Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cooling your PC: Water Cooling

Disclaimer:  It should be noted upfront that this post mainly concerns cooling with an eye toward overclocking.  If you intend to keep all of your components at stock clocks, it's unlikely you'll need to bother with aftermarket cooling of any kind.  If your intent is to utilize aftermarket cooling to achieve a near silent PC, please ask in the thread for recommendations.

As mentioned in the last post, cooling your PC realistically comes down to Air or Water for those of us who don't feel like hacking up a refrigerator or utilizing Peltier effects.  If you decide on "Water," you need to know that you're looking at two options built on an identical process, with significant differences in design.  The decision comes down to a choice between a custom water cooling loop, or a "closed-loop" cooler.

Custom water-cooling encompasses a vast and varied market of products.  There are 4 main components for a custom loop, a radiator, a pump, a reservoir, and "waterblocks."  The function of the radiator, pump, and reservoir are relatively self-evident.  "Waterblocks" or just "blocks" are heatsinks applied to the various components in your PC for water to run through.  These include the most common components, CPU and GPU blocks, and more esoteric products, like waterblocks for motherboard chipsets, RAM, and even HDDs.  The basic idea of a water cooling loop is that a liquid (distilled water, or another liquid coolant) is pumped from the reservoir, through a tubing into waterblocks, where is draws heat away from the blocks and into the flowing liquid, which then leaves the blocks and enters the radiator, where the liquid is cooled, before heading back through the pump to the reservoir, etc. etc.

Because liquid is a significantly more effective conductor of heat than air, and because custom-loop radiators often have significantly more surface area than an air-cooler, water-cooling is a significantly more effective method of cooling your CPU and GPU(s).   Components like drives, RAM, and your motherboard chipset don't usually demand more than passive cooling, so they are usually the last components to be considered for inclusion in a loop.

The main advantage of custom water-cooling is that it's a more effective method of cooling PC components, especially in higher overclocks.  Because of the sheer surface area of some radiators, lower amounts of airflow are often required to go through the radiator, which results in many custom loops being quieter (relatively speaking) than higher end air cooling setups.

Disadvantages of custom loops include expense, which is usually significantly in excess of even the highest end of air-cooler designs.  A custom water cooling loop requires significant research to develop the knowledge and skills to ensure it is built correctly.  A custom loop also generally requires much more significant time investment in the building stage, first when installing the loop and then when leak-testing the loop.  Custom loops also require regular maintenance, in excess of the standard dust removal procedures, including regular refilling, and (depending on the liquid used an precautions taken) cleaning of the loop.

Recommendations:  Discussing and recommending custom water cooling kit could be an entire blog unto itself.  I'm not qualified to make particularly good recommendations on this score, but I can point you to some good resources if asked.

Closed-loop coolers and custom loops are based on an identical set of components.  Just like a custom loop, a closed-loop cooler has a pump, radiator, reservoir, block, and tubing.  The difference is that a close-loop implementation combines some of the elements (usually a reservoir/radiator combo and a pump/block combo) and then seals the entire thing up.

Closed-loop coolers are almost universally CPU coolers.  A few specialized GPUs are sold with closed-loop water coolers for cooling, but this is a relatively recent implementation that hasn't yet become widespread.  Asetek and Coolit are the OEMs behind the vast majority of closed-loop solutions, most (if not all) retail closed-loop implementations are rebadges of their products, or products designed and produced for the retailer by these OEMs.

Closed-Loop products are favored by many "boutique" PC retailers (like Cyberpower) as ideal solutions for gaming PCs.  They're often as quiet, if not quieter, than traditional air cooling setups, and allow them to advertise that the CPU is water-cooled without the time, mess, and expense of a custom cooling loop.  By virtue of their design, closed-loop coolers are much less prone to leakage than custom loops, and don't require maintenance (aside from standard dust removal measures).  Because the waterblock/pump assembly is so small compared to virtually any good air cooler, closed-loop solutions are excellent for situations where you wish to avoid RAM clearance issues, or have limited clearance above the CPU socket (as in many small-form-factor cases).

Disadvantages for closed-loop products include price/performance.  Many budget-friendly air coolers will match or outperform a significantly more expensive closed-loop cooler.  In general, the best air-coolers will outperform the best closed-loop coolers.  Depending on case design, the reservoir/radiator may cause clearance issues with various components.  A closed-loop cooler is not competitive with custom water cooling loops.  A custom loop generally has more liquid, a better pump, less restrictive blocks and tubing (which improves liquid flow and cooling capacity) and significantly more radiator surface area.

Recommendations:  I prefer the newer generations of Corsair closed-loop coolers.  They combine solid installation (as opposed to the ludicrous circular ring mount of earlier efforts) with solid performance and a fairly good range of prices.  The H60 is a basic thin-rad, single fan setup.  The H80 has a thicker radiator and 2 fans.  The H100 is the highest end, boasting a 240mm radiator and 2 fans (with a max of 4 fans for push/pull).  If you want a closed-loop cooler, pick the one that best fits your needed level of cooling and maximum level of expense.

Cooling your PC: Air Cooling

Disclaimer:  It should be noted upfront that this post mainly concerns cooling with an eye toward overclocking.  If you intend to keep all of your components at stock clocks, it's unlikely you'll need to bother with aftermarket cooling of any kind.  If your intent is to utilize aftermarket cooling to achieve a near silent PC, please ask in the thread for recommendations.

Cooling your PC comes down to a pretty simple decision: Air or Water.  For those inclined to nitpick, there is also:

Phase Change
Peltier (TEC)
Liquid Nitrogen
"Bong" Water Cooling
Mineral Oil Bath

These options are extremely expensive and very time consuming, and all require at least some modification to case and components.  Phase Change, TEC, and LN cooling are all sub-ambient cooling methods (that is, they cool the processor to below the ambient temperature of the room) and as such can produce potentially damaging condensation, which requires the application of insulation and other motherboard modification to ensure safe operation.

As you might be able to tell, this leaves air or water cooling (or some combination of the two) as the only really feasible options for most home builders.  We'll start with air cooling.

Air cooling is a relatively simple setup.  You should start with a solid case for air cooling.  Some cases (the Corsair Obsidian 700D/800D for example) are very water cooling oriented, with relatively unimpressive air cooling performance.  Cooler Master's HAF series of cases are good air cooling performers, as is the CM690 II (which is also a solid mid-tower for custom water cooling).  Lian Li makes some good mid-towers with adequate intake and exhaust setups.  Fractal Design's R3 and Arc Midi have room for a very nice air cooling setup.  Silverstone's FT02 is a good, but very expensive, option.  After choosing your case, component cooling is your next stop:

CPU:  There are a boatload of different options for air cooling your CPU.  At lower budgets, the Cooler Master Hyper 212+ is a favorite, and the Xigmatek Gaia has recently arrived to solid reviews.  For a bit more, the Scythe Mugen 2 or 3 is a good option, as is the Xigmatek Balder (an updated, push/pull compatible version of the well-liked Black Knight cooler).  On the high end are the Prolimatech Megahalems and Thermalright Venomous X.  If you really want to go for broke with air cooling, the Noctua D14 or Cogage Arrow are your go-to coolers.

GPU:  Your graphics card comes with a perfectly acceptable cooler already applied.  Depending on the make and model of the card, it might be a relatively staid reference cooler, or a tri-fan non-ref monstrosity that just demands that you overclock.  Whatever cooler your card ships with will suffice for the clocks it ships at, unless your case is some kind of heat-trapping, dust laden hellhole.  Aftermarket GPU cooling options also exist, though I don't know enough about them to recommend one above another.

Drives:  Generally speaking most internal drive bays are placed by the front intake fans to receive cooling.  There's generally little need to do more here, unless you have high density internal 3.5' bays and are really loaded up on drives.  In such a case a couple of fans ghetto mounted to the side of the cage opposite the intake fans will likely improve airflow enough to maintain safe drive temps.

Motherboard:  Most enthusiast motherboards are heavy enough on power phases, with big enough heatsinks that they can be cooled passively by whatever air flows over the motherboard via case fans.  Side intake fans, downdraft CPU coolers, and small fans for chipset spot cooling are all good options if your motherboard is overheating.

RAM:  If your CPU cooler allows for it, you can purchase RAM with nice tall heatspreaders, which will help more efficiently disperse heat.  Corsair and others do sell special fan attachments for RAM spot cooling.

Advantages of air cooling include relatively simple installation (in that only a CPU actually requires you to do more than simply install the component correctly).  For a fairly simple method, performance is generally quite solid, especially with newer components.  From a price/performance standpoint, it demonstrates solid value.

