The first thing to consider when building the perfect PC is what is the PC going to be used for. A gaming machine will be configured differently from a content creation workstation, and an Internet browser will differ from a CAD station. With what you want to do with the machine in mind, most core components will not change and a user can easily build a reliable fast machine while saving money.
To Overclock or Not to Overclock
Let’s be honest, unless you are a speed freak and having the fastest machine possible is something you desperately need, then a major overclock is not worth the chance of failure. With the arrival of the faster celerons, overclocking has become less attractive then it once was. With a focus on reliability, and stability, this review will only recommend hardware that has stood the test of time and has excellent quality control. While overclocking used to be a great way to get a cheap 450 MHz machine, today the lower yields of the 300a and the presence of a celeron 433 make the gamble a moot point. This article will focus on a non-overclocked system that should meet the needs of most PC users.
Motherboard Equals Soul; CPU Equals Brain
Forget about the brain for now, we all know that personality defines a person, and the soul is the place personalities are born. The motherboard is by far the most important piece of hardware in your computer. Substandard motherboards are responsible for the majority of hardware-related hangs, crashes, glitches, and problems. When you hand pick the components for your computer, make sure you pick a quality motherboard. The listed boards below have proven to be superior and reliable examples of motherboards.
|AOpen BX Based ATX Motherboards|
|Asus BX Based ATX Motherboards|
|SuperMicro BX Based ATX Motherboards|
|Intel BX Based ATX Motherboards|
If you need to save some money, look elsewhere. Motherboard prices on the Internet fluctuate very little among Intel 440BX based models. When looking at the above models, expect a US$20 difference between the lowest priced SuperMicro P6SBA and the priciest Asus P2B. If the models stray too much from US$120, look around for a better dealer.
Picking the right CPU is really the easiest choice you have to make. If you are in dire need of somewhere to save money right now, here is your place.
The budget minded consumers should look at the Intel 366 Celeron processor. This processor comes with the expandability of a mild 75mhz overclock easily in reach and is readily available for well under US$100.
Those with a little more to spend who are looking for more performance should look at the Intel Celeron 400 and 433 processors. These processors are also 75mhz friendly and will give you an awesome price/performance ratio. These processors are available for US$130 – US$200.
For those of you who absolutely must have the fastest thing on the planet, the Intel Pentium III is where you should turn. While the 450mhz PIII is an attractive buy, most people considering building a PIII will probably want to opt for the 500mhz bad-boy. These processors give you the added benefit of Intel’s SSE instructions that promise to be exploited in future software packages. If this is the route you choose, make sure your motherboard supports the 5X multiplier, as do all the previously mentioned boards. The Pentium III Processor ranges in cost from US$450for the 450 to US$650 for the 500.
The reason only Intel 440BX based motherboards are mentioned is because of compatibility purposes. While the Intel 440LX chipset is fine for most celeron-based systems, those of you wanting a celeron 400 today may want a PIII 500 tomorrow. The BX chipset allows for this future expandability without adding much, if anything to the price.
You may have noticed how other chipset manufacturers and motherboard types were avoided in the above list. This was done in the name of compatibility and stability. It has been shown that with regards to AGP performance and compatibility, super 7 based solutions have yet to encroach on the slot one/socket370 standard. As for other slot1/socket370 chipsets, avoid most of them. The Via Apollo Pro, while a good design, still has some stability problems that can be attributed solely to the chipset. There are some other BX clones out there that claim BX compatibility, DO NOT buy motherboards based on these chipsets. Simply because something is cheaper, does not mean it is a better buy.
The Big Picture: Display Chipsets
Picking the right display chipset is all a matter of timing. With the TNT edging in below US$100 the situation right now is pretty much a no-brainer. The problem you begin to run into is when you look toward the future and at specific needs.
With the Riva TNT2, 3DFX Voodoo3, 3Dlabs Permedia3, Matrox G400, and the new Power VR chipsets on the horizon, the question of when to buy is where the dilemma comes in. Surely if you are buying the parts now, a TNT or some lower end chipset will suffice until the new cards hit the market, but is that a wise move? To ensure greatest compatibility with past, current, and future games you have to support Glide, OpenGL via ICD, and Direct3D. As of now no single card supports all three standards well. The 3DFX Voodoo2 and Banshee based cards all support the 3 standards, but lack a full ICD. The lack of an ICD may be unimportant to hardcore gamers, but to a designer or CAD guru, a good ICD is an absolute necessity.
