Building your own PC…

My regular desktop computer, Twoflower*, that I use for work and play is dying… 🙁

Twoflower is pretty old now by PC terms and is becoming quite unreliable. I built it about 4 or 5 years ago I guess, although I can’t remember exactly when, and it has been a good workhorse until quite recently. But the time has finally come to move on.

I like building my own PCs and find it can also be a very cost effective way to get exactly the PC you want and, of course, you don’t have to pay the Microsoft Tax either. So, after planning and reading for a couple of months or so, I have just ordered the new bits which will come together to create Lobsang*.

I’m not a “gamer” so I don’t need a heavy duty graphics card or excessive cooling, but I do tend to run a lot of apps at the same time and some of them are quite “hungry”: Eclipse, VirtualBox Virtual Machines, Inkscape, Gimp,, Thunderbird & Lightning with as many email accounts and CalDAV calendars as I have, and Firefox with usually a dozen or so tabs open at one time and perhaps further instances of Firefox running too. I’ve also often got a remote X sessions running to a development server as well.

So, it was important to me that I built a PC that is pretty quick, can be expanded easily and will – again – hopefully last me for a good few years.

Here is my shopping list:

Antec Three Hundred Case w/o PSU
520W Corsair HX Series Modular PSU, ATX, EPS12V, whisper quiet, 5 year warranty
Asrock P43R1600Twins, iP43, S 775, PCI-E 2.0 (x16), DDR2/DDR3 1066/1333/800, SATA II, SATA RAID, ATX
Intel Core 2 Duo, E8400, Wolfdale Core, S775, 3.0 GHz, 1333MHz, 6MB Cache, Retail
Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro
2GB (2x1GB) Corsair TwinX DDR2 XMS2 Dominator, PC2-8500 (1066), 240 Pin, Non-ECC Unbuffered, CAS 5
256MB Palit 9500GT, PCI-E 2.0(x16), 1600MHz GDDR3, GPU 550MHz, 32 Cores, HDTV/ D-Sub/ DL DVI-I
320 GB Samsung HD322HJ Spinpoint F1, SATA 300, 7200 rpm, 16MB Cache, 8.9 ms
Samsung TS-H653B/DEBH 20x DVD±R, 8x DVD±DL, DVD+RW x8/-RW x6, x12 DVD-RAM SATA Black OEM

The notable items on here I would say are:

  • Power Supply – It is a really important part of your system. A cheap “no-name” PSU gives you unstable voltages that will lead to operational and reliability problems, crap cabling which restricts airflow, inefficiency so you just waste money making heat and they can be surprisingly noisy. The reviews I read lead me to choose either this Corsair model or a 450W unit from “Be Quiet”.
  • The Asrock Motherboard – This was probably the hardest component to choose. I don’t need a top-end mobo that will overclock like a wild thing, but I did want one that would provide me with a decent platform and will allow some level of growth. This board looked to be just about right and very well priced for an Intel LGA775 board. It supports DDR3 (up to 4GB) as well as DDR2 (up to 8GB) memory and will run any of the latest generation Core2 dual and quad core processors including the most recent 45nm designs.
  • The Processor – I was, until quite recently, going to go for the outstanding Q6600 65nm Quad core chip but having read some more recent reviews it seems as though the newer 45nm designs are much more efficient and yet more powerful. In most review tests, this dual core E8400 outperforms the Q6600 device and has about half the power consumption. There are certain times when 4 cores are better, but seeing as I’ve happily lived with just one up until now I think two will be just fine!
  • No Operating System – I will, of course, be installing a Free and Open Source OS and that will almost certainly be Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04.1. In fact I am planning to have a spare partition or two so I can install other OS’s too.

The rest of the items are nothing too special. I am very fond of Samsung drives and have used them for many years now. They are usually very quiet, fast, reliable and are excellent value. The graphics card is a passively cooled device that will be very fine for Compiz and the minimal other 3D requirements I have. I wanted a new case as my current PC’s case is terrible. It was cheap, looked it too and is really noisy with quite a few 80mm fans churning away constantly. This new Antec Three Hundred case looks much better, has bigger 120mm and 140mm fans (that turn slower and thus make less noise) and has better cable management so air should flow well and is quite capacious so I have room to expand too.