Disadvantages mainly have to do with air cooling's limitations.  While it has improved over the years, there are practical limitations to air cooling that cannot be circumvented.  The sheer size of air cooling (tall RAM heatsinks, big passive chipset heatsinks, massive CPU coolers, and double and triple slot GPU coolers) can cause clearance issues if not properly planned for.

So what we've seen so far is that air cooling is the most common, and in some senses the most versatile type of PC cooling available to you.  We'll be taking a quick look at water cooling soon.

Beyond the Basics

What kind of computer are you building?

For most (if not all) of you, the answer will be "one to play games and do some other stuff on," and that's perfectly alright. A gaming PC does a damned fine impression of a jack of all trades. They have enough CPU/GPU horsepower to keep up with Photoshop, transcoding/encoding of video, to watch HD video, and to web browse and use productivity apps without trouble. You might not be rendering a lot of 3D graphics (well, not quickly) but a well-built "gaming" PC will cover the vast majority of any user's needs.

But there are also other builds you might be looking at; supplemental, purpose built computers that will give you the ability to do things you couldn't or wouldn't want to do with your gaming PC. The thread isn't necessarily there just to help you build your latest Crysis-crushing monstrosity, there's a lot of knowledge on offer for other kinds of builds:

Home Server/NAS: I've gotten to the point where I feel like any home network that doesn't have at least some form of networked/shared storage is basically an entirely useless exercise. Even a shared folder on a PC is better than nothing. However, what you really want is a Server/NAS (Network Attached Storage) for use on your home network. A Server/NAS is going to give you a space on your network to store media (music, movies, maybe ebooks) system backups and basically anything else that you want to share across your network, or don't want to keep on an internal drive. You'll even be able to stream media to computers connected to your network. A full-fledged home server is on the more substantial end in terms of functionality, you can run a website or FTP server from one, or set up remotely activated torrenting along with loads of other services for media streaming on your network and the like. Comparatively speaking, a NAS is generally more simple and less feature rich, particularly in terms of user interaction with the system, but popular open source (FreeNAS) and for-purchase options (unRAID, for example) have a number of add-ons and features available that allow them to do many of the things you might expect from a system running a full-fledged server OS, without the full server OS.

A Server/NAS can be a very basic 1 or 2 drive machine built out of an older PC you don't use anymore, or it can be a small form factor purpose-built machine that can hold 5 or 6 drives. It can even be a tower or rackmount build designed to hold 15-20 drives in hot-swap bays. And after you make the initial investment in building the server, additional storage is significantly cheaper than buying external drives (another common backup/storage strategy).

HTPC: Your entertainment center is the natural habitat of the HTPC (Home Theater PC). An HTPC can come in many different forms, from a small, low-powered, mostly passively cooled machine to a larger build that can incorporate full-sized components. Primarily, an HTPC is connected to your home network and the internet, so you can stream shared content on your network, or get your media fix via the internets. An HTPC can even supplant other devices if you include a Blu-Ray drive or a TV Tuner. If you build in enough horsepower, you can even use yours as a kind of game console. Naturally, you can use essentially any PC as an HTPC (just hook it up to your TV via HDMI), but a purpose-built machine will integrate better aesthetically with the rest of your A/V equipment, and may be quieter or otherwise better for use in your entertainment center.

Workstations: Computers for professional work (high-end photo and/or video editing, 3D graphics work, CAD, etc.) often have significantly different hardware demands vs. a run-of-the-mill PC. CPU horsepower is more highly prized, so this is the natural habitat of the 2700K, or basically anything on LGA2011. Depending on what you're doing, you might want specialized video cards designed for 3D modeling, high end rendering, or even GPU compute. Workstations often vary in component choice significantly based on what you need, so you'll want to spend some time in the thread narrowing down your needs and what hardware will work best for you, but the end result is that you won't have to overpay for a Mac Pro.

If you have any interest in a build like those above, or maybe something even more esoteric, please join us in the thread!

How To: Take Your 600T Build up a Notch

The 600T is a great case for cable management, with its grommeted cutouts and capacious behind the tray area, so it's easy to do a solid job with what I'll call "practical" cable management.  That is, cable management that gives you the practical advantages of unrestricted airflow and less tangled mess in your PC internals, but likely isn't particularly concerned with aesthetics.  The purpose of this how-to is to give 600T owners an idea of how to knock things up a notch from mere practicality.  Our goal is to arrange our internals in such a way that all the practical benefits of cable management are retained, while simultaneously achieving a "clean" internal aesthetic (one that will look great when viewed through your case window, 600T SE owners!).  This isn't exhaustive or definitive, there are loads of modifications that you can do (with or without tools) that can help you achieve an aesthetically pleasing PC (internally and externally).  I'm going to focus mainly on some very basic concepts that can help with getting a "clean" look.

Every clean build starts with cable management, so below are some rules, tips, tricks, etc. that should assist in really nailing that part of your build.

Make sure you've got the right tools for the job.  Grab a lot of zip-ties (I prefer black), enough to tie down your cables 2 or 3 times over.  Trust me, you'll be changing or moving or adding cables to various bundles behind the tray, and you don't want to run out of zip-ties.  Also pick up some side-cutting pliers.  Many pairs of needle-nosed pliers have side cutting blades as well, but I prefer a pair with just blades for cabling work, they're easier to use overall.  If you like, you can pick up a few cable tie-down dealies, but I've found those already present in the 600T to be adequate.

Minimize visibility of cables coming from the PSU.  Pull those cables all the way through the grommet, don't leave any extra cables or slack hanging around there.  If you have a non-modular PSU and can't fit everything behind the tray, get the cables bound up tightly.  Keep the bundle near the back of the supply, but not directly on the PSU vent (if it has one there).

Try to keep those cables away from empty spaces in the motherboard tray.  Your objective is always to minimize the visibility of cables, even if they're completely out of the way of airflow. 

Minimize the slack in your cables as they come out from behind the motherboard tray.  So, if it takes 4 inches of cable to reach whatever socket it's powering, you should see only 4 inches, not 6.  Once again, we should see as little of the cables as possible.  Don't worry if the cable has to make a pretty sharp turn to make it into the socket, cables in quality PSUs have good, thick wires that can handle serious abuse, so a couple of bends are not a big deal.

Buy SATA cables of the length you need.  So an 18'' cable is probably most appropriate for your optical drive, but you can likely get away with a 12'', 10'' or shorter SATA cable to your storage drive(s) depending on positioning.  This isn't a huge deal, but it can help keep cable clutter down just a bit, as you won't have a lot of extra slack to bind up and keep out of the way.

If you'd like to take your cabling up another level, you can invest in sleeved extensions.  These are special cable extensions where the individual wires are single-sleeved and heatshrinked into the sockets.  This can provide a particularly good looking cabling job, but you'll have to deal with the additional length provided by the extensions.

If you [i]really[/i] want to kick things up a notch, you can sleeve your PSU.  If your PSU has hardwired cables, you'll have to void the warranty to accomplish this.  If you have a fully modular PSU, and can obtain a spare set of cables, you can have a set available (should you have to RMA the supply) and an extra set to sleeve.  Some online stores offer sleeving services, and PC related forums with strong modding communities sometimes have members who will sleeve your PSU for a fee.  Alternately, you can purchase the sleeving material and heatshrink and do the job yourself.  It's time consuming and tedious, apparently, but if you do it right the results are hard to argue with.

Also consider some other steps.  If you're only running 3 drives, take out one of the cages.  If you're up for it, you can take the front cover of the case off and remove the stand that the drive cages are mounted on.  You won't be able to have drives there, but if you only need 1 cage you can just move it to the designated spot next to the PSU.  Consider forgoing an internal optical drive, instead use an external drive.  It's easier to use (mine sits closer to me, right on my desk) and makes the PC look a bit better.  Alternately, you can buy a drive cage that fits in your 5.25 inch bays, and have your internal optical drive paired right above your drives, completely clearing the floor of the case, and (depending on the drive cage you use) giving you a 120mm fan in some of your optical bays.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn't meant to be a definitive look at what to do with your 600T.  Still, putting some of the basic steps here into practice can give you an idea of what a little time and elbow grease can accomplish, even without lots of modification to the original case.  And, really, if you're spending ~$150 on a PC case, I feel like you should definitely put some effort into the "looks" side of things.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bulldozer: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's been a good long while (my apologies) but we recently had a major new processor launch (though not a chipset launch, AM3+ boards of varying feature sets and expense levels have been available from most vendors for months now) so I thought I'd toss out some thoughts.

To be brief, so far Bulldozer really doesn't seem to be worth your time or money, especially for those of you poised to purchase something in the 2500K area.

