Holiday PC Builds

Time for our biennial system build exercise. We built two systems over the last two weeks. While I still use my MacBook Pro for 95% of my productivity work, the Mac game market is moribund, and there is some joy in building a machine from components. So for the fun of building, and for gaming use as well as other general use, we built out two different systems:

* Cases. Very different choices. Air cooling for both, we’ve had 3-4 liquid-cooled systems. Liquid cooling looks awesome with the right fluids and lights, but — another maintenance hassle; sometimes catastrophic failures; and they just aren’t any quieter really.
** First system is an Antec 1200. Classic full tower case, tons of drive bays, tons of fans, full complement of front panel ports. Nice clear sides, some cool interior lighting. Nice looking final system, but a little time consuming to pull together — particularly all the cable connections for fans and front panel connectors. But looks nice complete.
** Second system is built around a High Speed PC Tech Station. An open, “caseless” system, super easy and quick to assemble, and gives nice open access to all elements of the system. The finished product looks messy but that is part of the appeal. No protection from the elements either. Massively faster to assemble tho.
* Motherboards. The Antec has an ASUS P6X58D and this is a great board — USB3, SATA3, designed for overclockers. Probably should have gotten this board for both systems. The second has an ASRock X58 which is fine and a little cheaper but lacks the USB3 and SATA3 support. For the price-difference, probably should have goen with the more future-proof board. Both boards seem pretty equivalent otherwise.
* Processors. Intel i7-920 2.66Ghz quad-core on both. Not the most expensive but overclockable. On the first PC with the Antec case, we installed a higher capacity cooler for overclocking support — a noname generic cooler but something like this one that we picked up at a the local parts store.
* RAM. 6GB of Corsair Dominator Triple Channel ram (3x2GIG) on both systems. Pretty easy to install, tho absolutely no documentation on the fan, but there was really only one way to try to install it and it seemed to work.
* Power supplies. The Antec has an OCZ 1000W. This is a solid supply with tons of connectors, certainly good enough for nearly any system. But the Enermax Galaxy 1250W is super nice because of the modular cable system — you only attach the power connectors you actually need. Cuts down massively on cable clutter, particularly helpful for the caseless system. I’d go with modular supplies every time in the future.
* Hard drives. Both machines have 2 1.5TB WD Caviar drives, 7200 RPM. Nothing fancy, amazing how cheap drives have become. Considered faster drives but they contribute to noise and, based on past experience with 10K rpm drives, not clear they add that much performance.
* DVD/Blue Ray drives. Not having strong opinions on drive vendors (partly because I’ve had bad drives from every vendor in the past), we scattered out purchases around here. Both systems have the same bluray drive — an LG drive. One system then has a Samsung DVD burner, the other a Pioneer.
* Removeable media. Both systems have a 17-in-1 Sony memory card reader. Neither has a floppy, thank goodness Windows install doesn’t need that anymore.
* Video cards. OK we really wanted Radeon 5970s but these are mythical. The 5870s are near-mythical, almost like unicorns. But they are findable on ebay for near MSRP and that is the route we went. Expect to pay $500 or so. Standard ebay warnings apply — look for vendors with long selling histories, flawless reputations, US-based, etc. We had no problems. The caseless system also has a second card, a 5770, the goal is to be able to run directx games on one display while running other apps on the other card, I’m not convinced this is actually possible.
* Software. Win7 ultimate, from MS Company Store for $50. Worth renewing my alumni membership for this. Installed easily, 64bit on both. Unlike vista, this version really seems to work and driver software seems plentiful. The experience isn’t flawless — IE hung when downloading the latest ATI drivers and we had to use opera/chrome/firefox; and the homegroup network UI is ill-considered at best, the networking UI is basically awful. Inventing funky abstractions like homegroups and libraries isn’t that helpful, lipstick on a pig. I just want to see the machines and devices on my network as a first step, is that so hard?
* Other software. Opera, Chrome, Firefox, Acrobat, Steam (with COD4, L4D2), Zune, Office10Beta, FileZilla, Tunebite all installed fairly quickly.

Machines both running well and seem to be happy so far. What do we still want?

* SSD drives. Also near mythical, impossible to find. Will have to add these post holidays.
* 5970 video cards.
* A desktop power switch for the caseless system. With no case, there is no obvious power and reset button, just little switches on the motherboard. One idea is to switch to a PS2 keyboard and enable powerup from keyboard in the BIOS.