Sunday, July 13, 2008

Computers - Building your own. By Jeff Roy

You can get quite a bit when you buy a new computer these days. It used to be that you could save a lot by building it yourself, if you knew how to. That is not necessarily the case now. But, building it yourself does give you more options on hardware. Especially if you do a lot of add-ons such as video capture cards, or want higher performance parts. Buying a prebuilt system usually doesn’t give you as many add-on options. These are a few of the reasons why you may want to build your own. For those of you who have opened up your computer and upgraded parts like adding more memory, DVD burner, video card, etc, building a system is not that much more difficult. It does help to have a resource you can turn to for help. If you do not know how to work with the individual components, you can check with a local electronics store. If they sell all the parts, they may also be able to build it for you.

When I build a system I start with the case. If you want to do overclocking, you will want a case that has a lot of fans built in to blow in cool are and blow hot air out to circulate air flow and keep your components cool. I wanted a quiet system. The case I used is one provided by Antec, their Sonata Plus 550. Not only is it a nice case, it is designed to be quite and even includes sound deadening material on the inside of the two side panels to reduce noise. Antec really went all out in trying to make this case as quite as possible. I really like the soft rubber feet at the bottom of the case to again further reduce vibration and noise. It also came with a nice highly efficient NeoPower 550 watt modular power supply. Power supplies are important as they are supposed to provide constant stable current to your components, and 550 watts is plenty of power for the majority of users. Antec is a name I trust in cases and power supplies.

Next up is the motherboard, which is crucial for a stable system. They vary greatly in price, features, and stability. You tend to get what you pay for, and your motherboard is one place I would not try to cut costs. Building your own system lets you choose your motherboard which can give you much more expandability options. The motherboard I used here was from DFI, the UT 790FX-M2R. I previously have not had any experience with them having mostly used Asus boards, but knew them as a good quality board maker. I was proved correct, with the board having a lot of expandability and features as well as being very stable. They have more than enough card slots, and for you gamers out there it can even do three-way crossfire. It even came with a separate heat pipe for overclockers to help keep the chipsets cool, and a separate audio card module. The features are too numerous to list, and will give you their website at the bottom of the article for their full specs. But suffice it to say I am getting fond of them, and give two thumbs way up. If you think this board is a bit much for you, they also have another great board the DK 790FX-M2RS that is very close to it in features, minus the additional heat pipe for additional cooling and the sound card module. Again for its detailed specs I will refer you to DFI’s website. The motherboard is the first part to be installed in the case.

Next is the processor. Here I chose to go with an AMD. I don't think they are quite as good as Intel, but they are a great value. AMD also has a very cool program called AMD Live! Explorer. (It only works with AMD processors, which is the main reason for my going with an AMD based system, and I will cover that program in a different review). First you install the processor in the socket, put on a bit of thermal paste, and then install the cooler. At this point is when I will attach the case cables to the motherboard (power button, front usb connectors, etc.), as well as the case fans and CPU fan and power cable from the power supply to the motherboard. You will need to refer to the motherboard manual since the locations are all different. I now would install the RAM, and I went with four 1GB DDR2-1066 sticks of Kingston HyperX memory which is very good high speed ram with heat spreaders. I used 4GB, and wouldn't recommend anything less than 2GB. Although Windows Vista will work with 1GB, I would recommend 2GB when working with multimedia applications. Kingston is a name you can rely on for high performance and they also come with a great lifetime warranty.

Some motherboards come with built-in video so no video card is needed. The DFI motherboards did not have integrated video, which is ok since I much prefer a separate video card. They are more powerful for more extensive video applications such as games, video editing, or high definition video watching. I actually went with two video cards, the HD3870 an HD3850 provided by ATI. Using two cards together in crossfire adds additional performance for video editing and gaming. For you gamers out there, I scored over 14,000 3d2006 marks, which is very impressive. NVIDIA is also another good video card company, but I much prefer the ATI products. I believe they are a great value for the money, and also have some great features. Their UVD (Unified Video Decoder) takes care of all the decoding with DVD’s, HD-DVD, or Blu-Ray movies so your CPU does not have to. It also has a great integrated software component called AVIVO video converter. Here you can take a ripped DVD or TV show you recorded, and convert it to a file that will play on your iPod, PSP, PDA, or other portable device. No additional software needed to buy. I have been using ATI for their video cards for years, going back to their original All-in-wonder card with built in TV tuner. Now I look for a bit more performance, and the HD3870 and HD3850 cards deliver it in spades. Kudos goes to ATI for some great video cards and the high value for performance when compared to the price. I was even able to overclock mine a bit to get out even more performance. The included Catalyst software makes it pretty easy to do.

After the video cards were installed, I would usually now install the sound card. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the DFI board actually came with a separate module that is a sound card, so I did not use a separate sound card. It works like a normal add-on sound card without taking up an internal card slot. It even has a coaxial in and a coaxial out. If you have any additional cards, such as a TV Tuner card, now is when I would install them.

It is now time to install you storage drives. These would include hard drive and DVD burners. For obvious reasons I always go with name brand hard drives that I trust and I chose Seagate. I have used them for years without problems. I used LG for my 2 DVD burners. Installing these in my Antec case was very easy. I screwed on the rails to each side of the drive, and then just slid them into the slots. For the hard drive there is also a unique suspension system in the case to reduce vibration and hence also reduce noise. It worked pretty well. With the drives in place it is now time to connect the power cables and parallel cables to the back of the drives. The hardware part of the building is now complete and it is time to screw back on the side of the case.

Last but not least I want to briefly cover the operating system and a couple accessories. I have always been a fan of Microsoft Windows. Some of their versions of windows have been better than others. The current version out now is Windows Vista, and one version I want to mention is the Ultimate version. It has a very cool feature that I first saw at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas called Windows DreamScene. Your desktop now goes interactive, not just with a picture, but with video. The one that was shown off at the show was that of a mountain waterfall and stream, where you can see the water falling and the tree leaves blowing in the wind. It is a video clip running in continuous loop. There are different scenes that you can download, but you can also load your own home movies as your backgrounds – VERY cool! And speaking of home movies, I also wanted to touch on additional storage options. While cases can hold multiple hard drives and give you the option of designating one or more to something like home movies, they are purely internal. They will work for that computer, or any others you may have on your home network, but what if you wanted to show off say your son’s touchdown run to grandpa. For that, an external hard drive is a great accessory. You can take them wherever you go. If you are also worried about viruses, you can also use one for your home movies, photos, or anything else, and just connect it when you need it reducing the ability for it to get corrupted. Some external hard drives are designed to be compact, and some are a bit bigger and are designed for large amounts of storage. I have a few different ones here from Seagate and Maxtor, both small and larger, and both good companies. They are the Maxtor 1TB OneTouch 4 Plus and 250GB OneTouch 4 Mini, as wells as the Seagate 1TB FreeAgent Pro and 250GB FreeAgent Go.

I hope you are able to see that building your own computer really is not that difficult. I would not necessarily recommend it to someone who has never done any hardware upgrades. I would recommend to first try upgrading your current computer, like getting a new video card, adding a new hard drive for increased storage capacity, and add a DVD burner. Once you have learned how to do those things, the rest is not too hard. As I mentioned before, it does help to know someone with the experience in case you have trouble. And if all else fails, you could take it somewhere that builds them, such as your local Best Buy Geek Squad. For more detailed specs on the specific components, feel free to visit the manufacturer's websites at,,,,,, and