To give it the long treatment, I'll start by saying that I wasn't too keen on Bulldozer.  The 8-core approach (at least for the "high-end" SKUs), while certainly ideal for those of us who really love heavily threaded applications, really doesn't do much for the vast majority of us who are building gaming PCs.  Without per core performance closer to that of Intel's Sandy Bridge chips (and many benchmarks indicate that, on a per core basis, Bulldozer fails to significantly outperform AMD's own Phenom II lineup) the reality is that Bulldozer wasn't going to be a compelling choice over Intel's 1155 lineup without a serious price advantage.

Unfortunately, that price advantage has failed to materialize.  For users with heavily threaded applications (which does not include the vast, vast majority of games, or most standard consumer productivity apps) the 8150 might represent a relatively inexpensive way to get 8 real cores, but a Phenom II X6 will likely provide you with the majority of that performance at lesser cost.

Bulldozer does emerge victorious in instances of really heavily threaded workloads, but most users really don't experience those kind of workloads with enough regularity to make it worthwhile, especially when Sandy Bridge offers such compelling per-core performance advantages.  Newer iterations of AM3+ based CPUs may offer the kind of competition we'd like to see from AMD, but for now Bulldozer is a product destined for niche users and those who absolutely refuse to be parted from their AMD products.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Visual Guide to PC Components Pt. 2: Power Supplies

Well, it's been over a week since I posted something and I feel bad, so here's a quick one to tide people over.  I'm still working on posts regarding CPU cooling, building in the 600T, and I'm pulling together parts for a build I plan to sell, which I'll also be using to provide a detailed photo (maybe video?) guide on PC assembly and cable management.  Stay tuned for that.

I'll forgo the lengthy introduction a second time.  Suffice it to say that the guide below is intended more for neophytes than experienced builders, and I could never be accused of being a photographer.

Power Supply: Antec High Current Gamer 520W


Pay no attention to the accumulated detritus of (what seemed like) a thousand CPU cleanings.  God I hate thermal paste.

Anyway, what you see above is a very solid 80+ Bronze certified PSU from Antec's more budget-friendly High Current Gamer line.  Internally, it's a Seasonic S12II Bronze 520W PSU.  A very solid choice for any number of low to mid-range setups.  We'll be taking a look at the various cables to give you an idea what goes where in your PC build.

24 Pin Motherboard Power


As noted in the first part of this series (duo-logy?) the 24 Pin cable plugs into your motherboard and provides power to motherboard components, CPU, and expansion cards.  It's rather significant (as you might imagine), and easily the largest, thickest, and most unwieldy of PSU cables.  The plugs containing the pins are shaped, and the connector itself has a latch on one side, ensuring proper orientation.  All PSU connectors have such features in some regard.

8 Pin CPU Power


Labelled as an ATX12V or EPS12V connector, these cables are plugged into the motherboard near the CPU socket and provide power directly to the CPU.  These are a relatively new addition to PSUs (compared to Molex or Motherboard connectors, that is) and are necessary to feed higher-end CPUs.  Lower wattage CPUs will usually only have 1 of these 8-Pin connectors, while higher wattage models will include 2 (for motherboard designs with extremely large numbers of power phases, or dual CPU sockets).  The ATX12V connector is usually split into two 4-pin connectors, one of which is used if the motherboard only has 4-Pin CPU power, while the EPS12V connector is usually a solid block.

6+2-Pin PCI-E Power

PCI-E power connectors come in two flavors, 6 Pin and 6+2 Pin.  6+2 Pin connectors deliver more power, and are seen on more demanding video cards.  The Antec HCG 520W features two 6+2 Pin connectors.  Lower wattage units might feature 6 Pin connectors (or only a single PCI-E Power connector, 6 or 6+2 Pin) while higher wattage units will feature more connectors, sometimes mixed between 6 and 6+2 Pin connectors.  These connectors plug directly into the video card.  The 2 additional pins on a 6+2 connector are not fused to the first 6, so as to avoid fitment issues on video cards only requiring 6 Pin power.

SATA Power


 

SATA Power connectors are specifically for SATA drives.  This includes Optical Drives, Hard Drives and Solid State Drives.  They generally come on "chains" from your PSU, with multiple connectors per cable.  This can be irksome, if you only need one connector, or a godsend if you need multiple connectors arrayed closely together, for multiple hard drives in a single cage, for example.  The connector is L-shaped internally, to ensure proper orientation.

Molex (4 Pin) Power

 

Molex connectors are some of the oldest connector designs on your PSU.  These have been around forever, even the motherboard connector has seen pins added (from 20 up to 24).  Molex used to power drives, but SATA power has relegated them to an auxiliary role.  If your motherboard has auxiliary power connectors, or you need to power a water cooling pump, a fan controller, a fan directly from your PSU, a strip of LEDs, etc. then you're probably looking to use Molex connectors.

Floppy Disk Power

 

This is an essentially obsolete connector used specifically to power those old 3.5 inch Floppy Disk Drives.  Some PSUs still have a single one for the sake of users with legacy hardware, or include an adapter for the same purpose.  For any modern computer, they're worthless, and I'm a little irritated with Antec for hardwiring one to this PSU.

And with that we've basically covered every connector that will come out of a modern PSU.  For more advice on choosing a PSU, take a look at other posts related to power supplies on this blog, or ask in the thread.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How To: Avoid a Terrible PSU

Now, in the basic primer post I made for PSUs and Cases I laid out some solid buying strategies for PSUs.  Basically, use reviews from reputable sources to keep up with information about manufacturer's and their product lines.  This strategy will ensure that you get a quality PSU as long as you're willing to do the research.

But let's say you're on a strict budget.  You don't want to find a quality 500W PSU, you need to find the cheapest quality 500W PSU to buy.  Budget-friendly units usually don't get reviewed, because there's not a lot of good advertising to be had from a line like "Performance is good, and it's cheap as hell."  High-end units get sent to reviewers for free.  Lower-end units they often have to buy themselves, which they try not to do much of (for obvious reasons).  This doesn't mean every low-cost unit is a lemon, but it can be hard to separate the good from the bad.  And picking the good ones comes down to research, building up some knowledge, and buying at the right time, none of which are activities I can distill down into post form for you.

However, I can help you know which PSUs to absolutely avoid.  What's left won't be the cream of the crop, but narrowing the field never hurts.  Without further ado:

  • Read Reviews:  Yeah, yeah, I know what I said.  The truth is that while reviews for low-end PSUs are generally less common, they're far from non-existent, and it's worth at least checking to see if someone has blown up the PSU trying to draw its rated wattage in a test environment.
  • Lack of 80-Plus Certification:  Merely possessing some level of 80-Plus Certification is not an indication of quality.  However, lacking it means that the PSU is either an old design, an inefficient one, or both.  Even if performance is adequate (which is unlikely, under the circumstances) you should avoid such PSUs.
  • Passive PFC:  You can immediately tell if a PSU has Passive PFC by checking the back grill where the socket is located.  If the PSU has a switch to change between 110V and 230V, it's a Passive PFC supply.  By contrast, Active PFC supplies automatically adjusts the power draw of the PSU to conform to the voltage of the outlet you're using.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with Passive PFC from a design standpoint, but it's an old design used primarily because it's cheaper, neither of which are good signs.  Plus, Active PFC is hugely convenient.  To be fair, though, it's difficult to appreciate the convenience until you've moved to Europe and detonated at least one supply.
  • Bullshit Labels:  The PSU's label should show amperage information for all of the rails on the PSU, along with information on the maximum wattage pull for the various rails by themselves and combined.  If it doesn't, it's either a shoddy PSU intentionally mislabeled , or an ancient design, neither of which are good. 
  • Fan Control Knobs:  Unless you're looking at a high-end unit (the Antec TPQ-1200 OC, for example) the presence of fan control knobs likely means that the maker of the PSU you're looking at cheaped the hell out.  The simple fact is that popping a basic fan in a unit along with a knob and a potentiometer is cheaper than the basic thermal monitoring and PWM circuitry necessary to have a fan that auto-adjusts to temperatures.  Quality supplies don't need your input.
  • High 3.3V/5V Numbers:  During the era of the ATX 1.X standard, PSUs were based on the 5V as their main voltage, with the +12V rail powering the CPU and little else.  The ATX 2.0 spec brought the change to +12V as the main rail, and ever since PSU companies have been marginally beefing up their 12V rails, adding the necessary connectors, and marketing their old supplies for use with today's computers.  Fortunately for you, the PSU label will at least tell you the amperages on the rails in question.  When you see 5V or 3.3V amperages higher than +12V amperages, you know you're dealing with an old design that's not worth your money.
  • Price:  Price can clue you in to a PSU being a quality model.  For example, if you're looking at 400W PSU for around $40.00, that shouldn't ring any alarm bells, there are solid supplies at that price around that wattage.  If you're looking at a 600W PSU for that much, that just screams "too good to be true!" all over the place.
  • Don't Use the PSU That Came With Your Case:  Seriously, don't.  Unless you bought something like an Antec Sonata, and know all the information of the retail PSU within (and know it to be a solid model) don't plug that piece of shit in.
That's all I've got for now.  Expect a "Part 2" when/if I come across additional egregious PSU shenanigans.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Video Cards: Yes, they can run Crysis

12-25-2012: Some of this information is still useful in a general capacity, but much of it is somewhat outdated.  You can find a more recent version of the post here.

