A Total Noob’s PC Building Experience

Introduction

It was time. I’ve been a heavy computer user for most of my life, studied computer engineering, programmed applications, owned a ton of laptops (many simultaneously), been referred to as the “reinstall lord” for constant Linux and Windows headaches that were just easier to solve through a complete wipe… but I’d never built a computer of my own. I decided to change that.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to build your own computer.

The primary one would be cost. Joe Schmoe purchasing parts, even from a cheap retailer like Newegg or Frys, just can’t compete with OEMs that get millions of identical components directly from Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. However, the added cost brings with it some benefits: OEMs like to cut corners as much as possible, often using subpar components (especially power supplies) that will fail much more quickly than a computer where the components have been hand-chosen to be compatible and come from name-brand suppliers whose primary concern isn’t low cost but consumer reliability. While desktops have a lower failure rate than laptops, this recent study shows that even the best manufacturers’ failure rates are less than stellar.

The other main reason not to build your own computer is that the responsibility for support lies squarely on your own shoulders. No making an (aggravating) call to a company’s support line, no downloading all the drivers you need from their model listing. Of course, if you’re willing to do the research and are knowledgeable about the process of building a computer anyway, you likely are just as capable of solving most of the problems you will encounter on your own, if a quick Google search doesn’t answer it for you.

But I digress…

I set out to build a computer that would last me a long time. This meant I would be wanting some cutting-edge technology like USB 3, but I tried to keep things reasonable because the rate of technology adoption really negates any kind of massive spending in the here and now. However, I figured there was little point in building a midrange computer now because I could just deal with the headaches of an off-the-shelf computer and save a lot of money and get around the same performance.

What I Already Had

Before I checked out what I needed to buy, I took an inventory of what I had. I had been using a mid-2009 MacBook Pro 5.3 and using Boot Camp with Windows 7 most of the time. However, I had been using it basically as a desktop in Windows (hooked up to an external monitor, keyboard, and monitor) and using the better battery life of the Mac OS when I needed it as a laptop. Because of this, I only really needed to buy the components for the computer itself.

The Parts

First off, thanks to the fine folks over at the buildapc sub-reddit for their advice and assistance on purchasing the correct components. I could have really gotten into some serious trouble (both with component compatibility and prices) if I had gone with my gut instinct. So here’s what I ended up buying (mostly from Newegg):

The Case (Cooler Master HAF-X)


On the surface, this seemed like a great idea. Plenty of cooling (almost too much with 200mm fans), lots of expansion bays, the ability to have no gaudy lights on (the front red LED could be turned off; I don’t need random lighting effects coming out of my computer case), USB 3. Newegg users rated this beast five stars and it looked like it would be great. A word to the wise: this case is GIGANTIC. I hadn’t built a computer before, so my experiences with PC cases was limited to the mid-size towers that manufacturers use. It barely fits under my desk. Everything else I ordered shipped in a nondescript cardboard box, but this thing came straight to my front door looking just as if you had picked it off the shelf… the UPS guy looked at it before handing it over and said, “Have fun.” Leaving this at your front door after a delivery is just begging for it to be stolen; it’s totally apparent what is in the box. Unfortunately, this case proved to be the cause of some serious issues down the road.

The Power Supply (Corsair 850HX)


I knew from reading around that it’s a foolish idea to go with an off-brand PSU… they’re more likely to fail early, have less stable voltage levels, and provide less amperage on the 12V rail. I didn’t want to have to hunt around troubleshooting for problems when it was the power supply, so I just went with a reliable manufacturer right away. I chose an 850W power supply because I calculated the system I had to need about 600W and around 750W if I ever decided to CrossFire the GPUs in the future or get a better ATI card. Partly, the immense power requirements of the current NVIDIA cards like the GTX470 drove me away from them and towards ATI (or should I say AMD). Also, the modular cabling was a great asset. There’s no need for me to have random 4-pin connectors plugged in if I’m never going to use them.

