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October 19, 2006

Calling All Geeks

The computer I bought in 2003 finally died yesterday (I'm writing this on my Mac, to forestall any questions). The computer lasted 3 3/4 years, so I can't complain too much, but it means that now thanks to my philosophy of "only buy things when you've run the previous version into the ground," I am now able to justify spending money on a new one.

This time, rather than go typical route of just going to the store and buying what's convenient, I thought I'd try having one custom built. The question now is what should I put into it. This is where you geeks come in. I'm open to suggestions on what I should put in this thing. Here are the parameters:

TYPE: PC, Vista Premium capable
PRICE RANGE: $2000 +/- 10%
PRIMARY USE: Multimedia/Gaming (it'll really be mostly used for typing. You know. But even so)
USEFUL LIFESPAN: At least 2.5 years

To give you a little idea of what I'm looking at as a baseline (i.e., these are guidelines, not things I'm absolutely sold on):

CPU: (Sckt775)Intel® Core™ 2 Duo E6600 CPU @ 2.4GHz 1066FSB 2x2MB L2 Cache

MOTHERBOARD: Intel D975XBX I975X Express CrossFire Chipset LGA775 Supports Core 2 Duo CPU FSB1066 DDR2/800 Mainboard w/GbLAN, USB2.0, IEEE1394, &7.1Audio

MEMORY: (Req.DDR2 MainBoard)2GB (2x1GB) PC6400 DDR2/800 Dual Channel Memory (Corsair XMS2 Xtreme Memory w/ Heat Spreader)

VIDEO CARD: 2 NVIDIA Geforce 7950 GT 512MB 16X PCI Express Video Cards

HARD DRIVE: Single Hard Drive (250GB SATA-II 3.0Gb/s 8MB Cache 7200RPM HDD)


SOUND: Creative Labs X-Fi 24-BIT PCI Sound Card

I'm treating the monitor as a separate expense, not to be considered in the price here. Also not considering labor costs at the moment. I have a single hard drive at the moment but will be adding the dead computer's C drive as a slave, which why I have only one in there at the moment.

Any thoughts? Anything I should add, subtract, swap out for a better version. I particularly need help with case, power source and cooling. Please note that as regards cases, I don't need it to look super-bitchin'; functional is a positive. With power source/cooling, quiet is better than not. Also, in terms of gaming/multimedia, I want my performance to be really good, but I'm not going to pay a stupid price premium so that I can crank out 10% more fps.

And one question for the true geeks out there: One reason I'm choosing the 975x motherboard here is that it's my understanding that it'll support the upcoming Intel Quad Core processors that will be coming out later, and I like the idea of being able to swap out the CPU at some point. Does this jibe with what you've heard?

Also, the first person who says "Get a Mac!" gets beaten. I already have a Mac and have decided the for the moment the Mac Pro is not how I want to go.

Okay, there you have it. Let have your thoughts and comments. And if any of you actually do build computers, I'm not opposed to entertaining bids.

Posted by john at October 19, 2006 10:25 AM

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JimW | October 19, 2006 11:17 AM

While I have no personal experience with it, a good many people have been reporting recently on Vista and how you may not want to get involved. The most notable aspect seems to be the draconian EULA which comes with it. Check out http://tinyurl.com/yhvx69

John Scalzi | October 19, 2006 11:23 AM

I want the PC to be Vista-capable. I'm not saying I'm necesarily going to be in a rush to run it.

Dave | October 19, 2006 11:35 AM

From what I've read there will be no Quad Core desktops, you'll only see Quad Core Xeon's for servers so that'll be a different chipset and motherboard if you want to go that route, you'd also probably get raped on the pricing since its a 'business class' processer.

Also is there a reason you're getting the crossfire chipset but getting a nvidia videocard? You'd want to get the nvidia SLI chipset and the nvidia videocard, or an ati videocard and that motherboard.

Paul | October 19, 2006 11:37 AM

Sounds like you've got a pretty good start on your system, and I'm sure you'll get plenty of recommendations. However, let me take this opportunity to remind you to have a good backup strategy! I'm sure you don't take chances with your works-in-progress, but don't forget about your personal files. Digital photos can take a lot of room, and it's painful when you lose them.