Ah, Graphics.  The vast majority of you will spend as as much (or more) money here as you will on any other single part of your build.  That's a good thing, most games these days demand more from your graphics hardware than they do from anything else in your system.  If you want to encode/transcode video, or edit photos, or render 3D graphics, you need CPU horsepower.  If you want to game, you need just enough CPU not to hold your GPU back.

When recommending a gaming PC build, I generally advise a CPU/GPU combination with at least a 1:1 ratio in terms of expense.  For example, if you're going to run an i3-2100, I'd recommend at least a Radeon 5770/6770.  If you're going to run an i5-2400, I'd recommend at least a Radeon 6850/nVidia GTX 460 1GB.  If you're going to break with that ratio, do so in favor of the GPU. That is, go with an i3-2100 and a 6850, not an i5-2400 with a 5770.  Don't worry about your CPU bottlenecking your GPU, even a relatively lowly Core2Duo can still crunch enough numbers to avoid restricting most modern GPUs.  More recent budget processors are significantly more powerful, and even less likely to restrict your graphics hardware.

With all that said, it wouldn't be a GPU discussion if we didn't cover what I'm going to refer to as "The Ever-War".  Since what seems like the dawn of time, ATi (eventually bought and then absorbed by AMD), nVidia have been battling it out over the graphics card market.  The conflict has caused some collateral damage to less worthy combatants (3dfx, Matrox, S3...) but serious competition has bred serious horsepower.  The current generations of AMD and nVidia cards are well matched, relatively efficient, and impressively powerful even at lower price points.  I would advise prospective buyers to leave their biases at the door when choosing hardware here.  I've heard complaints about nVidia hardware, ATi/AMD drivers, and on and on.  What it boils down to is performance, choose the best performing hardware you can afford.  If you're looking at comparable AMD and nVidia cards, find out which one does a better job running the games you want to play.

In my recommendations below, I've highlighted what I think are some of the best options at various price points.  Where possible I've included both AMD and nVidia options. At times, there is simply no comparison, and you'll only see cards from a single manufacturer.  Prices are mentioned only in general, as video cards come from various manufacturers in many different models, and go on sale frequently.  I've noted some cards that seem to frequently price drop into a different range where necessary to make sure people are on the lookout for good deals.

~$125 - AMD Radeon 5770/6770: This is really the only option at this price range.  Nvidia's competition, the GTS 450, simply isn't as good as the 5770.  The 6770 is a cynical OEM rebadge of the classic 5770.  If you can find it for a comparable price to the 5770, go for it, but there's really no difference between the cards.

~$150 - AMD Radeon 6790 / nVidia GTX 460 768MB: These two cards run neck and neck, generally, and which you choose comes down to specific game performance and price.  Keep in mind that, depending on sales/combos you might be able to find either the 6850 or 460 GTX 1GB for around $150.

~$175 - AMD Radeon 6850 / nVidia GTX 460 1MB: Much like the $150 category, both of these cards have very similar performance levels, and the differences are largely in whether a particular game was designed in such a way as to favor one manufacturer over another.  One significant difference is that most 6850 models require only a single 6-pin PCI-E connector, whereas the 460 1GB requires 2 and is more power-hungry in general.  Keep that in mind when purchasing.  Also, do not buy a 460 GTX SE, it's a lobotomized budget model of the card and isn't worth your money.

~$200 - AMD Radeon 6870 / nVidia GTX 560: The GTX 560 is generally the better performer over the 6870.  Not by an excessive amount, necessarily, but it's a more clear definition than at the $150 or $175 price levels.  Fortunately, the 6870 generally goes for less than the GTX 560, which makes the value comparable.

~$250 - AMD Radeon 6950 1GB / nVidia GTX 560 Ti: Here the 6950 1GB is the superior performer.  The 560 Ti is a good card, and can often be found slightly cheaper than the 1GB version of the 6950.  Either card is a good value, and both have similar power requirements.

~$350 - 2x AMD Radeon 6850 / 2x nVidia 460 GTX 1GB: Sometimes the best graphics card for the money is 2 of them.  Crossfire and SLI are no longer immature technologies with limited support and poor scaling, these days any game worth its salt supports both of these multi-GPU solutions, and scaling is very impressive.  These setups offer GTX 580 levels of performance for a significant discount, even when you consider the expense of an SLI/Crossfire capable motherboard.  If both the 6850 and the 460 GTX 1GB are selling for roughly the same price, the 6850 CFX is the cheaper option, due to its lower power requirements.  If you prefer a single card option, then look at the GTX 570, the GTX 560 Ti w/ 448 Cores, or the Radeon 6970.

Options on the low and high end: Lower end GPUs are numerous. Let us know your intended resolution in order for us to offer the best price/performance option. Higher end GPU setups are largely a matter of deciding how much you're budgeting on the GPU(s) and then purchasing the appropriate multi-GPU setup (~$400, 2x 560 GTX / Radeon 6870, for example). It's generally not worth it performance-wise to go with a single card vs. a similarly priced SLI/Crossfire option, unless you have some kind of space/PCI-E slot restriction that demands it, or you intend to upgrade down the line to a SLI/Crossfire setup. Be realistic about the latter option, many times that impulse goes by the wayside, or you wait too long to drop in the 2nd GPU and suddenly you're better off just upgrading wholesale.

Recently, we've seen the release of AMD's Radeon 7970 card, and some of the lower-end derivations of their new platform. The 7970 is a fantastic card, the best single-GPU card out there, so if you're in the market for speed, and price is no object, there's no better option. The rest of the lower-end cards have begun trickling out, starting with the 7950 (another great card) and the 7770. Pricing is a bit off at the moment for the latter, as it's a bit more expensive than the 6850, but a bit less impressive. Once prices stabilize and the range of cards is closer to completion, you should expect to see the above recommendations change, at least on the AMD side. Kepler (NVIDIA's next big thing) is likely a month or more away.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Visual Guide to PC Components Pt. 1: CPUs and Motherboards

Though the thread tends to attract those who are already computer-savvy enough to know what the inside of a PC looks like, not everyone who can competently wield a computer knows what individual components go into building one.  The following is a visual guide to some salient PC components, for the edification of potential PC builders.  The important thing isn't the specific model of the parts you'll see below, but the general understanding of what individual components look like and where they go in the system.  Apologies in advance for any cruddy photos, I'm no photographer and I'm working with a relatively ancient point-and-shoot.

CPUs/Processors:

AMD Processor (Athlon II X2 250)


AMD Processors generally have an entirely flat heat-spreader that covers most of the silicon wafer.  You can see the designation of the processor there on top (AMD Athlon II) along with the model number.  You can't see this, but on the opposite side of the CPU are the pins, which slot into the socket on the motherboard, where they touch the contacts inside the socket.

Intel Processor (Intel Core2Duo E4500)


Though this is an older model CPU from Intel, they've been using roughly the same wafer size and heat-spreader design for at least the past 3 processor generations, and it seems unlikely to change any time soon.  Once again, the model number and CPU type are shown on top.  Unlike the AMD CPU, the heat-spreader has a couple "steps".  Modern Intel CPUs reverse the traditional CPU/Motherboard interaction: the contacts are on the CPU, while the pins are built into the motherboard socket.


Motherboards:

AMD Micro-ATX Motherboard (ASRock 880G LE AM3)


The above is an AMD AM3 Socket motherboard (which will eventually hold the AMD Athlon II X2 processor you saw earlier).  The motherboard is based on the Micro-ATX form factor, so it's smaller than a standard motherboard, and comes with a maximum of 4 expansion card slots.  I've indicated some points of interest on the motherboard for you to take a look at.