The Motherboard (ASUS P6X58D-E)


LGA1366 may be an aging architecture, but I have never used an AMD processor and I didn’t want to start into new territory with my first build. I knew that the best manufacturers for Intel motherboards were ASUS, Gigabyte, and eVGA. I chose ASUS because they had recently updated their LGA1366 offerings by providing a refreshed version of the P6X58D Premium. The differences between the Premium and the -E are one less heat pipe and one fewer ethernet port, as well as an improved SATA 6Gb/s controller from Marvell. I didn’t need any of the missing features and was glad for the price reduction on the newer board so I decided on the P6X58D-E.

The CPU (Intel Core i7-960)


I know, I know, I could have bought an i7 930 and overclocked it like crazy to get the same performance as a 960 for a lot less money. However, this is my first build and I want the performance without risking damage from overheating (as you’ll see, I was right to be concerned!). If I had gone the 930 route I would have needed an aftermarket CPU cooler or some kind of liquid cooling and I didn’t want to have to deal with the issues that might arise there. I guess I paid a price for security on this component, which was by quite a bit the most expensive I ended up putting in this beast.

The RAM (Mushkin Enhanced Ridgeback DDR3 12GB)


I’m still unclear on the whole issue with RAM timings, so I just looked for the lowest timings I could find at the highest frequency from a relatively large manufacturer and said “Be done with it.” 12GB of RAM will probably never be the bottleneck in the system, but that was kind of my goal when I was choosing components so MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

The GPU (Sapphire Vapor-X Radeon HD 5870 1GB)


The more I hear about Sapphire’s support the less I am impressed, but I wasn’t seeing that before choosing this. I didn’t want to go top-of-the-line with the GPU because these things get so out-of-date so fast it makes my inexplicably small head spin (30 Rock reference, anyone?). So I went a step down from the 5970, and then I had to choose between a reference card and another manufacturer. I eventually settled on the Sapphire because of the Vapor-X cooling. From what I read, it kept temperatures a bit cooler than the reference card and I wanted to care a little as possible about cooling issues so it became my GPU of choice.

The Optical Drive (LG Super Multi Blue BD-ROM/DVD+-RW)


While it’s not strictly necessary anymore, an optical drive is still pretty useful for installing software and really it would have been too much of a hassle to rely on USB sticks and disk images. I’ve had a PS3 for a couple of years and so I have some Blu-Rays lying around that would be nice to play on something not tied to a TV. Little did I know how much of a hassle playing Blu-Rays on PC drives really is. It also has support for LightScribe, if I ever decide I need some gimmicky labeling system (not that I really burn discs anymore, I use UNetBootIn for Linux distros and that’s about it).

The System Hard Drive (Western Digital Velociraptor 600GB)


Once again, I chose “old” technology rather than the fancy SSDs that grab headlines. There seems to be some sort of prevalent belief that people building PCs should buy SSDs, even though their $/GB ratio is way above that of hard drives, just so that the price eventually lowers and they can be used by more people. I’m not willing to sacrifice my money so someone else can get parts cheaper in the future (sorry). I chose a Velociraptor because of its high RPM and because I’ve never had a Western Digital drive fail on me (ahem Seagate). Also, it’s a Velociraptor and just sounds epic. I’m using this for Windows and program files (anything that benefits from faster read/write times).

The Media/Backup Hard Drives (2x Western Digital AV-GP 1GB)


The rest of the things on my hard drives can go on these slower, but less power-intensive, drives. I have these in a RAID 0 configuration and am using them for media files (video, music) as well as backups from the C drive, supplemented by occasional backups to the external drive. Hopefully in the future I will get two more identical drives and then make this a RAID 10, which is a much more realistic backup system.

Experience with Newegg

For better or for worse, Newegg is the de facto place to order computer parts online if you’re in the US. It’s a great place to do comparison shopping and read reviews before you buy, but I think this experience has shown me that though it is a convenient place to buy parts, it may not be the best place.
I saved everything in my cart, had the guys over at Reddit look at it, and then was pulling the trigger when I was alerted that the GPU was out of stock. I decided it could wait the few days until it came into stock and bought the rest of the components. When it did come into stock 4 days later, I ordered it but by the time the GPU had arrived disaster had already struck.
I had heard that Newegg was fantastic to deal with when handling warranty problems, but that turned out not to be the case. I contacted them as soon as I knew a part was defective and they immediately passed me off to the manufacturer, saying the warranty was no good if there was physical damage. When I stressed that the damage was not my fault, they continued to send me away, saying that any physical damage at all meant they couldn’t deal with the problem. What point is a warranty if basically any problem you have with the item voids it? I don’t know who had dealt with Newegg in the past about similarly defective components, but their customer service was less than stellar and is enough to prevent me from using them in the future.

