for the faint of heart.) Pretty much any modern case comes with a case fan; your CPU needs a heatsink and fan (again, exceptions not relevant); between those and the PSU's fan, most likely you'll be okay, especially if you get one of those Antec cases and a passive graphics card.

But monitor the temperatures to be sure (relevant packages in Ubuntu are hddtemp, nvclock and lm-sensors.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:23 AM on January 31, 2008

Video cards are rated by 3d performance, so all this talk about 8600s vs 8800s doesnt apply. I recommended a 7600 because its yesterdays technology and now its cheap. Its still way overkill. I imagine you would be happy with any card with 128 megs of ram on it. Dont sweat it, just go cheap. Save the money for RAM or a nicer display.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2008

Damn, but I wish there was a But there isn't, alas.

In addition to dabs, take a look at
posted by 999 at 3:33 PM on January 31, 2008

Scan are my usual go-to for components. Way better with service and returns than Dabs or eBuyer, in my experience (replacements next day, for example, vs returns-only-when-we-get-around-to-you and replacements-in-three-weeks-maybe respectively).

I'd consider an ATI card, since DAAMIT seem to be moving towards opening their card documentation and drivers; I gather it's already paying off for 2D. Whatever you get, look out for something passively cooled; plenty of low to mid-range cards are these days and provided your case isn't completely fanless it should be fine.

I always go with Crucial for memory, but I'm sure other brands are fine, just avoid anything suspiciously cheap. I'd also suggest ECC memory if you're looking at 4GB, but that would probably require a different motherboard, and you might not care for the extra reliability.

Also, beware of that Lian-Li case; I have a V1000Plus which has a similar arrangement with all the holes on the front/back, and they're not great for noise or forced-air cooling (the air goes everywhere, so it's not easy to focus it to ensure it's drawn through filters/past HD's/etc). Reasonable for "moderate noise" though; it depends on your components.

CPU fan wise, those 45nm Intels have some surprisingly small stock heatsinks. You could probably get something like this and basically run it with the fan off (though it's practically silent at 50%).
posted by Freaky at 6:22 PM on January 31, 2008

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