Leadership optimize

There are 10 decisions to make before you build your next PC

While building a custom system lets you tailor the components to meet your needs and hold down costs, you'll need to make some decisions first.

This post was originally published in the 10 Things Blog in August 2011.

Building PCs is a hobby that many tech enthusiasts enjoy. Even if building PCs is not your hobby, it is sometimes the only way to get a machine that exactly meets your needs or meets them at a reasonable price. Here are 10 things to think about when building your next PC, some of the choices you may have, and what to keep in mind when making these choices.

1: SSD vs. platters

At this point in time, I think the drive selections have more to do with performance than the CPU choice does. Modern CPUs have more than enough power for typical loads, but as the applications we use get bigger and the data they handle gets larger (video games, multimedia editing, giant-size Outlook PSTs, etc.), the drives can become the bottleneck.

Solid state drives (SSDs) are lightning quick, especially for accessing lots of small files at a time (like when the system boots). The price to pay is in the cost-per-gigabyte: They are many times more expensive on a per-GB basis than traditional drives. While there is debate about whether traditional drives are as fast reading long, sequential files or if the read/write limits on SSDs make them less reliable than the mechanical failures of traditional drives, the performance on typical usage is not a question.

One possibility, especially with an OS like Windows 7 or Linux that make it easy to separate data from applications, is to use an SSD for the main OS and application space and put user data on a traditional drive. That way, you can get both speed and disk size at a reasonable price.

2: Video card

People often tend to buy either too much video card or too little. Unless you are playing video games, the on-board video card should be sufficient -- so long as it has enough of the right kinds of ports and can meet your resolution needs. You should not need to devote too much system memory to it, either.

If you are playing video games, keep in mind that games are now putting the lion's share of the hard work onto the video card. There is a definite price curve on the video cards. You can often get last year's top-end models for a good price, and they will handle all but the most modern and intense games at reasonable settings (often the highest settings). If you are doing a lot of multimedia, numerical analysis, and other computationally intense tasks, check to see whether your applications can leverage the video card and, if so, what cards it is compatible with.

3: x86 or x64?

When installing the OS, there is no reason to not use the x64 version at this point, unless you have an extremely outdated application that refuses to run on it. And you should almost always install the x64 version of applications. That said, there are some things where you need to make a choice. Internet Explorer is an example. While it installs both versions, always use the x86 one -- the one labeled "Internet Explorer" instead of "Internet Explorer (64-bit)" -- because the modernized JavaScript engine in IE 9 is available only in the x86 version. Many IE users I've met have been baffled by the lack of speed in IE 9, and that was the reason.

Also, be very wary about installing Microsoft Office's x64 versions. Many, if not most, plugins still do not run under x64 Office, and it looks like they probably never will. The only reason to go for x64 Office is if you routinely work with monstrously huge files that the x86 version can't handle.

4: RAM density

Let's say your motherboard holds up to four DIMMs, each one with a maximum size of 8 GB, and supports Dual Channel RAM, and your goal is to have 8 GB of RAM. If you buy one 8 GB DIMM, you are leaving lots of room open to eventually fill the machine to 32 GB, but you are giving up the speed advantages of Dual Channel. If you buy two 4 GB DIMMs, you get the speed of Dual Channel. But if you want to get the full 32 GB in the future, you'll have to replace the two 4 GB DIMMs with an 8 GB DIMM. Personally, I like to buy the smaller DIMMs and get the Dual (or Triple) Channel advantage, worrying about the extra costs down the road if I ever need an upgrade. You may prefer to leave as much space for future expansion as you can.

5: RAID

A RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) allows you to combine various physical disks into one volume. The main RAID levels to think about on a desktop are:

  • RAID 0: Allows multiple disks to be combined into one large disk; a single drive failure takes down the whole RAID and often loses data. The volume size is the total size of all the disks.
  • RAID 1: Mirrors a pair of disks into one volume; if one disk fails there is no data loss, and the drive can be replaced (and the data automatically copies to the replacement), usually with no downtime. The volume size is the size of the smaller of the two disks.
  • RAID 5: This is more complex. It takes three drives and combines them in a way that they all provide some redundancy for the others, with an optional fourth drive as a "hot spare" to be immediately incorporated into the RAID if the drive fails (highly recommended). A little bit of drive space is lost due to the way the redundancy is performed.

Each of these RAID types can bring some speed benefits. Due to the high level of drive failures I experience, the value of my data to me, and the cost of downtime, I choose RAID 1 for all my personal PCs and have done so for quite a few years now. It has saved my neck many times!