The build begins and… disaster strikes

Since I had most of the components, and I figured I was going to be slow assembling the computer as it was my first time, I decided to go ahead and start putting components in the case, testing as I went along to make sure that nothing was wrong.

First in was the PSU, which went in flawlessly and really never gave me any problems (as it really shouldn’t). One interesting thing to note (at least for me) was the orientation of the PSU in the case. The HAF-X has a vent along the bottom and the PSU was able to be mounted either with its fan facing up or down. I ultimately chose the fan facing down (see vote here) because this would expose the fan to cooler air from outside the case and blow it out the back of the case.

Next, I put in the motherboard standoffs and the motherboard itself. This proved to be a bit more difficult than I had expected because there was a bent ring of metal around the keyboard PS2 port, which directly blocked the motherboard aligning flush with the cushioned backplate. You can see this loop below. The loop on my own motherboard was bent in half and curling back upward, which required a bit of work with pliers before being able to be aligned with the backplate.

I have since learned that the purpose of this loop is to provide grounding for the ports so that they are in contact with the rest of the case. My initial inclination that it was just a manufacturing defect and to just remove it was thus best left undone.

With the motherboard in place, I moved to putting in the CPU. This was relatively foolproof as there was really only one way to do it. The stock Intel CPU cooler gave me some pause, however. The shape or pattern of the thermal paste did not look like it would adequately cover all four cores, even when it was spread out when clipped over the CPU.

I figured Intel had their act together and went ahead and clipped the CPU cooler on and plugged in the fan to the motherboard. One complaint here is that the clipping system that the stock CPU coolers use leaves a lot to be desired. It seems it would be very easy for one of these clips to be less than stable and not leave the thermal paste in contact with the CPU.

Next was the memory. I had read that, in order for overclockers to have the most room for CPU coolers, ASUS designed the triple channel memory slots such that the primary slots were the three situated farther away from the CPU, giving an extra centimeter or so of extra space for a CPU cooler, so I inserted the RAM into the blue slots.

At this point I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong so I decided to power on the machine. I hooked up the motherboard to the power supply, connected the case’s front panel connectors to the motherboard, turned on the power supply and pressed the power button on the motherboard.

I heard a small pop, smelled some pretty acrid smoke, and immediately knew something had blown out. I turned the system off and back on, but there was no additional evidence that something was wrong. A bit of hunting around found the problem: the motherboard’s FireWire chip had clearly been damaged when I turned on the system; a couple of scorch marks showed on the surface of the chip.

As soon as I saw the damage, I began to go into the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial: “Nothing’s really wrong with this, I could continue the build and install Windows and it will work just fine!”
  2. Anger: “Well ASUS used some poor quality component and now I’m paying the price!”
  3. Bargaining: “I just want to finish this build and see an awesome computer that I’ve built myself…”
  4. Depression: “Surely this is a statistical anomaly, why did this happen to me?”
  5. Acceptance: “Oh well, I can get a replacement board from Newegg and keep on building!”

The Quest for a New Motherboard

The next day, I contacted Newegg, thinking they would be able to help me out and get me a replacement motherboard. Boy was I wrong.

The Newegg support chat transcript

The gist of what Newegg told me: Since there was any physical damage, even if it was not my fault, they were going to send me to the manufacturer rather than deal with it themselves. So much for the great customer support I had heard about!

I then contacted ASUS to see what they could do. The results this time were just about as bad as they had been with Newegg.

