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Soul of a New Machine

It’s about time for me to build a new computer. I last did so last time I wintered in Asia, and it’s been a few years since then. The rig that blew games out of the water back then only plays them hesitantly now. Luckily, constructing a new computer is a lot easier now than it was in the 1960s.

Still, it always pays to do your research. I got a headstart here because Jeff Atwood, whose design sense and instincts I trust, already researched an excellent combination of the three major components: motherboard, processor, and memory.

I could do the same thing as him and simply upgrade my current machine. However, that means discarding several hundred dollars of hardware that, though four years old, still works just fine. That appalls my sense of economy. There’s always room in my house for a spare computer; most likely, this will end up as an Ubuntu box a few times more powerful than my laptop for use as a development platform.

Instead of upgrading, then, I’m going to construct a new machine entirely. What’s a computer made of? Well, in the order in which you choose the parts, it’s made of a case, motherboard, processor, memory, graphics card, hard drive(s), optical drive, and power supply. If you’re planning on overclocking, you’ll also want some coolers.

Given that I’m stealing the choices for items 2-4 and the cooler straight from Jeff, my first actual choice is as to the case. The first one I looked at was the Antec Skeleton. It’s got an interesting look, and the open air design promises both excellent heat dissipation and automatic dust removal. However, it had two strikes against it: all the reviews said the cables were just too short for anyone not experienced in their routing, and it was expensive.

Instead, I’m going with the Antec 300. It’s a plain black box, with plenty of ventilation and an unassuming face. That’s exactly what I want in a computer case: an unobtrusive design with no external moving parts, no fancy moulding to mess up the lines, no transparent panels or LEDs to show off the internals.

Before I start talking about the GCU, I need to talk about my monitor. It’s an entry-level LCD I bought on my return from Japan; it had turned out cheaper to sell the one I had there and then buy a new one in the US than to ship the old one. It was nice for the price, but it just doesn’t compare to the monitors that are available now. I’ve more than once had someone come in to my room, see my setup, and remark that they were startled that I didn’t have a fancier monitor. Finally, I decided to buy one. I’m going for a Samsung T260HD. It’s bigger, brighter, and has a much better contrast ratio than my old monitor. Also, its native resolution is 1920×1200.

Once you know what resolution you’re targeting, you can start looking at video cards. Those are the sort of beast where you can spend as much or as little as you want; either way, you get what you paid for in terms of quality at a given resolution. Luckily, there are sites and lists out there to help make the scale clear. I just scrolled down the list until I got to “Excellent performance at 1920×1200,” and had my choice: a Radeon HD 5850.

Next up are the hard drives. I have to admit that SSDs are appealing to me for their raw speed, even if they’re still way too expensive to use as the only internal drive. I currently have a two-disc RAID-0 setup, which is nice, but it can be improved upon. Again, I’m taking my cue from Jeff’s recommendation for one. However, that’s both barely sized to keep the essentials I want to blaze, and an absurd price per gigabyte. I’m adding in a Western Digital Caviar Blue 640 GB drive for internal storage, which has the best review score per price per gigabyte that I’ve seen. Added together, I’ve got three quarters of a terabyte internal at an overall cost of $0.65 per gigabyte.

Optical drives, unless you choose BluRay, are a mature technology. I just wanted something cheap, fast, and well-reviewed. Right now that’s a MSI DVD-RW drive so generic it doesn’t even have its own name.

Now that all the internals are chosen, it’s time to buy a power supply. I used to do this the hard way: tracking down the expected consumptions of the various parts I’d chosen, adding them up, adding a fudge factor, and going from there. These days, there’s an app for that. It told me I needed 472 watts. I had a few other considerations: I wanted something modular, so I wouldn’t have excess cabling inside the case, and I wanted something with an 80+ stamp so that I wouldn’t be paying through the nose for electricity. When you put those requirements together, what you get is the OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W.

There’s one more thing a computer needs: an OS. I suppose I could just throw in my customized XP image, but it doesn’t support all that RAM. Beside, it’d be a shame to put a 32 bit OS into all that 64 bit hardware. I’m just going to bite the bullet and get Windows 7 Professional. The main reason for the Pro upgrade is to get XP mode, because that’s too cool a feature to miss. Full, automatic virtualization of XPSP3 ensures that there is no such thing as compatibility issues.

Now that the parts are chosen, it’s time for some sanity checks. Does the CPU cooler fit in the case? Do the CPU and MB agree on their interface (FCLGA1366)? Do the drives and MB agree on interface (SATA II)? Do the GPU and MB agree on interface (PCIe)? Does the PSU have at least 500W and two PCIe 6-pin connectors per the GPU requirement? Do the GPU and monitor share an output format? Do all the components including the OS agree on architecture (64 bit)?

As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is “yes.” Now, it’s just time to order. The full parts list follows:
Monitor: SAMSUNG T260HD
Case: antec 300
PSU: OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W
MB: ASRock X58 Extreme
CPU: Intel Core i7-960 3.2 GHz CPU (to be overclocked to 4.0 GHz)
Cooler: XIGMATEK HDT-S1283
GCU: sapphire radeon hd 5850
Memory: Kingston HyperX 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 2000 x3
Boot Drive: crucial 128gb ssd
Storage Drive: wd caviar blue 640gb
Optical Drive: msi black sata dvd
OS: windows 7 professional 64 bit oem

$ 2800 later, my new computer is on its way. More to follow as I get it going, then review my impressions. As for now, I’m just trying to ward off sticker shock. It’s the most I’ve ever spent at one time for a computer. It’s by far the most powerful one I’ve ever owned, and I’m going to overclock it to the point of being ridiculous, but still. This computer is more expensive than my car, more expensive than my motorcycle, more expensive than my camera and xbox and rock band put together.

It should be worth it.

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