Kevin Stampfl | October 19, 2006 11:37 AM

If you plan to use those two video cards in SLI configuration, you're going to need a high quality power supply, such as the Seasonic S12 series (they're quiet to boot). Since you're not running a lot of peripherals, multiple drives, etc., 500W should be enough.

Jon Marcus | October 19, 2006 11:41 AM

I'm only somewhat a hardware geek, but I'd second what Dave said. I'd be surprised to see Quad Core on desktops soon enough to be worth planning for.

OTOH, having your mobo chipset be friendly with your video card sounds sensible, but I don't know that it's necessary. Not saying it isn't, just expressing my ignorance. What kind of hit do you get from mixing and matching, Dave?

John Scalzi | October 19, 2006 11:41 AM


"Also is there a reason you're getting the crossfire chipset but getting a nvidia videocard?"

Not really. As I said, I'm well open to suggestion.

Timothy McClanahan | October 19, 2006 11:47 AM

I believe the 965 chipsets will also support the quad core cpus, though I very much doubt you'll see much benefit in using a quad core cpu anytime soon.

Get a second harddrive and mirror it via RAID for redundancy.

A 250GB/8MCache drive is not all that hot. You can get a Western Digital 400GB or 500GB drive with twice the cache for not a lotta cash these days. Hard to believe how cheap harddrives are.

If you want some performance, though, go with a Western Digital Raptor 150GB drive for your boot drive (10,000rpm vs 7,200rpm for mainstream drives), and put your data on a larger drive. Despite what people who don't know better may say, a Raptor 150 drive is NOT loud; with my case closed, I can barely hear mine. With a dual videocard machine like you're contemplating, you'll NEVER hear one.

PCPowerCooling.com for all your power supply needs. I've never had a PCPower& Cooling PSU go bad on me, and I've been using them for over ten years now.

Save some money on the machine and go effin' insane on the display is my advice. Do you really need two videocards?

Horia Ursu | October 19, 2006 11:51 AM

In terms of cases with power supply, go for one with a power supply with more than 450W, so that installing other components later (ones you aren't thinking about yet) won't affect its performances.
Thermaltake cases are good (from personal experience), and good looking too, but these usually come without power supply.
As for the DVD writer, try to find one with LightScribe capability, it's quite a useful feat.
Good luck!

MisterStinky | October 19, 2006 11:58 AM

I would suggest looking at coolermaster for a case, they are pretty good (a little bit more expensive than regular cases, but they usually run well ... cooler and quieter)

Mark | October 19, 2006 12:02 PM

My computer just died as well... I'm not really surprised, as it was built with turn-of-the-century hardware and it's amazing that it lasted as long as it has. You've obviously got a decent idea of what you want, but I'm going to check out arstechnica's system recommendations (the October 2006 edition should be coming out in the next few days and they seem pretty thorough)

Their guides are here, but again, wait for the new edition of the system guides (Hot Rod seems to be what you're looking for, though the God box would be nice:P)

Dr. Phil | October 19, 2006 12:02 PM

Agree with comments that Vista capable may be good, even if Vista itself opens up new can o' worms. Depending on the speed/age of your old hard drive, I'd rather you put in a second hard drive on your new machine and dump the contents from the old drive onto it. No point in slowing down a good new machine for no reason -- and you'll still have the old drive on a shelf in case some terrible emergency happens.

I know you said to consider the monitor a seperate issue, but if I was building a new machine I'd get two (or three) monitors and be able to spread my work out. Though being able to write novels on Screen 1 while trying not to monitor the pithy comments on the Whatever on Screen 2 might not be the most productive thing in the world. If you do go with a two LCD screen approach, as opposed to One Big Display, it helps to buy two identical at the same time. A friend of mine bought a second monitor later, it was "different" model and has never quite gotten the contrast to match between them -- distracting.

Power PC & Cooling power supplies -- huge thumbs up.

Finally, memory is "cheap". Nothing speeds up a machine, especially noodling in PhotoShop, like More Memory. (grin)

Enjoy your new machine.

Dr. Phil

MisterStinky | October 19, 2006 12:03 PM

And definitely get at least 500W for the power supply if you want to run dual video cards.

would you be using this as a media center pc?