The ASUS support chat transcript

Basically, ASUS was telling me here that the $220 motherboard I had just purchased a week ago and that failed on its first power-up was going to have to be replaced at my own expense for over half its original cost. That’s just great. I also appreciated being quoted parts of the same wiki page that I had found the chat link on. Of course, persistence is a virtue, and so I decided a phone call would get my point across better. I called ASUS customer support in Indiana (not India!) and had a totally different experience. This customer service representative was apologetic and said of course there wouldn’t be a charge, and set me up with an RMA. He was a bit reserved, saying there was always the chance that techs would determine it was user error and I would have to pay at least some repair fee, but nowhere near $120.

So I shipped my motherboard off to California and waited… and ASUS delivered, repairing the motherboard (actually giving me a new/refurbished one, by the serial number and wear marks around the screw holes) and getting me back on track.

Meanwhile, having to replace the motherboard meant I also had to re-do the CPU cooler, as the stock thermal paste was no longer usable after having been spread around while removing it from the motherboard. I ordered some thermal paste (Arctic Silver 5) from Amazon, and after seeing that the HAF-X had an empty slot for a 200mm case fan, I added in an order for an Antec Big Boy, the only 200mm case fan I could find that wasn’t equipped with some crazy LED.

Meanwhile, in Finland I had received the GPU and it fit had no problem fitting into the case. Of course, there was no motherboard so I was just testing dimensions at this point.

A couple of days later, I received the replacement motherboard from ASUS and could continue building the computer.

But wait… there’s more!

Luckily, I didn’t continue building the computer because I would have been out another motherboard. Going on a hunch, I asked on the Toms Hardware forums to see if anyone else had similar experiences. Sure enough, they had. Apparently, the FireWire blowout was not the fault of the motherboard but rather faulty wiring of the front panel on the HAF X. Toms Hardware user Stile posted the incriminating evidence: he had used the HAF X with another motherboard and had suspiciously similar scorch marks on his FireWire chip on his first power up.There was no reason to overthink this (Occam’s Razor): the case is at fault. Upon further review, Stile found that the front panel power switch for the LED case fan had a wire that was punctured by the close proximity of the FireWire pins on the front logic board. If the LED was turned on, it would short the Firewire port, travel through the cable and blow out the FireWire chip on the board.

So I was free to continue building the computer, as long as I didn’t put on the front panel and connect it to the motherboard.

Building the open-case PC

Since I now had the thermal paste and the replacement motherboard, I set out to put the CPU cooler back on. I cleaned off the original thermal paste from both the CPU thermal cap and the heatsink with isopropyl and a coffee filter, and it all seemed to come off relatively easily. Now, since I had never used thermal paste before, I followed Arctic Silver’s “line method”. By this point I had installed the GPU and figured I might as well see what the BIOS had as the core temperature. The results were not impressive. At idle, all the cores were around 60C, far too high for what they should have been, but I was counting on the paste wearing in and them dropping after some time. I put in the hard drives and went on, continuing to install Windows and verifying the readings by running RealTemp. Again, the readings were all around 60C. I installed Battlefield: Bad Company 2, went to the main menu, and watched the temperatures spike to 100C idling at the menu. I knew something was wrong.

It was time for a different thermal paste application. When I removed the heatsink, it was apparent why the temperatures were so high. When clipping on the heatsink, I had left the paste lop-sided (roughly in the shape of a distended 8 ) by pressing on one side before the other. When I tried to remove the Arctic Silver, it became apparent just how much higher quality this was than the stock Intel thermal paste. Trying to remove the paste only led to it filling in the microscopic grooves in the heatsink and thermal cap of the CPU, leaving them looking dull but much better at conducting heat away from the CPU. I decided to try a large (probably too large, in retrospect) blob of thermal paste, about a half a centimeter across, in the middle of the copper part of the heatsink, and applied this to the CPU. The difference was remarkable. Where the core temperatures had been 60C at idle and 100C under load, they were now 40C at idle and a maximum of 70C at load.

The GPU was also running similarly cool, idling at 35C and running in-game at around 55C.

At these temperatures, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to need the Antec Big Boy fan after all. That’s good, because apparently (though it’s nowhere to be found on the product page), the fan only works with Antec cases. Also, it is only meant as a replacement, and doesn’t include any screws for mounting. How useful. Luckily, Amazon is AWESOME (take a hint, Newegg), paid for the return shipping and gave me a prompt refund. Now that’s customer service.

