Thursday, June 27, 2013

Episode IV: A New Computer

After getting a little ahead and the second-hand laptop that I was using (which was never in a great state) getting a little dead, I decided to build a desktop machine. For one/two reasons - basically, a guy at work had just come away from a hardware intensive environment and the builds that he had been doing made my slightly nostalgic for the times that I used to do stuff like that. Also - did I mention the dying laptop?

All in all, I found it to be a lot (a freakin’ lot) easier that what I remember. It had been *years* since I built anything from scratch. For good reason (at the time). Back in the day, if you weren’t buying off the shelf computers, you bought components and had to worry about - at every step - what was compatible with what. Which always involved a tremendous amount of research - reviews for performance and ‘real-world’ build experiences, and specs to make sure all the bits played well together. Then trying to piece everything together - maybe there’s jumpers, maybe not - plug and play? not yet...

Then someone decided to get smart and put together a website and design better hardware.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the course of Googling ‘computer build’ I stumbled on a LifeHacker post about the best computer that you can build at $300, $600, and $1200.

There are several other posts that you can find on Lifehacker about computer building, but this one gives a hardware overview and it also links to a parts list for each build.

At the bottom of each section there’s a link that says “Buy this build from PCPartPicker” but you actually don’t buy it from them. What PCPartPicker does is lets you choose from list of parts in each major system of a computer: CPU, Motherboard, Memory, Storage, Video Card, Power Supply, Case, and More. With the nav buttons at the top, you pick the system you want to pick a part for and then it gives you a list that can be filtered by whatever criteria is applicable. For example, if you’re picking a CPU and you know you want an i5, then you would click the filter on the right for i5 and go from there. As you go through the process and add to you parts list, the website checks for compatibility of what you’ve selected so far.

To keep things simple (I like ‘simple’), I clicked through from the Lifehacker post to PCPartPicker and just modified the list. For example, I have a preference for nVidia over ATI video cards because I’ve had some problems with the Catalyst software in the past, so I just went to Video Card and found an EVGA GeForce (with a little research) that fit in my price range. In the end, I changed the video card, storage, and the optical drive (because I wanted a BluRay). What I ended up with is this:

That brings us to the other half of PCPartPicker - the buying half. The website will list the cheapest cost for your parts from a online retailers but also local shops (provided that you have one in your area - I, living in the sticks, don’t). And - it also flags items with special offers: discounts, mail-in rebates, and the like. Pretty nifty.

But wait! There’s more! PCPartPicker also lets people post notes and pictures of their builds as well as keeping a comment thread going. It’s kinda like Deviant Art for the computer builder set. Speaking of build blogs, as you go through the parts selection process, it will give you links to projects that have used that part, so you can see completed projects (and the accompanying discussion threads) that have used that part you’re looking at in real life. Also, pretty nifty.

The Build

I actually decided on building a couple of things that night.

First things first: Tacos

This was waiting for me when I got home.

Once it’s unboxed, it’s shredded beef. It started out as 2-1/2 lbs of chuck roast that I’d dumped into a slow cooker that morning with some liquid and a bunch of spices. This is a superb way to very easily cook beef - especially if you don’t care about searing the roast before it goes in.

Basically you put the liquid and spices in the crock pot, then the meat, and then go away for about 8-10 hours. What liquid? What spices? What searing? All of these depend on personal preferences - or which website that you’re following. The liquid is either beef stock, beef broth, or just water (it turns out the blandest of them all but if you don’t have either of the other two, it works). The spices depend... pretty much the same taste/website thing. I usually use ground black pepper, onion (a sliced medium yellow or onion powder if I forgot to buy any real onions), garlic, cumin, and chili powder. If you’ve never done this before, pick a recipe that sounds good, try it, then experiment - and keep good notes.

Searing? If you want. says that it will add “more complex flavors”. It does make a certain kind of sense, because you’re browning the outside of the meat in a skillet (though I have cheated and used the broiler on the oven before) and that’s going to change the character of the meat that you’re cooking later, especially if you start out with a high temp skillet and you let the outside get a good brown on before dumping it in the crock. But you can get away without. (Some people swear by searing for everything because it “locks in moisture” but Alton Brown says no:

Anyway, once it’s done, it’s still roast-shaped, so you pick it up in pieces with tongs and a slotted spoon. Then you make tacos. Or you can slap some on a bun and dowse it with BBQ sauce for a sandwich. Or if you have some green chilies instead of BBQ sauce, it makes a great sammich. Or if you’re making enchiladas - basically anything that you’d usually make with loose browned ground beef.

After I stuffed my face, I went on to build a computer.

May contain awesome

May contain communism

Without some kind of containment field, should these have cancelled each other out or exploded or something?

Boxes and boxes (did you know, when you mistype boxes, you can get bosex?)

