One of my New Year’s resolutions was to build my own desktop computer. I’d been getting frustrated with the performance of my laptop, but more importantly I had to do it for the nerd cred.
I mainly use my PC for software development, music production, and some gaming. Unfortunately, my laptop couldn’t run Diablo III at a decent resolution (forget 1920×1080) with minimal settings at even 25 frames per second. Cranking up the GPU clock speed helped a little, but laptops have enough heating issues without throwing overclocking into the mix. Additionally, when working on a musical composition, I couldn’t have very many synths, effects, or track automations running in real-time without getting choppy playback. Freezing tracks solved that issue to some extent, but it slowed down my workflow.
Choosing the parts
To get started, a coworker recommended the guide on Hardware Revolution. My budget was around $1,200, so the Tier 5 system provided a useful template which I then customized.
I began by upping the RAM from 8 to 16 GB since RAM is cheap and I like to have 400 tabs open at all times. I initially chose 2×8 sticks, but a friend recommended that 4×4 would perform better. I’ve since done some research into the differences between the two setups, but haven’t found much to explain why 4×4 would be faster. Since my motherboard only has four memory slots, upgrading would require getting all new modules. However, by the time 16 GB becomes obsolete, I would probably need to get all new RAM anyway.
For the video card, the guide recommended the GeForce GTX 660 Ti for about $300. Since I’m not a super hardcore gamer, I didn’t want to drop that much on a GPU. The standard GTX 660 at $209 seemed like a good deal to me, but another coworker persuaded me to go with the Radeon HD 7870, citing its improved specs and purported ability to better support multiple monitor setups.
I dabble in overclocking, so I wanted to get a CPU cooler to replace the stock one. Liquid cooling a system has become a lot easier in recent years due to the advent of simple-to-install, pre-assembled products. So, after doing some research, I settled on the Corsair H60. However, a friend suggested that, since I wasn’t doing any “extreme” overclocking, an air cooler would be preferable since it couldn’t leak fluid all my shiny new hardware while still giving improved cooling performance compared to the stock fan. With that advice, I selected the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO cooler, which, as an added bonus, was less than half the price of the H60.
Finally, the power supply. PC Part Picker will give you an estimated wattage for your system. eXtreme Outer Vision also has a good calculator. I don’t intend to run dual graphics cards in CrossFire configuration, so my power needs were a modest 365 W. A friend recommended the Seasonic X Series 560W 80 PLUS Gold on the basis of Seasonic’s reputation for building solid PSUs. This power supply has the advantage of being modular, resulting in less cable clutter within your case, while also providing power efficiently.
Here’s the final parts list.
Putting everything together
The parts came in over the next week from both Newegg and Amazon. My girlfriend was upstate for the weekend, so I was able to take over our entire studio for the build.
Since this was my first self-assembled computer, I followed this excellent tutorial from Newegg.
In order to make sure everything worked properly, I began with an external build (as recommended in the video). Here I ran into my first bit of trouble. After slotting the CPU into the motherboard, I tried to close the tension arm, but past a certain point, it wouldn’t budge. I tried pushing it harder, but it didn’t go much further, and when I looked at the processor afterwards, it had little marks on the side where the retention piece had rubbed against it. Panicking, I started looking all over for someone who’d had the same problem. I found a post on Tom’s Hardware suggesting I just push harder. With this blessing, I gathered my courage and pushed the tension arm even harder, finally locking the CPU in place. With a sigh of relief, I continued by installing the cooler and RAM.
As you can see in this blurry photo, there’s barely enough clearance for the RAM below the CPU fan.
Originally, I ordered this memory. After it shipped, I got last-minute advice from a friend who told me to get the low-clearance version of the RAM instead. A noob mistake for sure, but the RMA should finish processing any day now. =) I could also have used 2×8 GB sticks, slotting them further away from the CPU fan, or for added fun, filed down the edges of the module closest to the fan with a Dremel.
I slotted in the video card, then broke out the power supply. Since the PSU is modular, I had to try to figure out exactly which cables I needed. Picking the ones to power the motherboard and CPU was easy enough, but when it came time to power the video card, things got confusing. A number of them looked promising, but they either had an extra 2-pin connector dangling off of the 6-pin segment or they required a Molex adapter. After calling up a few coworkers, I learned that power supply cabling is fairly forgiving, so I just did whatever required the fewest adapters.
With that, the external build was complete! I considered leaving it like this for improved airflow, but I didn’t have any room on my desk to set my coffee mug.
The internal build
Without opening the manual for the case, I started screwing in the power supply, optical drive, and motherboard. I tried mounting the mobo a couple times, but it wouldn’t sit quite right. After reading the case manual, I realized I’d been using the wrong screws for pretty much everything up until that point. Like Icarus, my hubris got the better of me. After amending the screwed-up (ha!) situation, I began wiring everything up (carefully referencing the motherboard manual along the way).
(As a side note, next time I’ll skip the external build and install the motherboard into the case before attaching the CPU cooler. The fan made it hard to access a couple of the rear motherboard mounting points.)
The last little bit of difficulty arose when installing the video and sound cards. The Gigabyte Radeon HD 7870 is quite sizable with its three fans, so maneuvering it around the cables in the case proved to be a bit tricky. But this minor speed bump did not hold me back for long.
With bated breath, I powered everything up . . . and it still booted! Total build time: five hours. Time to boot Windows: five seconds (thanks, solid-state technology!).
Building my own PC was a really fun experience. I learned a lot about computer hardware in the process, and I take pleasure in knowing exactly what is in my case and how it’s connected. I no longer fear configuration modifications like installing a second hard drive. Best of all, there’s no annoying bloatware pre-installed on my system that I have to clean out. As far as performance goes, Diablo III feels like a completely different game at 60 FPS with maxed settings, and I can use as many soft synths as I want with nary a hiccup.
I have three upgrades in mind:
- A second hard drive. While my 3 TB external drive does a good job of holding all my data, I’d like to be able to dual-boot Linux without sacrificing any of the remaining 30 GB on my SSD to a second partition.
- An internal case light. I’d like to be able to look down into the grille at the top of my case and see all of my beautiful hardware.
- A third monitor. My graphics card supports up to four monitors, but I really only have space on my desk for two at the moment. So first I need to go to Ikea. Unless I build vertically. Hmm . . .
I heartily recommend that, if you’re in the market for a new PC, you consider building your own. There are tons of free resources out there to help you if you get stuck. You’ll end up with more machine for your money as well as a sense of pride in your accomplishment. And finally, you’ll always have something to talk about when you run into a fellow computer nerd. =)