The computer runs great. Everyday computing (programming, e-mail, browsing) is obviously not a problem. But this thing is also a gaming monster. I’ve run StarCraft II, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Mass Effect 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Company of Heroes, Oblivion… everything runs silky smooth on max settings at 1920×1200. I couldn’t ask for more. And the best thing is when this can’t handle something in the future, I can just swap out some components and keep trucking. Take that, laptop!

Other issues

Now that Windows 7 was installed, though the case was still open to the elements, I began to run into some issues.

First, I had no network connectivity. In my haste to build the computer, I hadn’t considered the fact that I would need a ~50-foot ethernet cable to connect to my home network, and so I needed to get a wireless card. I wanted to use the only PCI-e 1x card slot on the motherboard for this, since I saw no other uses for this, and found the ideal candidate in the D-Link DWA-556. I ordered it from Amazon, plopped it into the case, and didn’t even have to look for a driver. Windows 7 proves its mettle once again.

Second, the Blu-Ray drive from LG came with a crippled version of Cyberlink’s PowerDVD. First, and perhaps only annoying if you’re as OCD as I am, is that it will not allow you to remove its icon from the Start Menu. Oh sure, you can try, but restart Windows and it’s back, taunting me. Additionally, it is an old version, and doesn’t allow for surround sound playback. Seriously? It forces you to purchase a ~$100 upgrade to get surround sound playback directly from the disk. I think not. Instead, I found MakeMKV, a brilliant shareware program that extracts only selected audio and subtitle tracks into an MKV that can be played through VLC or Media Player Classic, neither of which forces you to pay for surround sound.

Third, the surround sound did not work immediately. This didn’t come as a great surprise to me, since I had seen these problems in both Windows and Mac with the mini-TOSLINK optical port on the MacBook Pro. On this computer, I tried TOSLINK and coaxial, with many of the same results. Only pre-recorded surround audio (like movies) would output correctly, while dynamic audio (like games) would output in stereo. I began to get discouraged, thinking the Realtek chip wouldn’t be able to do surround sound to output to my 5.1 speakers. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice the massive array of analog ports that eventually accomplished this. After plugging in to the black, green, and orange ports and connecting to the Z-5500 and selecting 6-channel direct input, surround sound was no longer a problem. However, using the 6-channel direct input pre-empted the stereo output being upmixed to surround with Dolby Pro Logic II, like I had experienced with optical connections. The solution to this was a setting called “Speaker Fill” in the Realtek HD Audio Manager. Finally I can use these ridiculously powerful speakers to their full potential when hooked up to something other than a PS3.

All in all, I’d say these issues have been pretty minor and the results were well worth the effort that I had to put into them.

Back to the “case” (har har) at hand

So, I was going to need some support from Cooler Master. This adventure started out well enough, but unfortunately is still ongoing. I contacted support to ask about getting a replacement case. Our first chat established that they would indeed send me a replacement part, and I wouldn’t have to send them anything. Great! This was on August 19, nearly two weeks after starting this build. I was getting tired of leaving the computer open and having to deal with the after effects of a manufacturing defect.

The first Cooler Master support chat transcript

I sent in the part request and waited. I checked almost daily to see if the part request had been updated… nope. So I contacted Cooler Master again on August 25, nearly a week after the part request had been sent in. So apparently Cooler Master had the part in stock, but were waiting a while to send it to me… gee thanks. But at least I was going to get the part eventually, right? I mean, a Cooler Master rep had found another discussion of the problem and admitted it was their problem. Shouldn’t be an issue to send me a replacement part, right? It’s supposed to ship on August 30th at the latest.

The second Cooler Master support chat transcript

On August 31, the part request is still “pending.” I guess it hasn’t shipped. I send an e-mail to Cooler Master. I get no response. Ever.

The Cooler Master support e-mail

The part request is “pending.” Still. I know at this point I won’t get the part from Cooler Master, even though they have damaged my motherboard and caused me a lot of hassle. That’s some classy customer support right there. I do product support for software programs I’ve developed, and I’m personally embarrassed if I don’t resolve support issues after at most a day.