6: Case

Even if you are not the sort to care what your computer looks like (other than a nondescript beige, gray, or black box), the case selection is still important. Cases with better airflow reduce internal temperatures, which in turn reduce failure rates and allow temperature-controlled fans to spin slower (which makes the machine quieter). Larger fans turn more slowly to move the same amount of air, which also reduces the noise. Some cases even have air filters to keep the dust levels low. In addition, better cases make it easier (and less painful, if they have smoothed edges on the metal) to replace components. Look for removable motherboard trays and drive cages to make maintenance easy. The pricier aluminum cases weigh a lot less, which is important if you plan to move your PC often.

7: Power supply

People tend to overestimate how big a power supply unit (PSU) they need. You're better off having a smaller PSU with higher efficiency than a larger PSU with lower efficiency. Not only will it deliver the same power to your components, but it will save on your electric bill and produce less heat. (Again, heat reduces reliability and makes the fans work harder, which increases noise.) Unless you have a super-powerful video card or a lot of hard drives, it is hard to argue for more than 350 - 450 watts of PSU capacity.

8: CPU choice

I am not going to get into the Intel vs. AMD debate. Just compare capabilities and price and get the cheapest CPU that meets your needs. Here are some questions to ask yourself when picking a CPU:

  • Does it support virtualization and do I need that support? As a developer and author who occasionally needs to run VMs for testing, the answer is "yes" for me.
  • Does it support HyperThreading (HT)? HT allows one CPU core to act as two, and while it does not always improve performance, it can often increase it.
  • How many cores do I need? Remember, many applications still are not written to leverage multicore architecture, but the OS will. And more cores means a better experience on the whole if you like to do many things at once or play games.
  • What speed do I need? Few things will actually max out a modern CPU long term. I would rather have four cores at 2.0 gHz than two cores at 4.0 gHz, all else being equal.

9: Backups

Thinking about backups should start when you are putting your PC together. If you are using online backups, you don't need any additional hardware. But for onsite backup, now is the time for it. Some people like external drives for backups because they are easily switched, moved to other places, etc., but they are a bit more expensive.

I've got a large internal disk (much larger than the data I will ever store on the machine) that I perform a nightly backup to, and I backstop that with the Carbonite online backup service. Between this and my RAID 1, if I ever permanently lose data, it means that I have bigger things to worry about than my data! If you use an external drive, eSATA is much faster than the ubiquitous USB 2.0. In terms of software, there are lots of great choices out there. While the built-in Windows Backup is adequate for most home user needs, it does have its gaps and you will want to consider a third-party application.

10: Malware protection

Now that your fresh, pristine system is up and running, it's time to protect it from viruses, spyware, and other nasty applications. We all know that education is the best defense. But even so, the malware has a habit of finding its way in sometimes. There are plenty of good anti-malware choices out there, ranging from "free" to "expensive," with plenty in the middle, too. Whatever you choose, make sure that it is one of the first things you put on your new PC.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

11 comments
Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I just got through rebuilding a machine to Adrian Kinglsey-Hughes' ZDNet November 2011 Skyvim: Elder Scrolls suggestions. (Mostly because my wife managed to fry the bios chip on the last system - heck it was 4 years old anyway) Of course I usually assemble systems to what were high end specs 6 to 12 months ago, and whose components are now in a sweet spot for price and lack of bugginess. What I ran into was the new motherboard no longer had capability for IDE devices (DVD/CD read write), only SATA and USB, wich required a second order for compatible drives.

Gisabun
Gisabun

As RAM is currently cheap, I'd ignore the "upgrade" issue if you bought 2 * 4GB of RAM. Of course you will use a x64 OS [especially Windows which won't have the 3.x GB limit. At this point, I'd use a SSD for the OS drive but a SATA3 drive for data. SSDs are still too pricey. A 350-450W PSU may be too low. Any GPU other that built in sucks plenty of power. Add a good Blu-ray DVD burner and maybe 2 disks [SSD and SATA3] and you are reaching that threshold. I'd rather spend a meager $20 and get something that's overkill than be cheap about it - especially if you want to expand later. I've always bought Antec cases. I wouldn't say dust free but they aren't far. Plenty of options to add extra fans if needed. Newer/better cases have the hard disk bays turned 90 degrees so that the back of the drive is facing the side of the case [easy to pull out as you don't hit a large card or CPU while doing so]. I have yet to have a power button issue. They always [ones I bought] have room for front end USB, firewire and audio ports. RAID is needed for something that is more critical. If you intend on using it, the 350-450W power supply thought is out the door. Backups and anti-malware is a non-issue. Only thing is that if you prefer the "traditional" backup way, Windows lacks anything built in. I usually recommend a better cooler than what Intel gives. Intel's recent models include flimsy coolers. A soundcard is generally better than built in because it has better features. Some mobos may include Wireless N which may or may not be useful. Make sure it takes USB3 ports as well as plenty of USB ports overall. My ASUS motherboard was one of the first to have USB3 ports and a total of 14 USB ports [using 9 so far]. Some may still need a serial port [I've seen it].

