Building a DIY Vista PC - part 1)
Die Microsoft! Die!!!
In the beginning - there was store hell... er, a helluva store...
Store (Hell) Bound?
The short story. Well, my lovely daughter needs a new computer and after shopping for one and dealing with sales people who just could not be diverted from their scripted purchasing spiel and just give me the stupid box off the shelf so I can purchase the thing, I gave up and decided to build it myself. Yes, I know, super bad move. Perhaps I have a bad attitude, but I find it completely annoying when a robotic salesperson just cannot stop asking me questions designed to compell me to add more items to my purchase no matter how often I tell them that I just want "that friggin box there" and nothing more, especially advice. I hope the web never gets to the point where you add something to your cart, and some annoying pop-up window comes up with some weenie saying, "Hal, you need a wireless superzorg extreme 802.1000Z wireless Holistic home networking system with that or you cannot possibly experience the Internet properly with this wonderful machine!" Shoot me... OK, rant over, back to the issue at hand.
A masochists tale
I like building computers. Call me a masochist or call me stupid. You can get pretty much the same general specs in a computer for less money by buying it from a major manufacturer. After all, they have quite a bit more volume purchasing power, and buying anything ala carte is going to cost you more than some mass produced cookie cutter box. When the savings arrive is during the upgrade cycle. The key to having an upgrade cycle that saves you money is all in the motherboard. You want a nice new model. Not so new that you are on the bleeding edge, needing to do a bios update* before installing anything important, but new enough that you can at least squeeze out a cpu, video card and memory upgrade in a year or two when the best cpu, video card and memory for your motherboard has dropped in price substantially. Video cards are an area of constant improvement and what is a good "bang for your buck" video card now is going to change dramatically in a year or two, and if you make sure the mother board you buy now supports the latest video card slots you'll be in good shape when it's time for upgrading. The same holds true for your storage components - hard drives and optical drives. CPU's are tricky since the manufacturers get all hot for a new socket quicker than Angelina Jolie adopts children, so you have to stay a bit in touch with developements or you may miss the best time to snag an upgrade at an ideal price. Memory always drops in price, to a point, but once you have very outdated stuff the price goes back up. Try finding memory for that old 486 in the closet lately?
*more on this choice set of words later.
Deciding on the best parts to use is a bit complicated, but there are plenty of forums and reviews to read if you need advice. The parts you want also depend on what types of usage the computer will receive - a general use computer has certain needs while a gaming system has vastly different ones. This computer, being for my daughter, will not be a gaming rig and does not have to be maximized for gameplay. It needs to be reliable, quiet, easy to work with (for my daughter) and easy to work in (for me) . It must be power efficient and very responsive to general computing tasks such as the Internet or word processing while not being too hard to look at. My first impulse was to build a real "girly" computer. I went as far as searching out pink cases, keyboards and mouses. Pretty slim pickings. There were a couple of choices, but nothing available that satisfied my nerdly needs. I can't help it - I have to have parts that are "worth" my time and trouble. Besides, they were not all that attractive in any case. So, the "pink and pretty" idea was quickly scrapped in favor of quality components that were hopefully acceptable for the intended "audience". I did try at least to keep the spikes, chains and fire logos to a minimum.
Meet the Hardware
(Please forgive any perceived "fanboy" (should this be 'fanperson'? - VOTE NOW!) suggestions on brands, feel free to stick with your own favorite brands when building your own stupid computer)
Cooler Master Centurion 534 +Plus
Picking a case is torture. You have to balance "specs" (what motherboard fits) , looks, cooling, ease of working space, features, overall quality and price. When a power supply is included, you have to make sure it has adequate power for your components, is quiet enough and works well with the cooling scheme. Surprisingly some seem thrown in as an afterthought by some manufacturers. The good case manufacturers do a nice job of matching the power supply to the cooling air flow design and the typical components for the case. This case comes with a 430W power supply, which is fine for my purposes, even with a reasonable video card upgrade, higher end core 2 duo cpu and another hard drive. Throwing in the kitchen sink would require a bit more power. It is a great case, mostly assembled without the use of tools, and well designed for quiet, cool operation.