I gave in, unplugged the firewire cable from the front panel so no short would travel to the motherboard, threw some electrical tape over the affected area and put the case together. Nothing gets blown out when I turn on the computer, but it’s like a ticking time bomb. I don’t know if or when anything bad will happen.


The completed PC (and yes, that is a Firefly blu-ray on top :D ):



The resulting lair:


Lessons learned

  • Use Newegg for comparison shopping, not for purchasing
  • Amazon is awesome (more a reinforcement than a lesson)
  • Only get the HAF X if you’re willing to inspect for manufacturing errors
  • Don’t count on Cooler Master support
  • Building your own computer may be challenging, but in the end it’s a great experience

Note: The names of customer support representatives have been changed to protect the innocent/guilty. Unless there really are support reps named “Jimmy Dean,” “Frodo Baggins,” or “Leeroy Jenkins” at Newegg, ASUS, or Cooler Master. If that’s the case, props to you guys for having awesome names.

End of the Nexus One

Google has announced that they are stopping production and soon, distribution of the Nexus One. As a proud owner of a Nexus One, this news saddens me a bit. Google’s bold move into the phone marketplace is generally (and justifiably, considering market penetration) considered to be a failure. But Google’s hands-on approach to the design and functionality of the phone have resulted in what I believe is the “sweet spot” of Android devices on the market today. The introduction of the Nexus One was a precursor to a number of “superphones” (Google’s term, not mine), with a new Android device seemingly toppling the king of the hill each month (the Droid Incredible, EVO, Droid X, Desire, etc). The Nexus One was the first Android phone able to run Android 2.1 (Eclair) and Android 2.2 (Froyo), and paved the way for the rapid expansion of these more advanced builds of the OS, which are approaching and even exceeding feature parity with iOS.

Even as the Nexus One and Android have reached feature parity with iOS, I still view them as only related products and not truly in the same market segment. iOS continues to rely on the computer-tethered syncing paradigm that has existed since at least the late ’90s with the Palm Pilot, if not earlier. Want to download a podcast to your iPhone? Better have a computer handy since you’re going to need to bust out a syncing cable to get it over to your phone. Android never actually has to be hooked up to a computer, not when it comes out of the box and not to sync… a beautiful side effect of storing your data in the cloud. In fact, the idea of computer-based syncing seems antithetical to Google’s ambitions for the platform. While some media syncing options exist (DoubleTwist is a standout option) Android can very easily be used as a standalone device (if and when T-Mobile puts a cap on their “unlimited” data will be a sad day for me indeed). Perhaps this is why Android seems to fall behind iOS in terms of being a media consumption platform. Regardless, I think Android, and to a lesser extent, iOS have broken away from the labels “PDA”, “smartphone” and Google’s regrettable moniker “superphone.” These are devices that have more processing power and capabilities than many home computers, their cameras are increasingly replacing point-and-shoot cameras and video recorders, and their use as a phone is seemingly such a small part of their utility. It’s time for a new name for these devices.

Back to the matter at hand. The Nexus One is ideal for the “have it your way” Android user, with Google pushing updates to the phone well before the carriers have sorted out what bloatware they will package in their own customized updates to the operating system. Additionally, the Android aftermarket developers have rallied to the N1 due to its extensible and open nature (the recent eFuse controversy shows just how fortunate users are that Google had a hand in keeping the N1 from such a fate). Indeed, I am using CyanogenMod 6 on my Nexus One since I find that using such custom ROMs greatly increases the performance of the phone and adds the kinds of awesome features and frequent updates that will continue to keep it fresh for a long time. The Nexus One seems to have been the pinnacle of openness for Android. Though HTC Sense and Motoblur may be all kinds of cool, I’ll take the choice to stay with vanilla Android any day. The recent trend towards bloatware being forced on consumers as a way to subsidize costs (does anyone really need an app to watch Avatar on their phones?) reminds me of the last time I got a new PC and had to reformat to get rid of the cruft. This disturbing practice, though profitable, shifts the emphasis from the consumer’s satisfaction to that of the carriers.

TL;DR-Let me choose how I use my phone. It’s why I chose Android and it’s why I am sad the Nexus One and Google’s open involvement won’t continue to be an example of a mobile ecosystem done right.