Need a New Desktop? Build Your Own!

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My new rig. (Image: Brian McLaughlin)
My new rig. (Image: Brian McLaughlin)

Recently, I had a crazy idea. I had identified that I needed a new desktop machine. Ok, needed is a stretch. I wanted a new desktop computer. I had the desire for a more powerful, dedicated, machine that could run some games and handle 3D rendering and other higher-performance duties well. It had to be Windows-based for some of the utilities I wanted to run and didn’t want to bother with VM performance or dual booting. I started looking at the traditional pre-built sites like Dell and even some amazing high-end market providers like Maingear. I was impressed by what I saw, but what I really longed for was something I hadn’t done since about 1992: build my own computer from scratch. It was easy enough when I built a 486 based machine. I was in for a lesson on exactly how much had changed under my nose while I was buying computers in a commodity style.

Now, I’m not going to say I was completely in the dark. I had purchased laptops for home and bigger machines for work, so I was up on the latest technologies, mostly, and knew what I generally wanted.

  • Intel i7 Processor
  • Heavy on the RAM for virtual machines and other needs
  • Solid state drive for a boot disk
  • Powerful graphics card

As I started sourcing parts for my machine I knew the smart money was being spent at three places, Amazon, Newegg, and Microcenter. You might not have a Microcenter near you, but a Fry’s is always a good alternative. I always try and hit up Fry’s when I’m near one. I took my time picking the parts and started watching the sites like a hawk for deals. Some of the parts for my rig were given to me as part of the build from sponsers who wanted me to see how their parts worked in a new rig like mine, but there was a lot of money to be spent still and I tend to like to get good stuff for a good price. You’ll probably already know that you won’t get a lot of “sales” from Amazon, but sometimes you can get good parts on lightning deals and deals of the day. The number of sales Newegg and Microcenter have and the extent of said sales are extraordinary. I was truly surprised.

The processor was a familiar comparison. Back in the early 90s you were looking at AMD or Intel, and today you are still looking at the same two. As I did almost 25 years ago, I went with the Intel and their i7 processor. I would like to show some trade analysis and some really compelling reasons I went with Intel over AMD but they are just not there. I have a smaller computer I built for my kids for things like Minecraft at about the same time with mostly junker parts but went with a new mid-range AMD processor. I am happy with both chip manufacturers and won’t spark a holy war here between the two. One thing I did learn was that most chips these days include a graphics capability in the silicon. If you don’t have a high-demand to put on your graphics, this should be good enough. I also opted out of an overclocking option, as system stability was more important to me in the long run and didn’t want to worry about dialing in my system. Again, arguments could be made both ways, this is just how I went.

Already I could see how the landscape had changed in home-building a rig. Simple choice between manufacturers still, but all kinds of variants of any given processor family. Now that I knew the CPU chipset and footprint, I could buy a motherboard. You need to make sure you buy a board that fits your processor, called the Socket Type. Picking a motherboard was my first real change from all those years ago. Maybe it was my age, but I don’t remember there being this huge selection of board builders. Right now, on Newegg alone, there are sixteen different board manufacturers listed for Intel sockets. I circled on this decision forever. I was becoming a bit manic comparing prices and spec. I decided on an ASRock motherboard, and I am extremely happy with it.

The Samsung 28" 4K Monitor Family I purchased from. (Image: Samsung)
The Samsung 28″ 4K Monitor Family I purchased from. (Image: Samsung)

In the midst of all of this, Microcenter had a sale on a Samsung 4K monitor. Grabbed that and I am not sorry at all. A 28″ screen with that high of a resolution gives me a ton of screen real estate that I end up putting to good use all the time. This also helped narrow in on graphics cards. As I said above, a graphics card is optional these days, but I wanted to drive high-perfomance 3D and to be able to use the processing power in other ways. This is another place where available options are diversified with a hefty list of graphics card manufacturers out there, but a little bit of research shows that there are only two chipset manufacturers integrated into all of the cards: AMD with the Radeon GPU (Graphics Processin Unit) and NVIDIA with the GeForce GPU chipset. I went with NVIDIA as I was incredibly impressed, and NVIDIA was kind enough to send me a GeForce GTX 780 Ti. To say this is a smoking hot card doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. I’ve never played with anything that can work that fast and smooth and sustain it driving a 4K display. I’m really impressed. The full resolution screenshot below from Titanfall gameplay should give you a good idea. Stretched out, native, on a 28″ 4K display just had me mesmerized. I’ve never had a system maxed out like this, and I absolutely adore the capabilities. My 3D Mark scores are just shy of 10,000 for those of you that keep track of that kind off thing.

