Summary: Advanced System Building 301 is a review of advanced system building principles. Students should have a built several systems on their own before enrolling in this course. This course is open to graduate students only or by special arrangement with the professor. 6 units. Instructor: Alan Dang.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
If youíre playing games, youíre running Windows XP. Linux is great for specialized tasks such as number-crunching or programming, or miscellaneous work, but as bad as Windows XPís color management is, itís still better than Linux. As an aside, my personal choice for a Linux distribution at the moment is Vector Linux 4.2 running Xfce since itís fast, lightweight, and easier to work with than Gentoo. When you install Windows XP, youíll always want to partition your main drive into at least two partitions (although some people do three).
With NTFS, the reason to partition is no longer cluster size and bloat, but solely for fragmentation reasons. You should always have a dedicated partition for your temp files and swap file. Itís tempting to actually put this on a separate physical drive to reduce the wear and tear on the main drive, but the disadvantage is that upgrading to a larger hard drive a more involved process. A good rule of thumb for your partition size would be 10GB. That would give you space to set your swap file at the size of your physical memory, and then have the rest of the space as a scratch disk for working digital images, your Internet Explorer cache, creating a 4.5GB DVD, or having a place where you can download torrents without fragmenting your hard drive all the time. I have used a Ramdisk for my IE cache before -- while this does improve speed, itís more finicky and I donít recommend it.
1. Under visual affects, Iím happy with just disabling fade and animation. This speeds everything up while keeping things looking nice. I leave all the other miscellaneous effects on. I still remember when I saw ďShow Window Contents While DraggingĒ for the very first time ever. It was on a PowerPC running Windows NT.
2. Under advanced, change your virtual memory settings to have a custom sized paging file on your second temporary directory partition. I have the initial and maximum size set to be the same number (fixed size) and remove the pagefile from my main C: drive. In general I think 1GB is good for 512MB systems, 1.5GB is good for 1GB systems, and 2GB is good for 2GB systems.
3. If youíre running an Athlon 64/Opteron or other DEP enabled system like I am, I change the setting to turn DEP on for ALL programs and services except for those I select. This adds extra security and is rarely a hassle.
4. Under startup and recovery, I disable all debugging information and uncheck logging of system failures. Itís not as if Iím going to use this anyway, and itís not as if my systems crash. :)
5. Under environment variables, change TEMP and TMP to point toward my second partition (i.e. D:\\TEMP). Be sure to do this for system variables as well.
6. I then disable Error Reporting.
7. I disable remote assistance and remote desktop.
8. Itís up to you whether to leave System Restore enabled or disabled. I usually disable it and just leave it on for the scratch drive.
9. I keep automatic updates on and set it to a time during the day when I know Iím away at work.
1. Under General, I ensure that the silly things like menu and windows animation are disabled. I do not let Windows optimize my hard disk while idle since I use a 3rd party defragger.
2. Under mouse, I change menu speed to the fastest possible. This makes navigating through Windows much faster. The only reason to leave the delay on is if youíre building a computer for someone whoís not adept with a mouse.
I would love to use X-mouse, where the window focus changes without changing the ordering of the window, but there are enough non-standard API Windows apps that automatically force themselves on top when the focus is over one of their child windows that it doesnít work as well as it does in X. So even if youíre a hardcore X windows user, I still recommend leaving it off. Youíll be less frustrated that way.
3. Under explorer, I enable classic search for explorer.
4. Under Thumbnails, reducing the image quality can reduce HD space. I leave it at the default.
5. Under desktop, I add my computer, my documents, and recycle bin
6. Under command prompt, I enable tabbed filename and directory completion.
7. Finally, I enable auto-logon. TweakUI for Windows actually encrypts your password now.
With all of that complete, I make my final trip to Internet Explorer, move my cache to my temp drive, reduce the size to <100MB and have it check for new versions every time. I disable auto-resizing of images, set my home page to where else but FiringSquad.com... (Actually, it goes to my.yahoo.com but I do have the FS RSS feed.) The hard drive gets defragged and I now have a fast, high-performance system ready to run.
From here, I can move on and make modifications to the specific hardware control panels (i.e. my NVIDIA or ATI control panels or sound card settings). These are specific to each system so I wonít go into that. Likewise, BIOS optimization is often unnecessary (guides are particularly troubling to write because there is too much variation between system components. Itís a shame that many ďgaming orientedĒ motherboard manufacturers donít hire a tuner to write an optimization guide to include with their manual).
So there you have it, a short course on the personal touches I put in when building my own system. As I mentioned in the intro, this article isnít designed to be didactic and tell you whatís ďrightĒ but should instead be thought of as a discussion between colleagues. Are you one of those people with a different partition strategy, or someone whoís runs a ramdrive for IE cache permanently? Do you have a different approach to PCI card placement? Iím curious to hear what others out there are doing, and you can make your thoughts heard by clicking on the comments link on the frontpage.
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