“Building” actually consists of securing the power supply and motherboard inside the case (the Corsair 500R comes with chassis (case) fans already installed, you just have to plug them in) and then plugging all the components into the motherboard. The only other thing that I had to screw down, besides the motherboard was the Samsung SSD into one of the otherwise tool-less (or screw-less, if you prefer) drive enclosures. So briefly, in order, I:

  • plugged the CPU into the motherboard (I consulted the manual to verify that I was doing it correctly - Why? the parts are expensive - stuff that I didn't want to hose by mishandling them)
  • put the memory in (consulted motherboard manual for the right slots since I only installed two sticks while the motherboard holds four)
  • put the motherboard into the case and IO port shield in place, then screwed the board down. (This is the first place that I noticed that the Corsair people put some thought into their stuff. The screws had a long shaft that allowed you to grip them away from the surface of the circuit board and apply a screwdriver to them also away from the surface of the circuit board.)
  • put the power supply into the case and screwed it down (I didn’t spring for a modular PS, so I had the normal octopus of cables coming out of one side of the power supply)
  • plugged in the video card after having taken out the slot cover on the case (the motherboard came with a SLI bridge (a part for plugging in one video card to another after they’re both installed on a computer and having them work as basically one super video card (forgive me, I’m simplifying)) but as I didn't get multiple video cards, that just one part that was left in the box) and then I plugged in the power leads from the power supply into the connectors on the card
  • pulled two drive cages, one for the solid state drive and one for the conventional drive (there were screw holes in the SSD for this and matching screw holes in the cage and the screws came with the case) and then plugged them and the optical drive, which slid in the front of the case, in to the SATA ports (again had to check the motherboard manual as to which SATA ports did what)
  • after plugging in and routing as much of the cabling that I could (because the CPU cooler takes up so much room inside the case), I installed the CPU cooler that came with the chip (initially, I held off installing the Cooler Master cooler until I found out how flippin’ *loud* the Intel cooler fan was).

This was it before power up testing - not the finished product.

And that’s basically it. From there, I re-checked the seating of the components and did a power-on test to see if I got any beeps from the motherboard (beeps when building usually means you forgot to plug in something important). This motherboard actually has a LED panel mounted in the corner to let you know what its doing (the codes are the manual). It came right up - I got keyboard lights when it was powering up. When didn’t get a picture at first, I moved the monitor (I was using a VGA) from the motherboard video port to the graphic card’s video port using the adapter that came with the card.

I set the date and time in BIOS and rebooted with the Windows DVD in and loaded Windows. WIth the SSD the first step of “Copying Windows files” or whatever, flashed by - literally, it came up on the screen and was immediately checked off. The whole installation took less than five minutes. I loaded the Gigabyte and the EVGA software and then plugged in to download AVG.

That’s about all that I installed on the Windows disc - the SSD is only 120GB - the remainder of the space may be used for edit copies of whatever I’m working on currently. At first the machine wasn’t recognizing the conventional drive and I found out why: I forgot to plug the SATA data line in.

After powering down and unplugging, I plugged in the Western Digital drive and then I replaced the Intel CPU cooler with the Cooler Master beast (it's massive). One thing to note is that the Intel cooler came pre-doped with thermal paste printed on the bottom of the cooler, while the Cooler Master didn’t. Basically all that meant was that I had to wipe the old thermal paste off the CPU when I took the old cooler off. Luckily, I remembered to order a spare tube and so I was able to install the replacement cooler immediately (actually it was the next evening). The only thing left was to figure out where the side panel fan plugged in and verify that the back case fan could be plugged into the motherboard even though it was a three-lead plug, and the motherboard only had four-lead connectors. (The case has a total of four fans, two front, one back, and one side - it sounds like it ought to resemble a hurricane, but it’s really quiet.)

All in all, it’s a lot easier now to build a computer, beginning to end, than it used to be. PCPartPicker lets you get away with a minimum of research (especially if you start out with someone else’s build list - it doesn’t have to be from Lifehacker, there are plenty of build projects on PCPartPicker already). Also the hardware is better designed and smart enough (provided that PCPartPicker says that they’re compatible) to configure themselves without a lot of help ("Remembah when plug and play was for crap? Pep'ridge Fahm remembahs."). Windows formats your first hard drive, and formatting the second one on a simple build like this can be started in Windows in just a couple of mouse clicks (I split my 1TB in half - 500MB for programs and program data, 500MB for data storage).

Total build time: I don’t know - I didn't time it. But it wasn't long. I could have done it in a couple of hours if I hadn’t had a Husky package inspector wanting to check out everything that I was trying to unbox, lose interest and want to play “let me in so you can let me out again”, and if I was in better practice - and I had installed the right cooler and made sure that *both* ends of *all* the SATA cables were plugged in the first time. Continually checking the hardware manuals because you don’t want to screw things up is also time consuming.

Difficulties: Not much of anything, really, other than my own oversight. I wish the case “manual” was more than a features sheet - a button diagram, if nothing else, would have been nice.

Oddness: The stickers! Most of the components came with some sort of sticker or another. I know what they’re thinking - the manufacturers think, “Well you built it, show it off... and if you put our logos on your build and you take pictures that just happen to get to the Internet... well that’s okay.”

What’s next? After I finish paying for this thing next month (I spread it out over two months), maybe a touch screen monitor? It is Win8 after all. On the other hand, I keep it in Desktop mode and run everything from there. I even got the photo import to run from there for my Galaxy S3. In the meantime, I’m consolidating my files from my various caches and replaying Mass Effect (yeah, I know, *real* constructive).

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