  1. 4-Pin CPU Power:  Power from the PSU cable that plugs in here is directed to the CPU.  Higher end motherboards will have 8-Pin power connectors, in order to provide more power to the CPU, which assists in overclocking, or in running higher powered CPUs.
  2. VRM system:  Here you can see the chokes and MOSFETs that make up the VRM system (the system that takes 12V power and converts it to lower voltages) for the CPU.  If you count the chokes, there are 4, pointing to 3+1 power phases, which isn't great, but it's for a media server, so I don't need much.
  3. CPU Socket:  This is the socket for an AM3 CPU.  The socket arm swings up, you orient the CPU correctly, and all the pins drop into the little holes in the socket, then you swing the arm back down.  The plastic bracket around it is for CPU coolers.
  4. DIMM Slots:  This is where your RAM goes.  You pop open the little arms on the sides, then seat the RAM.  You'll know it's fully in when the arms click in and secure it on the sides.
  5. 24-Pin Motherboard Power:  Like the CPU Power plug, you'll run a cable from your PSU to this.  In older PCs (and some modern low power systems) the only thing necessary to run the system was this connector, which also delivers some power to the CPU.  Aside from that it delivers power to the rest of the motherboard components, and any expansion cards that are power strictly by the slot they're placed in.
  6. SATA Ports:  Here we have 3 SATA II data ports.  Drives (Optical Drives, Hard drives, Solid State Drives) are attached to these ports via a SATA cable.  Depending on the motherboard, you might see ports oriented as the are here, perpendicular to the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) or oriented parallel to the PCB.
  7. PCI-E x1 Slot:  This is a PCI Express x1 slot.  The x1 indicates available bandwidth on the slot.  x1 slots are used for basic expansion cards, like Network Interface Cards (wired or wireless) and sound cards.
  8. PCI-E x16 Slot:  PCI Express x16 slots are physically larger than lower bandwidth slots and are mostly used for the addition of discrete graphics cards.  They are compatible with any lower-requirement expansion card (you can use a x16 slot to run an expansion card that needs a x1 slot).
  9. PCI Slot:  PCI slots are probably the oldest design still incorporated into modern motherboards.  Regular PCI is slower than the PCI-Express interface and is largely useful for legacy expansion cards that you aren't willing to part with (like if you have a really old modem or NIC that you'd like to keep using).
Intel ATX Motherboard (ASUS P8P67 Pro)


So here we have an Intel motherboard based on the ATX standard.  Full ATX motherboards have a maximum of 7 expansion card slots.  Otherwise the functions on this board are largely identical to the AMD board above.  This board does have double the available DIMM slots for RAM, 2 more SATA ports with all the SATA ports oriented parallel to the PCB, and 8-Pin instead of 4-Pin CPU power.  The VRM system is also located under passive heatsinks around the CPU socket.  You'll also note the cover over the CPU socket.  Because the CPU socket for Intel motherboards contains pins, rather than contacts, a cover is necessary to protect them while not in use.

And with that, we come to the end of our regularly scheduled programming.  We've familiarized ourselves with CPU and Motherboard design, expect to see a visual guide to the PSU soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cases and PSUs: Basics and Recommendations

Choosing a case and PSU for your new PC build is often something of an afterthought. It's easy to make the mistake of focusing in hard on your sweet, sweet CPU and GPU purchases, buying the best performing components you can afford, then sticking them in whatever case you can buy with what's left of your budget, along with the cheapest PSU you could find that would (supposedly) power your build.

The reality is that Cases and PSUs are, in a way, the most important part of any PC build. A case with poor cooling performance might result in long term (or, in extreme cases, even short-term) damage to your components. The harder it is to build in your case, the more likely you are to accidentally damage the case, your components, or yourself (the cheaper the case, the sharper the edges) trying to force things. And if the case was hard to build in, it won't be easy to upgrade components in, or clean. Keep in mind that a great case is an investment. Unlike a processor or graphics card, which can go from cream of the crop to just 2nd (or 3rd) best in the time it takes to get it shipped to your door, your case can be around for a long time, and be home to many upgrades and new builds, as long as you buy a solid model that gives you room to grow. It's worth the extra expense. A PSU is even more significant. A quality, enthusiast grade PSU is a solid, efficient, purpose built piece of electronics, and if you keep things reasonable, it will serve you well through upgrades, and even new builds. A quality PSU can do all you ask of it and more, and while you shouldn't go crazy, you'd be surprised by what a nice Seasonic or Corsair or Antec (etc.) can do for you. Of course, if you choose poorly, you could turn your multi-hundred dollar PC build into a paperweight fashioned of smoldering silicon trapped within sheet metal.

Below you'll find information and guidelines on Case and PSU choice, as well as some recommendations (prices current as of February 20, 2012) on what might be a good buy for your budget.

Cases

When looking at cases, I recommend looking for the following features as a baseline:

1. Cable Management - At this point, reasonable cable management features are so common in cases at all budget levels that there really isn't any reason to buy a case without them. Sometimes the case will have a large void on the right side of the motherboard tray (many older Cooler Master cases like the CM Storm Sniper use this method), others will have cutouts (sometimes with rubber grommets) to bring cables back through. Ideally the case will feature a cutout for your 8 pin CPU power cable as well, but some cheaper cases with cable management don't have them. If you're lucky and careful, you might be able to thread your 8 pin under your motherboard and through the CPU backplate cutout to mimic the effect. Regardless of the style or number/location of cutouts offered, the basic idea is always the same, moving cables behind the motherboard tray as much as possible and bringing them out right where they need to be. Cable management doesn't just make your case innards look pretty, it helps your case stay cool.

2. Bottom-mounted PSU w/ Vent - Once again, this feature is very common on quality cases of all budget levels, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding something you like. Basically this feature improves case layout by placing your PSU at the bottom of the case, where it can intake cool air from under the case and exhaust it. It largely removes your PSU from the thermal equation. It's nice if the vent is filtered.

3. Good Thermal Options - At the very least your case should have mounts for a front intake fan, and a rear exhaust fan. These should be at least 120mm fan mounts. Ideally you'll have options side intake and top exhaust fans as well (2 fan mounts for each location is fairly standard in a good enthusiast level case). If you have multiple front intake fans (or a single larger, say, 200mm fan) the side intake is less important. Filtered intakes are a plus.

4. General Good Design - I always look for a few additional good design decisions in a case. A good case should feature at least some tool-less/screwless options for hardware mounting. Understandably, tool-less mechanisms are less numerous the lower the price of the case, but the best budget options still often feature thumbscrews, and/or a single tool-less mount on the 5.25 bays. The HDD cages should be oriented to place the "back" of the drive, where your SATA and Power connectors are, toward the side of the case with the motherboard tray, to facilitate cable routing. Keep an eye out for a nice sized CPU backplate cutout, it'll make attaching an aftermarket cooler immeasurably easier. Finally, most cases worth your time will have at least 2 front panel USB 2.0 ports to go with the HD audio hookups.

Naturally, these baselines can't cover everything, depending on your budget or intended usage (HTPC cases are usually pretty short on cable routing possibilities, for example) you might find that some of those features aren't necessary to you. But, for a standard tower for the computer enthusiast and/or gamer, that's the stuff you want.

After you've taken a look at what's available and eliminated those cases that just don't make the cut, buy within your budget, and keep aesthetics under consideration. You'll be less inclined to take care of something you can barely stand to look at. There are a number of unique touches and additions that can increase the value of the case for your particular build, so be thorough and make sure you've found something you can live with. If you're having trouble figuring out where to start, check the list below for some good starting points at various budget levels. PM me if you think your case is rad and I don't have it on the list!


NOTE: This list ignores shipping costs.
  • $40: NZXT Source 210
  • $60: CM HAF 912
  • $80: CM 690 II Advanced (Owned by: Alecthar)
  • $100: Corsair 400R
  • $100: Fractal Design Arc Midi
  • $130: NZXT Phantom
  • $140: Corsair 500R
  • $160: CM HAF 932 Advanced (Full Tower)
  • $160/$170: Corsair 600T/Corsair 600T SE (Owned by: Alecthar, Hardtarget, Squall, MagicPrime, finalflight89 and many others...)
  • $180: CM HAF X (Full Tower)
  • More money: Generally speaking, for an air-cooled build you won't need to spend more than $200 to get a top of the line case with way more than enough room and features for what you want to do. Some more esoteric cases (like the Silverstone inverted motherboard mount cases) or virtually anything of full-tower size from Lian Li might run you more, but that's up to you. Cases suitable for hardcore water cooling are often an exception and some of the older ones that are still beloved are difficult to find, so you can definitely end up spending more there. That's a class in itself though, one that I'm not as comfortable addressing.


Power Supplies

Buying a power supply is a crucial decision, and it doesn't respond well to the kind of "pop it in our test rig and benchmark it" style of reviewing that most PC component review sites tend to favor. In many cases, a power supply that runs a test rig just fine can be less efficient than advertised, unable to pull its rated peak wattage, and have out of specification electrical ripple and noise that can damage your components. Fewer sites than you'd think actually test power supplies correctly, below are 3 of my favorites:

johnnyGuru
[H]ardOCP
Hardware Secrets

All of these sites are very transparent about their methodology, which is good because I've found that legitimate power supply reviews are very important in determing the correct supply to buy. For example, reviews might help you find out that while some Antec PSU lines are very solid (True Power New, original Earthwatts below 650W), others are mediocre to terrible (new Earthwatts, original Earthwatts from 650W and up, Basiq). This hodgepodge of awesome, acceptable, and awful product lines occurs largely because most major PSU vendors sell PSU lines that are rebadged (and sometimes modified) power supplies from other companies (Seasonic, CWT, and many others). So, while one line might benefit by being based on a solid Seasonic platform, another might be crippled by being based on a (literally) explosive Huntkey PSU. Because you don't have time to deconstruct a boatload of power supplies, your best option is to let good, reputable reviewers do the legwork for you.

