If youíre reading this, youíve probably built dozens of desktop computers on your own and for others and consider yourself a seasoned system builder. You laugh at the so-called expertise of Best Buyís GeekSquad, and are the one doing the teaching when calling technical support. If this sounds like you, youíve come to the right place if youíre looking to take your system building skills to the next level. This isnít the place to if you want to sit and listen to an expert tuner take a didactic approach and give lecture on building a highly optimized system. This article isnít written like a tutorial Ė this article is for experts. In this course, you are not a student but one of my colleagues. This has been written in a stream-of-consciousness approach with edits made only for spelling Ė itís a close to the source as you can get. Be sure to read my Opteron Workstation Article
for additional system building tips.
Start with the Right Tool for the Right Job
Iíll start by stating the obvious and saying that itís important to pick the right tool for the job, and this means selecting the best components possible. I know we donít always have the opportunity to do this since weíre often building new systems out of our old parts, but this is the most critical element. Without a good foundation, you wonít be able to tweak anything. When it comes to video cards, motherboards and CPUs you know what to choose Ė thatís what Brandonís reviews are all about. The products that we donít review regularly but are important are the power supply, chassis, memory, and hard drive.
I wrote an article on the importance of the power supply a while back. The power supply has no bearing on performance, but it has critical importance for stability. Donít go cheap with a power supply Ė theyíll last. When it comes to choosing a chassis, youíll want a precision-made case built with tight tolerances, so that drives and add-in cards fit snugly and securely. Airflow is critical, and a key goal is maintaining air flow Ė you want intake fans at the bottom of the case as well as a rear exhaust fans. Choose a case that has the unrestricted airflow you need. As the PowerMac G5 systems have shown, itís not about simply having very high CFM or the number of fans Ė itís about having enough fans and low enough resistance. I always go with fewer large fans than more small fans. In terms of system RAM, Corsair has always been at the top of my list, as they have a good understanding maintaining a balance between performance, ďbling,Ē and reliability. That is, even their new XMS Xpert with the giant programmable LCD display runs as rock-solid stable despite the fact that you can directly program the LCD display via Windows. Iím not sure that the XMS Xpert is more stable than their standard XMS Pro line-up, but the fact that the LCD works as stably as it does means that the modules are built to a very high-standard. If I won the lottery, Iím sure I could run XMS Xpert modules without the LCD panel. Although my personal first choice has consistently been Corsair, the other FS staff also put their trust in OCZ, Kingston, and Crucial RAM.
I like Maxtor Maxlines. There I said it. Maxtor, the bane of all hard drive manufacturers on Internet message boards, has been my top choice for close to a decade. Iíve never had a Maxtor drive crash when the drive itself was at fault, and Maxtor always seems to offer aggressive pricing, solid overall performance, and forward thinking technology such as FDB motors and large 16MB caches. My feeling is that itís sampling error and reporting bias that have Maxtors looking worse than the competition Ė either that, or my systems are somehow better built where Maxtorís donít die on me.
Seagate and Hitachi drives are also good choices. Seagate is famous for silent performance (at the expense of speed), and Hitachi drives have up until recently been extremely loud. Western Digital drives have also been great drives, but my experience with their standard IDE drives has been less reliable. The WD Raptors are super-fast and reliable, but can add a lot of heat to your system, which is why I tend to hold off on the Raptor unless itís a system that really needs the 10,000 rpm.
Assembling the PC
Before you assemble your PC, youíll want to think about cooling and physical stability and know what goes where. Back in the day of wimpy plastic PC cases, top-loading your 5 1/4Ē drives resulted in an unstable tower that could easily tip over. Nowadays, the most important elements to think about are hard drive placement and PCI card placement.
Todayís 7,200 and 10,000 rpm hard drives release an incredible amount of heat. Keeping your hard drives cool is critical for both hard drive integrity and system stability. You should never install two hard drives in adjacent bays Ė leave space in-between. Well designed cases with the front intake fan blowing over the hard drive bays make HDD placement even easier. Since standard fans have a central portion where air does not move well, I usually have my hard drives at the top edge and bottom edge of my fan, ensuring that the drive receives the maximum amount of cooling. Also recall that heat rises and so the lower drive will usually run cooler than drive above. With good cooling, youíll be able to maintain both drives with super reliability, but recall that the difference of five degrees can be a difference of 10 to 15% failure rate, and if itís your hard drive that fails, thatís 100% to you.
Serial ATA drives have made a huge step forward in keeping drives cool, since you can now avoid the flow-obstructing 80 conductor flat ribbon cables. Keeping hard drives cool is so important, so I would still go with non-native SATA over EIDE any day. The small performance difference seen in benchmarks is negligible in real world use but the increase in reliability is not. That said, if youíre working with IDE cables, keeping the cable as straight as possible, with as few kinks as possible is a smart move. If you make any bends in the cable, try to make it a permanent bend. Think of your cables like twisty-ties from the supermarket, the more you bend them, the higher chance theyíll break and be unreliable.
Iíve avoided rounded EIDE cables longer than 18Ē for my HDDs when possible. Granite Digital IDE cables are indeed the best cables on the market, but if you follow my recommendations, youíll be fine with generic 80-pin cables and can save some money.
With IDE, drives always are controlled by the slowest controller on the channel. That is to say that even though IDE controllers cannot simultaneously access two devices (which SCSI can), a setup where you have your HDD on master and your DVD-R as slave will be slower than having them as the master drive on two different channels.
PCI card placement
Video cards, particularly todayís high-speed GPUs emit a lot of radio frequency interference (RFI) that can interfere with your sound cardís performance by adding extra noise and buzz. For that reason, you always want to install your sound card in the PCI slot as far as possible from the video card in order to maximize audio quality. Itís a simple intervention thatís missed by many.
TV tuner cards are a predicament because they both emit a lot of heat (analog tuners) and RFI noise, but the receiving of noise will also affect the picture quality. In general, I feel the optimal position for the TV tuner is two slots away from the graphics card which typically is one slot closer to the video card than the mid-point between the sound card and video card. This will create a focus of increased heat between the GPU and TV tuner, but in a well design system chassis, itíll be easier to cool your PC than it will be to shield the sound card from the TV tuner. Obviously, if you had an external Firewire sound card or were using a quality on-board sound card, then it would make sense to put your TV tuner in the last PCI slot.
A ferrite-bead choke is useful in reducing RFI in multi-conductor cables. Youíll get the most benefit by adding a ferrite choke to analog cables such as a VGA or sound card cable. The third place where you might see an advantage is in shielding the cables that go from your motherboard to your front USB ports. In some cases, people with finicky USB devices that work well with the rear USB ports but not the front USB ports can solve their problem with new cables or better shielding. Fortunately, most modern USB controllers and devices and system cases are more tolerant than they used to be.