Titanfall Capture from gameplay on my rig. (Click to go to Full Image)
Titanfall Capture from gameplay on my rig. (Click to go to Full Image)

I thought RAM might be fairly straightforward. Nope. Once you’ve picked a motherboard and decided on overclocking options, it becomes a little easier. The clock speed for the interface between the motherboard and the RAM needs to be taken into account, and you need to make sure everyone plays nicely together. At this point, I don’t remember it being this hard. I pointed to generic parts and went to work on my machine 25 years ago. Now, the options multiply ad naseum. What fits what where becomes a challenge. A spreadsheet helps. Build yourself a spreadsheet. I went with 16 GB of RAM from G.Skill with the highest clock match for my system.

Now one of the things you can swap out fairly easily on a laptop is a hard drive. I had reviewed SSDs for laptops before, and Crucial was kind enough to provide a 238 GB SSD for me to review in my new system. If you haven’t made the swtich to an SSD for your boot disk yet, you really need to consider it. This Crucial drive screams and the system boots in a blink. Any heavy duty file work done on the drive happens incredibly fast. There are some great articles out there on the benefits of going to an SSD, but I can certainly say that the Crucial SSD I am using works great.

Now, if the selection process before had me dizzy with options, I hadn’t seen anything until I went to search for cases and power supplies. Power supplies are still fairly straightforward; get the supply that provides adequate power to your rig. The case market has exploded. I feel like I could pick the general footprint of a case back in the day but not the options like you’ll find these days. It was actually a lot of fun looking through all the options. The case is how you show off what you have and now range from utilitarian to Corvettes. As I researched, Cooler Master kept bubbling to the top. I contacted Cooler Master to ask them some questions, and they were kind enough to provide a case and power supply for my review. The case is a HAF Stacker from Cooler Master. This is a great case as it is designed to be built on, so a separate case is already built in if I wanted to put a dedicated RAID system in and other modules can easily be added with a uniform look to add additional hardware. A Cooler Master V1200 power supply ensures I have plenty of spare power headroom for adding more drives and other features, with thanks again to Cooler Master for the review unit. I haven’t taken the time to really customize the Cooler Master case yet, but I see it in my future.

Writing all that down is like reliving going through all the options again. I could do it a lot faster now that I am back on a solid baseline of what is out there, but I was a little surprised and ashamed at how much had changed that I hadn’t kept up with. But if sourcing parts has become a bit more cumbersome, the ease of installation more than makes up for the pain.

Building a computer was a labor of love back in the stone ages. You had to get your cards all set up with the right IRQ and other settings, boot, see what wasn’t working or recognized. Change some settings. It could be a pain. I remember pain. Jump to 2014 and an array of collected parts around my workbench. Everything just went together. No fuss. Getting some of the sequencing right can be tricky to make sure everything fits in the case properly, but that’s about it. It was less than two hours of actual assembly and the rig was together, up, running, and installing Windows 7.

The process was a blast. As much as I may feign complaining about the number of options and configurations available, it has been a blast really knowing what is inside my rig. No opening it up and being surprised by something I find. I know all the parts and upgrade paths at the parts level rather than having to buy a whole new rig. My rig ended up on the expensive end at a value of around $2800, but you don’t have to go high-end. As I mentioned before, I built a lower-end machine for my kids around the same time with a spare case from a friend (Thanks, Jamie!) and a new motherboard, CPU, and RAM for less than $400. If you’re in the market for a new desktop system and you have the time, try building your own rig. I look forward to doing it again in a couple years to upgrade my kids’ machine as they need new capabilities and doing it with them. It is a great learning opportunity and a lot of fun! Roll up your sleeves and make that machine your own!

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