So, you have some good resources that will let you know what to look for, but when you find it, you find that it has 2 12V rails, and your good buddy told you that quality PSUs should only have a single 12V rail. Or, it's modular, and that same buddy told you all about how that's bad and not as good as hardwired cables.

Your buddy is an idiot.

Apologies for my bluntness, but there are numerous myths/semi-myths that you hear all the time about PSUs that can really interfere with the buying process. Let's take a look at some “conventional wisdom” that is simply incorrect:
  • Modular cabling increases resistance/is another point of failure/is at increased risk for corrosion: The first and second points are technically true, but in the first case, the added resistance is entirely negligible, it's roughly equivalent to a few additional inches of cabling. Modular cables are, in theory, at slightly increased risk for failure, but the risk is very slim in a quality supply, and if you use PSU cable extensions (for example) you're essentially assuming the same risk, just slightly further down the cable. The third claim is just untrue. Modular cabling, either in fully or partially modular supplies, is really helpful in maintaining a clean build. It's a nice feature to have that usually comes at a price premium. Don't spend loads of additional money on it, but it is worth a reasonable amount of cash to have on a quality supply.
  • Single Rail/Multi Rail designs are superior to Multi Rail/Single Rail designs: The objections here are slightly different. Single rail designs get boosted by many because of issues multi-rail supplies had 4-5 years ago with load balancing. Since then, design has improved and those problems are a thing of the past (at least in quality supplies). Multi-rail supplies are “superior” because Single-Rail supplies above a certain wattage (around 600W) have OCP (over current protection) that is set so high out of necessity (because all of the current on the 12V rail is on a single rail) that it's likely that, in the event of a short circuit that the SCP (Short Circuit Protection) doesn't catch, you'll sustain serious to catastrophic component damage before the OCP kicks in. Now, it's really unlikely that such a short circuit would occur, so really Multi-Rail vs. Single-Rail is a non-issue, but if you really want the absolute safest supply and you need more than 600ish Watts, go with a quality Multi-Rail unit.
  • Headroom! More Headroom!: Okay, so often I'm the first person to buy more than I need, but a quality PSU is a well-designed, precision engineered, ass-kicking beast with as many safety precautions built in as the manufacturer can fit onto a PCB.  Buy enough PSU to run your PC at full bore and no more.  You'll hardly ever use that much PSU, and you'll be burning money in electricity bills if you buy a PSU where your normal usage doesn't fall roughly in the area where the PSU is most efficient.

So with all that said, here's a few manufacturer recommendations/warnings to keep in mind as you buy your PSU:

The Good

Corsair – Corsair has made something of a name for itself in the PSU sector, and they do make some of the better PSUs available today (their AX series, mostly). Many of their older lines are still favorites among enthusiasts, though other companies have come out with competing/superior lines. Still, those are completely solid supplies, even if they aren't the best performers anymore. With the exception of the current “Builder Series” (PSUs labeled CX430, CX500, CX600, which are labeled at higher wattages than they probably should be), and the new Gamer Series (which are solid, but probably overpriced, and mostly exist to be sold at brick and mortar outlets like Best Buy) I would recommend a Corsair supply without hesitation.

Seasonic – Seasonic makes some of the best PSUs in the world, including most of the best PSUs in the world from vendors like Corsair and Antec. You see, Seasonic is both an OEM vendor, and a Retail vendor. Most of their retail supplies are clustered around lower wattages, usually under 650W, but they make high quality, efficient supplies.

NZXT - These guys have recently stepped up to the plate with some seriously nice supplies. They have some more "budget-friendly" PSUs OEM'd by Seasonic, and their Hale90 series of PSUs is OEM'd by Superflower, and is a great platform.

Antec – Despite my continued dislike of Antec's Basiq series of PSUs, I've come to the conclusion that Antec is doing much more right than wrong in the PSU market these days. The True Power New line (which appears to be EOLed) is great, as are the True Power Quattro units. The Antec Neo Eco units are really solid Seasonic-based units that are absolutely perfect for budget-conscious builders. The Antec High Current Gamer supplies are, at least at most wattages, built on the Seasonic S12II Bronze platform, so they're also a great budget-friendly choice. Antec also makes one of the best 1200W supplies available, the 1200W High Current Pro. The Earthwatts line is an adequate budget-friendly line of PSUs. I wouldn't use their higher wattage units in a higher-end build, but their low-wattage units are reliable, even if their performance won't wow you.

The Mediocre

Thermaltake – Thermaltake pretty much averages out to mediocre. Their Toughpower and Toughpower XT lines are both solid, if generally overpriced. Their other lines, though, like their TR2 supplies, are generally terrible, with a few thoroughly mediocre units in the mix.

Rosewill - Rosewill has some truly horrid crud, but also has some solid units, and some great units. In particular, their Gold-certified Lightning units are OEM'd by Superflower using their fantastic "Golden Green" platform, and are really solid values with some high voltage options for those who need them.

The Bad

Cooler Master – It's surprising, in a way, that a company that makes some really great cases also makes some exceptionally terrible PSUs. Out of all the power supplies that Cooler Master has in their lineup, only the Silent Pro M is really worth your time, and even those supplies aren't particularly good values. Aside from the 4 supplies in that line, avoid like the plague.

Ultra Products – Ultra has had a fairly tarnished reputation for a while, and has made some steps toward redemption recently, but between their fairly frivolous lawsuit regarding modular PSUs, and some recent incidences of them falsely claiming SLI certification, it's really hard to label them as anything other than a cruddy company.

Generics – God help me, don't use the power supply that came with your case.

As for specific purchasing recommendations...well it's hard to say. PSU choice is heavily dependent on what particular wattage, feature set, and connector demands you have. Buy a good supply from a good company, and be prepared to spend at least 50 to 60 bucks, even if you're looking at something in the 500W range. It sucks to spend money, but this is one of those instances where you will pay significantly more later if you try to save 20 bucks now.

HDDs and SSDs: The Story of Storage

08-18-2012: A lot of this information is still useful in a general capacity, but much of it is somewhat outdated.  You can find a more recent version of the post here


Disclaimer: Flooding in Thailand has, until recently, been driving prices on mechanical Hard Drives stratospherically high. Recent price-checking seems to indicate a downward trajectory, which is nice, but it might still be advisable to postpone a purchase in this are until HDDs reach their pre-flood price levels.

Storage is (or at least was) profoundly un-sexy. For years, mechanical Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) had been the only reasonable consumer option for this kind of storage, and HDDs are old-school tech. That's not to say they haven't been improved over the many, many years they've been around, but at a certain point you just start taking them for granted. However, the relatively recent advent of Solid State Drives (SSDs) using NAND Flash has rather changed that dynamic. SSDs are faster, lighter, smaller, consume less power and are less fragile than mechanical HDDs. Apparently, the only thing they don't do is cook you breakfast, and that's because they already hired someone for that. You're welcome. Unfortunately for the average user, SSDs (and the technology they're based on) are still maturing, and prices are high. They just aren't feasible for many budgets at this point, especially with the current glut of fantastic 1TB HDDs. The following is intended to give you a rundown of some of the recent history of HDDs and SSDs, as well as some of the drives to look for.

Hard Disk Drives

Unless your PC building budget is roughly the same size as the GDP of Latvia, you're going to need at least 1 mechanical HDD, even if you're running an SSD alongside it. Solid State Drives simply haven't yet reached the capacity levels necessary for them to replace a good mechanical hard drive for mass storage. HDDs with eight times the storage capacity of a nice SSD can go for 1/4th the price. Hard drives are good for more than just mass storage, though. Admittedly, no HDD will beat an SSD in speed, but a solid HDD system drive will be more than fast enough for the vast majority of users.

So what should you be looking for in a system drive?

1. Spindle Speed: The RPM rating of a mechanical hard drive is the speed at which the spindle, and thus the platters (the magnetized disks holding data) inside the drive spin. The higher the RPM, the faster the drive. For a system drive you want at least a 7200 RPM drive.

2. Capacity: I'd say at least 500GB. 1TB is often the sweet spot, price-wise. Good 2TB 7200RPM drives do exist, but they're expensive.

3. Cache and Platter size: Most relatively recent 500GB and 1TB HDDs are single platter drives, which is good for performance. I'd say that 16MB of cache is good for a 500GB drive, 32MB is good for 1TB.