ASUS P5B-VM LGA 775 Intel G965 Express Micro ATX Intel Motherboard
I'm an Asus man. No, that's not like Kramers license plate. Asus is probably the most popular motherboard brand among DIY builders. Yes, there are other excellent brands, but when all else fails I go with them. Gigabyte and Abit are two other favorites among the quality brands, but it depends on what the computer is for. For reliability, features, and generally doing things right I most often stick with them. The P5B-VM is an Asus P5B varient, Socket LGA 775, Chipset Intel G965 Express, FSB 1066/800MHz motherboard that has four DDR2 800 memory slots for up to 8GB of memory. It has ho-hum onboard video which is handy for now, but causes limitations. It is not capable of supporting Quad core, but it should be amendable to a nice new core 2 Duo higher speed cpu model in a year or so. You can also toss in a real nice Video card into the PCIX x16 slot later on. Otherwise it has pretty much all you could ask for at the price. Socket 775 is a lovely thing, as we'll see later. It is a small motherboard, but it has the essentials.
1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x4
2 PCI Slots
4 x USB 2.0 ports in the rear with 6 more internal
1 x IEEE 1394a
1 x ATA100 up to 2 Devices
5 x Internal SATA 3.0 Gb/s ports
1 x External SATA 3.0 Gb/s port
Realtek RJ45 10/100/1000Mbps Network port
Onboard Audio 8 Channels, ADI AD1988 chipset
Intel GMA X3000 Onboard Video Chipset
CPU's Supported: Core 2 Extreme / Core 2 Duo / Pentium D / Celeron
Only DDR2-800 memory supporting JEDEC approved 1.8V operation with timings of 5-5-5 or 6-6-6 is supported on Intel Desktop Boards based on Intel 965 Express Chipsets.
1Gbyte DDR2 Twinx matched pair (2x512MB) Corsair XMS2, 2x CM2X512A-6400 800MHz
Again , there are many great brands of memory, but Corsair is a very reliable choice.
Intel Core 2 Duo E4300* 1.80 GHz 800MHz FSB, 2MB L2 Cache
(*Replaced by *E6300, see text)
A current popular choice, especially for overclockers. We are not going to try much overclocking because of video chipset and advertised Express chipset memory concerns. After all, this is not a gaming rig or HTPC playing back blu ray disks. Intel Core 2 Duo cpu's are currently the price/power/performance leaders by most measures, but lets not fight about it, please.
Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 250GBytes
Here we go again - I'm a "Seagate man". I like the general reliability, quietness and good performance of their drives. For some reason they just seem to patiently wait to be replaced before they die on me. I'm not even sure they do die, I just replace them occasionally with larger ones and stack the old ones up in the closet, or format them and give them away.
Optical DVD/CD Rewritable drive:
NEC Black 18X DVD+R 8X DVD+RW, etc ...
Inexpensive IDE/PATA burner/drive. Should have gone sata, I guess, but I don't see much point in spending too much on a cd/dvd reader/writer at this point unless you are doing an htpc setup. Most cheap cd/dvd rw's die like flies. A year is usually what I expect with highly used drives. Especially when kids are involved. (no offense kids, but you'll stick anything in your optical drive... ) Maybe a reasonably priced HD-DVD or Blu Ray drive could replace this in a year? Well, with a cpu and video card upgrade this system might handle HD video with the latest codecs at decent bitrates. (<- geek talk)
Windows Vista Home Basic 32
Vista - it's pretty, and it's pretty good. What else am I going to use? Linux? Mac osx? Yes, it's certainly possible, but the evil "powers that be" (her mom) demands the same software they use in school. Not that they have Vista - but it is Windows. Besides, I want to check it out before doing a media PC (HTPC) in a few months, when it should be a better time to make one for price, and performance reasons**.
*See the "Die Microsoft Die! rant about Vista Home Basic
**See the Vista HTPC Rant for more about this
The Theory of the Blood Sacrifice
I used to feel as though if I did not cut myself and bleed all over the place during the installation of components in the case it was bad luck. This was probably because those old cases (at least the ones I could afford) were extremely effective at drawing blood from sharp edges on many surfaces, so bleeding all over everything was pretty much par for the course. Now, these new "high end" cases... well my Science!, they are a wonder! Not only don't you need stitches after assembling things, the time it takes to build is cut down to the time it used to take to get an abrasion! My mom could build one!