While 3DFX promises a future ICD, another problem that lies in their current chipsets is image quality. At high resolutions the Banshee exhibits a shaky, almost blurry image when compared to cards like the Matrox G200. TNT based cards are also not quite up to par with the G200 based cards. The problems with the Matrox card are poor 3D performance and a lack of an ICD. So if you are a Designer who likes to play games, the catch 22 is, you trade image quality for performance, or you trade performance for image quality, so either way you suffer. If your work is primarily 2D design you can buy a G200 and get a voodoo2 and not suffer from this dilemma. If your work is 3D modeling, get a TNT and deal with the image quality problem. For 3D content creation the TNT is the best card for the money right now.
IDE Rather not Spend the Money on SCSI
The debate of SCSI over IDE made sense in the past, recent developments in the IDE community have dispersed with most of IDE’s shortcomings. With the advent of Western Digital’s new 18 GB Expert drive and Maxtor’s DiamondMax Plus series, IDE has overtaken SCSI in speed. The CPU utilization issue was remedied when UDMA33 drives hit the scene. With UDMA33 IDE drives exhibit ultra low CPU utilization under high stress loads that used to be the domain of SCSI. For the purpose of this review, the benefits of SCSI in RAID use will not be discussed because most end-users are not that anal about data security and the speed of the new IDE drives is easily fast enough for most users. These advancements plus the lower cost of IDE make the decision to buy IDE easy.
When choosing an IDE drive the most important thing to look for is the maker’s reputation. For instance:
Is the manufacturer laying off employees?
Are they making money?
How long is their warrantee?
What terms do they give for returns?
When you return a drive, will they take three months to get you a new one?
Don’t be afraid to check the company’s financial records. Call them up. Ask questions about their warrantee. You can even call them up requesting an RMA and see what kinds of hassle you have to be put through to get one. With those criteria in mind look closely at Maxtor and Western Digital drives. These companies are solid and stand behind their products. Maxtor has an amazing no-quibble warrantee where you call them, get the RMA number, and when they receive you drive they send you a new drive. If the wait is too long, you can even secure the new drive via credit card and they waive the charge when they receive the old drive.
The Truth About Modems
Get a jumpered modem. It really doesn’t matter who makes it, just make sure it has jumpers and is easily configured without a manual. There will be a time when you have to change the settings and you have lost the manual, it happens to everyone. While plug and pray modems alleviate this need, oftentimes the customer buys a cheap modem and is later unable to find drivers for it because there is no company name or identifying marks on the modem. The cheaper the modem the more chance of getting into this situation. Try to stick with name brands, it doesn’t matter which ones.
The Sound Of Music
There are only a few choices in audio cards out there today. It may seem as though you are overwhelmed with audio cards, most of them are cheap junk. If you must pick this arena to save money you could save up to fifty dollars in buying a PCI Yamaha XG based audio card. While this card only supports eight channels of direct-sound, it retails for around US$25.
On the higher end the two choices are a Vortex 2 based card or the Sound Blaster Live. The Vortex 2 based cards are impressive gaming cards, but offer little to the amateur musician outside of excellent sound quality. The SB-Live is an excellent gaming card as well, but is second place in comparison the native A3D 2.0 support of the vortex based cards.
If gaming is not your thing and you fool around with music composition and digital multi-tracking, the SB-Live is the way to go. The SB-Live promises A3D 2.0 emulation support in the future via a software upgrade.
CD-ROM drives are a hot topic lately with True-X technology taking center stage. True-X technology uses multiple beams to read the disk at a constant speed from beginning to end. The benefits of True-X technology are twofold. First, the technology allows faster retrieval of data over the entire disk. Second, because of its multi-beam technology, it doesn’t need to spin the CD as fast as conventional CD-ROM drives. These drives are available at 40X and higher speeds.
If you need to save money here, pick a decent quality 32X or above CD-ROM drive from a reputable manufacturer. Check to be sure that the CD-ROM drive supports everything you need it to. For instance, if you want to do digital audio extraction, make sure the drive you buy supports that at high quality.
RAM and Wrap Up
Picking ram is not quite as easy as it sounds. If you buy ram solely on the basis of price you are bound to be taken for a spin. There are horror stories about people being forced into spending more than advertised for ram “specifically” designed for thier motherboards and such. Just remember that the best consumer is an informed consumer. Being informed is the best way to avoid such scams. When buying ram, make sure you buy from a reputable company and don’t settle for anything less than PC100 memory. If you are buying a celeron that does not require the 100mhz bus, get the PC100 ram anyway, PC133 ram may be just around the corner but you should wait for a standard before buying anything claiming PC133 compliance.
As for the amount of ram to buy, don’t buy anything less than 64. 32MB ram is way too little right now and 64 is scraping the bottom with some of the newer games and applications.
That’s all for the first edition of Building the Perfect PC, stay tuned for future updates and following sections on putting the Perfect PC together (with screenshots) and optimally configuring windows98 and windows NT4 (with screenshots).