4. SATA II: I'm not sure HDDs using legacy interfaces like IDE and SATA I are still available, but if so avoid them. You also don't need SATA III compatibility, as no mechanical HDD can saturate the 3Gb/s link provided by SATA II, much less double that. You don't need to avoid SATA III HDDs, but often the SATA II models are less expensive and perform just as well.

My current favorite system drive HDD is the Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB. Other good options include the Western Digital Black 1TB drives, the Seagate 7200.12 1TB drives, and the Hitachi 7200 RPM Desktar 1TB drives.

When looking for a storage drive, things are simpler. Spindle speed can be lower (5400-5900 RPM) and higher capacity drive sizes (2TB) are more affordable. I'd look at the Hitachi 5K3000 2TB and the Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB.

Solid State Drives

SSDs are a whole other world. Rather than spinning disks, SSDs utilize solid state memory (most commonly NAND Flash, like the stuff in a USB memory stick, though NOR Flash or DRAM SSDs also exist largely in enterprise environments). Most NAND Flash drives consume significantly less power than mechanical hard drives, and without the need to accommodate platters and head mechanisms, they can be produced in significantly smaller form factors. SSDs are significantly lighter than desktop hard drives, and are entirely silent. Solid State Drives have no moving parts, and are thus significantly less fragile than hard drives. They can sustain shocks and movement while in operation without damage, and (for obvious reasons) do not sustain mechanical wear and tear. Manufacturing defects and poor materials can still result in premature drive death, but a lack of moving parts essentially eliminates mechanical failure. Read/Write speeds are significantly faster than mechanical drives, and random access/seek times and latency are extremely low by comparison to mechanical drives.

There are definite downsides to SSDs as well, though. Unlike mechanical drives, there is often a significant delta between read and write speeds for solid state storage. NAND Flash is also rated for a limited number of write/erase cycles (3,000 for the 20nm NAND used in current-gen SSDs). The Flash may continue to function beyond its rating, but it's only guaranteed to function reliably up to that point. Failure, in whole or in part, could occur on the 3001st cycle, or the 8000th. Current NAND Flash SSDs also experience issues with degradation in write performance over time. TRIM or good garbage collection can do a lot to alleviate these issues, but all overwrites (for instance, saving a new version of a document under the same name as the original, thus overwriting the original) will occur at lower than the rated write speed. These problems result from a disparity in the way NAND Flash writes and erases data.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument against SSDs, though, is the sheer expense associated with owning one, and the exceedingly poor ratio between the cost and capacity. It's expensive to own even a relatively small SSD. One large enough to store your OS and a few critical programs will cost you over $100, and you'll likely need a good 7200 RPM HDD for the rest of your programs anyway. Larger capacities are significantly more expensive.

Nevertheless, if you can afford an SSD, I'd say it's worth it, especially with this new generation of SATA III capable SSDs. If you're looking for a new SSD, there are quite a few options. The price/performance champions are Sandforce (SF-2200) based drives from any number of manufacturers (Intel, OCZ, Corsair, Kingston, and more). These can come in asychronous NAND (OCZ Agility, for example) or synchronous NAND (OCZ Vertex 3, for example) flavors. Synchronous options have performance advantages.

Unfortunately, SF-2200 based drives have reliability issues. The most significant BSOD bug was recently addressed with a firmware fix, but most drives still have some stability issues. The exception to this are Intel's recent 520 series drives (codenamed "Cherryville") which are basically built from the ground up (from NAND selection and physical construction all the way through heavily tested custom firmware) to be eminently reliable as well as fast. From all appearances, Intel has succeeded.

Non-Sandforce options are numerous, and many are quite strong as well. Marvell controllers are used in many good drives, like Intel's 510 series and Crucial's M4. Samsung uses their own controller for the excellent Samsung 830. OCZ uses their own Everest controller in the solid Octane drives.

If I were to be forced to recommend one series of drives for a user who wanted the best compromise between price, reliability and speed, I would go with the Crucial M4. It has good firmware support from Crucial, has proven to be quite reliable, and is plenty zippy.

Memory: Simpler Than it Looks

Buying RAM these days is really about sticking to some rules and buying from a reputable manufacturer.

1. Buy DDR3: Only legacy sockets from AMD and Intel support DDR2. If you're building a new PC, you're going to be buying a motherboard that supports DDR3, and DDR4 support is likely a year or more away.

2. There are only 2 RAM speeds worth worrying about: Unless you're willing to spend lots of money for extremely overclockable RAM, there are only 2 DDR3 speeds you should be thinking about: 1333Mhz and 1600Mhz. In real-world situations, there isn't likely to be any significant difference between performance at those two speeds. More expensive, faster RAM may make your benchmarks look good, but in the real world it doesn't provide enough genuine performance benefit to be worth the price premium. Similarly, buying desktop memory at sub-1333Mhz speeds doesn't save you any significant amount in comparison to the performance detriment (if you can even find memory that slow).

3. Don't worry about timings: Tighter timings (lower timing numbers) mean that your RAM is faster, but generally speaking you won't see significant real-world benefits from tighter-than-standard timings. Standard 1600Mhz RAM usually runs at 9-9-9-24, which is just fine. Just like RAM speed, generally speaking tighter timings aren't worth the price premium associated with them.

4. Buy at least 4GB of RAM: Memory utilization for Windows 7 is actually pretty good, but memory usage for programs in general has scaled up over the past few years, and you're definitely going to want at least 4GB of RAM, 8GB if budget allows.

5. Buy matching DIMMs: Try to buy your RAM in kits (sets of matching DIMMs). If you can't (maybe you already have a single DIMM in the system), you should match model numbers (not just "2GB Corsair Vengeance" but the actual model number of the RAM, "CMZ8GX3M2A1600C9"). So if you're running a single 2GB DIMM and you want to add a second, make sure you purchase an identical 2GB DIMM from the same manufacturer. It's entirely possible that non-matching RAM will function, but you'll eliminate a lot of potential conflicts, issues, and headaches by ensuring that your sets match.

6. Buy the right kits for your multi-channel setup: So if you have a Triple Channel board (only boards using Intel's LGA1366 socket, like the X58 platform), buy in sets of 3 DIMMs. If you're running on a Dual Channel board (all current-gen AMD chipsets and all non-LGA1366 Intel chipsets), buy in sets of 2. If you don't fill the channel, you're sacrificing performance by not taking advantage of the multi-channel setup.

7. Follow guideline #6, but always buy the fewest DIMMs possible while doing so: So if you're on a dual channel board and want 8GB of RAM, don't buy 4x2GB sticks. Yes, you're buying in sets of 2, but you'll be filling all your DIMM slots and inhibiting future upgrades. Buy 2x4GB sticks instead.

8. Pay attention to clearance: Keep your CPU cooler and DIMM slot positioning in mind. Many of the large aftermarket tower style coolers overhang one or more DIMM slots (or have a fan that, when mounted, does so). Avoid contacting your RAM heatsinks with your CPU heatsink or fan, even if no pressure is applied (pressure can result in long-term damage to the DIMM and/or DIMM slot).

Some solid manufacturers:
G.SKILL
Corsair
Mushkin
Kingston
Crucial
Patriot

Motherboards & CPUs: The Electrified Heart of your PC

08-18-2012: A lot of this information is still useful in a general capacity, but much of it is somewhat outdated.  You can find a more recent version of the post here.

Motherboards and CPUs are system defining components, so be prepared to spend some time and effort on deciding the right combination for your purposes.  They dictate your upgrade paths, your overclocking possibilities, they contribute hugely to the performance of your system, and they're central to a number of other decisions you'll make as you build a PC.

Motherboards

Choosing the right motherboard can help you build a well-balanced, upgradeable system with features aplenty.  The wrong motherboard can lead to copious RMAs and wasted time and effort.  Below you'll find information and recommendations to take some of the guesswork out of choosing the right board for you.

So what stuff matters in a motherboard?