My main source of knowledge for this lot comes from the excellent Custom PC Magazine. Although it is heavily geared toward gamers and high end systems, their no-nonsense reviews and technical features are the best I have come across, and I’ve been reading computer magazines virtually since they first appeared. When Custom PC review a product, if it is crap they really say so. There never seems to be any of the “polite excuses” or bias toward particular suppliers or vendors – unless they make really good gear that is. My only gripes with it are I’d like it to cover more Media and power efficiency topics and feature more Open Source software. Perhaps I should suggest some articles…

For the supplier of the bits, I have gone to Scan Computers. I have used them several times before and have no complaints at all. They have a great reputation for service and they do tend to have the best prices too. Hopefully the bits will be here by the weekend, just in time for my 10th Wedding Anniversary, so how much actually ends up getting assembled before next week remains to be seen…

For this blog, I’ll take some pictures of the bits before, during and after assembly and run through the way I put together a new PC. It isn’t terribly hard and is very satisfying when it’s finished.

Update: I’ve written two articles covering the build process. Part 1 is here.

* All the computers in our house are named after characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. So far I have used: Rincewind, Mort, Binky, Moist, Angua, Twoflower, Gladys and Vimes.

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  • wynnmc says:

    You might like to consider a second drive – useful for backups and keeping mirrors of important partitions. I have had something like 5 disks go down over the past few years. You will probably set up smartmontools to run regular checks on the disk (or disks) to warn you of impending problems.

    If you get rid of Twoflower, you will, of course, wipe the disks first. You can also keep private information – family photos, emails, letters – on one or more encrypted partitions then, if you forget to wipe the disk, it doesn’t matter.

  • Alan Lord says:

    @wynnmc, thanks for the comments.

    I have a server in house that acts as a backup/mirror so having two drives is not really that important. But I do have two currently installed in Twoflower; one is faster, a sata2 but smaller 80GB, so I may well migrate one over if I think it useful.

    5 disks go down! That’s pretty bad… I think I have only ever had two disk failures that were unrecoverable in my whole computing life!

    I rarely dispose of old computers until they get so old you can’t really use them. (I think I still have some 20Mb hard disks somewhere…) They usually find homes with my kids or in the guest room for visitors, or for development servers/testbeds etc.

  • BobCFC says:

    I bought the Corsair 520 modular PSU last year when I did my build.

    You won’t be disappointed; as soon as you open the box it oozes quality. This was the first time I didn’t get a cheap no-name PSU and I’m glad I choose this one.

  • Alan Lord says:

    @BobCFC, that’s good to hear thanks. The next size up won the top award in the most recent PSU tests in Custom PC so I thought it was a decent choice – and it was one of the best priced modular units too 🙂

  • Jonathan Marsden says:

    Motherboard: I hope that works out for you. I’d tend to pay the extra for a “name brand” on a build I want to last for “a few years”… maybe a Gigabyte GA-EP43-DS3L ?

    RAM: 4GB would be well worth the extra, IMO, if you run multiple “hungry” apps — I know UK prices are higher than USA, but you might want to check out whether you can stretch the budget to include 2x2GB rather than 2x1GB RAM modules?

    OS: You’re moving up to x64 (64bit), right?

  • Alan Lord says:

    @Jonathan. Thanks, budget and supplier dictated my Mobo choice. The difference is not actually that much cost-wise between your board and mine but my supplier didn’t stock it and the Asrock has slightly better expansion capabilities. My wife has an Asrock board that has lasted fine. 4years so far… And I went for the version with decent capacitors (The “R” in the model number) 😉

    RAM – I can add RAM as and when needed, and I can migrate from DDR2 to DDR3 also. I’m happy with 2G for now. Linux is a lot less hungry on RAM than other operating systems I can think of and I’ve managed fine for the last 4 years or so with just 1G, so 2G should be good for now.

    I have not decided on 32 or 64bit yet but a good question. My previous experiences with 64bit Ubuntu were not very good ones. The only benefit I can see with 64bit is more address space and some performance improvements on very large number crunching. For most apps and general work, 64bit is actually slower. But I will certainly try it again. I will have a couple of spare partitions to play with.

    Thanks again. The bits should arrive tomorrow.

  • wynnmc says:

    About 64-bit v. 32-bit: if you want Flash you won’t get it on 64-bit, there’s no 64-bit port yet.

    You can go sideways however, and run a 32-bit Firefox binary with 32-bit Flash plugin ;o)

  • […] my first post on this last week, all the bits duly arrived on Saturday morning. I was expecting the delivery to […]

  • Defre says:

    If you want 32 bits flash on 64 bits browser, try nspluginwrapper, works well with latest flash release candidate (see with your distro for installation).

  • wynnmc says:

    Thanks, Defre, I’d never heard of it. Installed and working :o)

    I hope Alan doesn’t mind his blog being [mis]used as a help desk ;o)

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