RechTepublic
RechTepublic

Too many people mistake anti-malware programs for anti-virus programs. Too many times have I found infected computers with Malwarebytes, AdAware, or Spybot installed. Every time the user thought that these programs would protect them from viruses. Given the number of quality, free antivirus programs available this is clearly and problem with education of computer users in general. Justin's omission of anti-virus from his top ten supports this assessment.

iworsfold
iworsfold

An 11th (or 1st item in my book) would be the motherboard. And that is because knowing what features such as sata 3, USB 3 and PCI-E 3.0 is the best way to future proof your machine. Meaning it would be easier to upgrade for longer without replacing it and thus likely replacing the CPU and memory.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Plan the general use of the machine Plan the software loadout Plan the OS Continue with the article's list If this machine is a simple home machine for me, I will want to do some cad and general office stuff (I'm boring...). I will be using BRLCAD and Libre Office as well as the requisite time waster games, so I will be running Linux. The hardware loadout then becomes clear. In the office I will need some additional capabilities, most notably to use a vendor's AutoCAD and Visio templates to save a ton of reinventing the wheel, but I will also be running on a Linux platform, so virtualization is important, sufficiently quick to run AutoCAD to strip the data from the customer's design and Visio. Under Linux we will be running a 3D modeller, and general office gear on two 1080p monitors. Again, the specification of the purpose, software, and target OS make the hardware pretty obvious.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I'm looking at this type of setup more and more having recently installed Shogun2 and discovered looong load times again. I can't even imagine what I'll be looking at when Skyrim finally gets installed. Maybe I go with a raided SSD set for the gaming bootup and keep my everything-else bootup on good old fashion long living platters. The benchmark for a system build used to be just gaming. These days it's gaming for GPU and related performance hardware plus virtual machines for general hardware like storage drives, cpu cores and ram quantity. For backups on the Apple side; get a timecapsule (nas/wifi router) and let the time machine backup software do it's thing hourly. On win7, a NAS and win7's own backup software does a good job though I think I'm getting conflicts between Diskeeper and the backups. All my machines without diskeeper backup to NAS clean but my one with diskeeper installed keeps giving me failed backups "can not find device" errors.. booo. I need to take some time and look into that fully though. Every three or so years when the little upgrades just won't cut it and it becomes time to do with triad (mobo/ram/cpu) I'm reminded how much I miss working at the old computer shop where staff paid wholesale. This paying retail puts a heck of a dent in a rig builder's pocket.

Maluminse
Maluminse

3.2 Ghz motherboard and processor abandoned. 1tb hd, 4gb ram (unreg though it required reg) and my old nvida video card and my rig is fluid like melted butter. Next upgrade video card and then a sound card. yea.

kliss
kliss

Where does USB 3.0 fit in here? I am seeing an increase in USB 3.0 products. Can you compare USB 3.0 to eSATA speed?

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I think that these CPU coolers just give you the ability to get the high clock numbers.They don't stay on for long.You would copy everything to the CPU even the BIOS.I'm also big time wondering if the CPU is just files in the registry.The registry is BIOS settings.You'll find it in hardware in the registry.Can you put a CPU wherever you want?Software tells the electronics in the computer what to do.If you look at the registry there's this digital binary stuff.I suspect that this locates a file in the electronics or firmware.You make a copy of the CPU file.You need to think of the inside of the computer like it's a big pen drive and credit card.(Way out?It could be that digital DC fans can reach light speeds.You hear the fans break the sound barrier and light barrier.I suspect files in the BIOS that are at unfathomable frequencies and voltages.Even other dimensional.It's mind in machine.)

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I'd try to get a motherboard from one of these big CAD CAM machines.The large deep BIOS. Accustomed to doing everything perfectly.Probably Cray.Probably $15.

Gisabun
Gisabun

Actually, as I said, anti-malware shjouldn't even be included as this is almost all hardware [except for the x86/x64 part which isn't needed either]. As others mentioned, a proper mobo would be a better #10. That said, yes, some do confuse anti-malware and anti-virus [although there is more of the former than latter of late].