  • Form Factor:  Be aware of the motherboard form factor, you don't want to end up with a motherboard that won't fit in your case.
  • SLI/Crossfire Capability:  This generally comes at a price premium, but if multiple GPUs are in your future (or present) it's worth the money.  However, if you are definitely only going single card, and don't envision yourself ever using multiple GPUs, don't pay the premium.  The basic requirement for SLI is 2 physical PCI-E x16 slots, which run at least at x8/x8 when both are populated.  Crossfire can run with a card in a x4 lane, but performance is compromised and I wouldn't recommend that, x8/x8 as a minimum is your best bet.  Higher end motherboards (or motherboards on higher end sockets) might support multiple x16 slots running at the full x16.  Currently that's limited to higher end AM3/AM3+ boards, X58 boards, and P55/P67/Z68 boards with the NF200 chip.  For 2-way SLI/Crossfire, x8/x8 is enough bandwidth to avoid bottlenecking all but the highest of high-end cards, and even then performance loss is relatively miniscule.
  • VRMs:  The VRM system in your motherboard is a series of small transistors that function as transformers, taking the +12V power from your PSU and sending it to the CPU, GPU and motherboard components in the correct voltages for those parts.  When you see things like "12+2 power phases" being tossed about, they're referring to the number of VRM transformers (in this case, 12 for CPU power and 2 for GPU power).  More power phases means lower individual loads on each transformer, which makes for a more stable experience, especially when overclocking.  Fewer VRMs, or VRMs of inferior quality, can mean catastrophic damage to the motherboard and potentially other components if you push things too far. 
  • Physical Layout:  The advent of all double slot GPUs all the time has made the layout of the board, in particular the PCI-E slots, of even greater importance than before.  For SLI/Crossfire capable motherboards, you want at least 1 additional expansion slot's worth of space between PCI-E x16 slots to accommodate 2-slot coolers.  For motherboards supporting only 2 GPUs, I'd recommend looking for 2 slot's worth of space, to give the top card room to breath.  SATA ports should either be of the 90 degree variety (so parallel to the PCB) or placed to ensure they won't be covered by longer graphics cards.  Front panel, audio, and USB headers should located on the edge of the board, away from potential conflict with expansion cards.  Along the bottom edge is usually best.  Keep an eye on CPU socket positioning relative to DIMM slots and motherboard heatsinks.  It's tough to avoid DIMM slot conflicts, but most motherboard manufacturers are very good about making certain their motherboard heatsinks don't interfere with aftermarket CPU coolers.
  • Features:  This is more nebulous, because what constitutes an acceptable set of features is entirely up to the builder's discretion.  Make sure you're buying a board that has all the ports and additional bells and whistles that you desire.  Some boards come with automatic hardware/software assisted overclocking options, for example.  Do your research here, and choose a board that gives you what you want.

What motherboard brands are worth checking out?


  • ASUS - ASUS is currently my favorite motherboard manufacturer.  They usually have some of, if not the, best VRM setups around, and their boards are usually feature-packed with good layouts.  They tend to keep their board lineup relatively simple, which does help prevent confusion.
  • Gigabyte - Gigabyte has a reputation for reliability, which I can anecdotally confirm based on my Gigabyte X58 board.  Their high end and mid-range boards usually come with solid VRMs, though their lower end offerings can be stingy in that area.  Gigabyte generally has solid layouts (with a few questionable calls, like on front panel audio header placement).  Their board lineup can be a maze of secondary designations and extremely similar model numbers (UD3 vs. UD3R for example), and they have not yet moved to UEFI based BIOS.  Many of their Z68 boards also don't support the GPU virtualization technology that makes the switchable graphics for that platform possible  (this shortcoming has been largely addressed by a new wave of Z68XP boards with the Virtu chip onboard).
  • MSI - MSI is my least favorite of the "Big 3" motherboard makers.  Their AM3 lineup was notorious for poor VRMs, even the boards that had sufficient power phases endured engineering/manufacturing defects that could cause VRMs to die in a fire.  Literally.  MSI's layouts for Sandy Bridge have been the worst of the Big 3, with front panel headers and vertical SATA ports placed directly under areas where a second GPU would rest.  In general, their motherboards don't seem as well built or as well designed as competitor's boards in the same price range.  With the TDP and power reqs of Sandy Bridge being so low, and the quality of the VRMs being (hopefully) fairly high, most 115 MSI motherboards aren't likely to be genuine liabilities, but generally I think your money is better spent elsewhere.
  • ASRock - ASRock sprang out of ASUS spinning off a company specifically to target budget-conscious consumers, and as such ASRock is often (though perhaps unfairly) lumped in with companies like Biostar.  Their 1155 offerings contradict that impression, though, with generous VRMs, good layouts and accessory bundles, not to mention their aggressive pricing.[/LIST]

As you'll find in the Processors section, my current opinion is that Intel's 1155 socket is the best option available for all but the most restricted of budgets. 1155 boards come in a few flavors, but the ones suitable for overclocking and SLI/Crossfire usage are either P67 based, or Z68 based. Z68 includes a few additional features on top of those included in P67 boards. Z68 allows for SSD caching, which is useful for those who have a small SSD (usually around 30ish GB) that they'd like to use as a cache. This will improve disk performance and general system responsiveness, though not as much as having an SSD as your boot drive will, so it's of utility only for those with an SSD that is too small to use as a boot drive. Z68 also includes support for using the built-in GPU of Sandy Bridge processors to accelerate video encoding/transcoding. Unfortunately, while there are significant speed gains available using this process, very few transcoding/encoding applications support this at the moment. Z68 boards with the Virtu chip also support using the integrated GPU during low load situations (at desktop, for basic video playback, etc.) in order to reduce power consumption. All in all, Z68 is of relatively little utility, especially if you don't have an SSD or don't need to use one for cache. P67 generally has a price advantage, and the feature sets are so similar that I don't see much reason to pay more. Just for the sake of completeness, though, Z68 boards are included with the P67 recommendations below.

P67:
$150 - ASRock P67 Extreme4 Gen3
$180 - ASUS P8P67 Pro
$190 - Gigabyte P67 UD4

Z68:
$175 - ASRock Z68 Extreme4
$190 - ASUS P8Z68-V Gen3
$180 - Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3P

Options on the low and high end:  For those building with non-K CPUs, fewer VRMs and/or less effective VRM cooling is less of an issue, as there is no overclocking to stress them beyond normal levels.  With that in mind, a solid H67/H61 board is a good bet.  For those looking for very high-end boards (perhaps with support for more than 2 GPUs, or multiple x16 lanes) please ask in the thread.  There are several different offerings, and your particular feature needs and case selection will be important in determining what board is best for you.

Processors

Compared to motherboards, where layout, build quality and feature-set are the primary concerns, CPUs are a numbers game.  Synthetic and real-world benchmarks will tell the story of a proc's prowess, so benchmarks and reviews are your independent research pals.  Right now the best processors at reasonable budget levels are Intel's Sandy Bridge processors.  They are faster, clock for clock, than previous Intel and current AMD offerings, and are relatively budget friendly.

The current recommendations:

Intel Core i3-2120 - $127.00: Suitable for budget levels ~$600.  This is a really solid dual core (with HT) that will hold up its end in all arenas.  It's not going to match a real quad-core in heavily threaded apps, but it's not going to be holding your GPU back.

Intel Core i5-2400 - $190.00: Suitable for budget levels ~$800.  The 2400 isn't vastly cheaper than the 2500K, but you can run a cheaper H67 board with it and not lament the loss of overclocking potential, so that helps keep costs down.  Despite its overclocking limitations, it's a great quad-core.

Intel Core i5-2500K - $230.00: Suitable for budget levels ~$1000 and up.  The 2500K doesn't give you Hyper Threading or do your homework, but that's just about the only stuff it won't do.  It's hugely powerful, hugely overclockable, and at $220.00, remarkably affordable.

Options on the low and high end: For really low budget options, I recommend asking in the thread. On the high end, there are the i7-2600/2600K, or the i7-2700/2700K (essentially a 2600/2600K with slightly higher stock clocks). The basic differences between the 2500K and the 2600K are a marginal stock clockspeed and cache advantage on the 2600K's part, and the 2600K has Hyper-Threading. If you do a lot of heavily threaded workloads, like high-end photo/movie editing or graphic design, the 2600K might justify it's $100 price premium over the 2500K. But if you're just an amateur Photoshop enthusiast while you aren't gaming, stick with the 2500K, it's more than enough CPU to handle the vast majority of tasks.

The other option on the high end is to switch Intel's ridiculously overpowered and overpriced LGA2011 platform and use a Sandy Bridge E processor. As I said in this blog post, I don't see any compelling reason for the majority of users to want the kind of horsepower (and expense) that goes along with Sandy Bridge E, but if you're a nutjob for whom price is no object, or a professional who could genuinely use that much horsepower, it is an option.

Because Vanilla Robs Me Of Creative Freedom!

I'm not so good with title case, okay?

Anyway, as you may have seen me complain about (frequently) in the past few weeks on the forums, our new Vanilla forum software has changed the maximum character count on forum posts from whatever it was that I can't remember to something very, very low by comparison.  This has left the PC Build Thread OP with a problem:  I can't update the OP with additional information, or with changes to my previous statements or recommendations.  So, from here on out I'll be using this here blog-a-ma-bobber as the venue for both the informational component guide type stuff in the OP, and the PA Build Gallery.  The current information in the OP will remain, and if the character count changes I will be right back in there updating the info, but for now the most up to date information will be here.  Hell, I may get the urge to comment on other computer type stuff too, who knows.