Tor | October 19, 2006 12:10 PM

I would second Timothy McClanahan's comments - especially with the RAID - definately RAID the data drive, assuming you go with a boot drive and a data drive. I initially went with boot/data - but found that some programs had trouble with that set up. If I were redoing my system again, I'd go with at least a 250 GB WD drive that was backed up with a second identical drive in a RAID. One month after redoing my system, one of my drives had some sort of catastrophic error - it took about five minutes to fix as it was in a RAID. It took me 2 months to get my photo's recovered after my first (non-RAID) drive failed.

Hilary | October 19, 2006 12:11 PM

This is not really in the case, but you should also consider a network drive, for backups, pictures and media. I have an Ximeta NDAS device which has both USB2 and ethernet connections. It sits on my hub (they sell some that have hubs included) and my xp pro machine would back up to it nightly. My media center laptop needs to have the disk unmounted before snoozing. Still the peace of mind brought by seemless automatic backups is sublime. The other advantage is that I keep all household machines backed up and then when a particular beast gets a few too many cobwebs, wiping the hard drive and restoring the backup become a much simpler task.

Hilary | October 19, 2006 12:12 PM

This is not really in the case, but you should also consider a network drive, for backups, pictures and media. I have an Ximeta NDAS device which has both USB2 and ethernet connections. It sits on my hub (they sell some that have hubs included) and my xp pro machine would back up to it nightly. My media center laptop needs to have the disk unmounted before snoozing. Still the peace of mind brought by seemless automatic backups is sublime. The other advantage is that I keep all household machines backed up and then when a particular beast gets a few too many cobwebs, wiping the hard drive and restoring the backup become a much simpler task.

PeterP | October 19, 2006 12:14 PM

I tend to look to ArsTechnica for hardware recommendations:


Also, if you are concerned about quiet, I would look into the Antec Phantom Power supply. My roomate has one and his machine is just about silent (passive cooled graphics card, swapped the motherboard chipset fan for a heat sink, and quiet cpu fan)

John Scalzi | October 19, 2006 12:20 PM

The Ars Technica guide is a few months old at the moment, and not as useful as it could be.

theophylact | October 19, 2006 12:22 PM

I would recommend the Antec Sonata II case, which comes with a very reliable 450W power supply. It's an extremely quiet case, equipped with an oversize, low-speed fan and with side-mounted drive trays that support your internal hard drives on rubber grommets. You can hardly tell your machine is on from the sound alone. It's also quietly attractive, at least in my judgment.

Bill | October 19, 2006 12:23 PM

Just remember, RAID is not a backup. It's great for recovering from a single drive failure but it will not allow you to recover from a disaster (flood, fire, etc.). If you accidentally delete a file, RAID just deletes it a second time. A true backup will let you recover the file.

Blaine | October 19, 2006 12:32 PM

I also would recommend using matching mobo chipsets and video cards. If you want to run dual Nvidia SLI video, you do need to use a mobo with the nForce 590 chipset. The Intel 975X is the set needed for the ATI Crossfire video.

As for cases, cooling, and power supply...
I really like the Antec Sonata case for simplicity in form and function and it's quiet. I would second the Seasonic power supply, unless you find that you like the Antec case and find a deal on a case/supply combo, since the Antec supplies are also decent. I Highly recommend using a Zalman CPU cooler.

thumps | October 19, 2006 12:42 PM

For audio, I would look at the X-fi Xtreme Music or Gamer. The Xtreme audio is a little different product and those other 2 are a lot better for gaming and audio playback.

Blaine | October 19, 2006 12:44 PM

Also, I second the idea of data backups. For simplicities sake (and cost effectivness) I have found the Western Digital MyBook External HDD's to be quite effective and easy to use. They come with backup software that is easily automated and it is very convenient, that in case of that dread dire emergency, you can grab the drive and go...it is also very easy in the software to backup multiple computers... I use a 500 Gb WD to backup my HTPC, laptop, and "office" (actually, the kids' game machine).

Blaine | October 19, 2006 12:53 PM

Sorry for the shotgun posts.... I keep getting distracted (damn my boss, who actually expects me to work...at work)

Regarding your comments about the Intel 975X running Quad Cores... as far as I can see, you correct. Whether they will be worth it, even in say two years, remains to be seen. However, if you are still keen on this idea (IMHO, it IS good to keep options open)then go with the 975X and don't worry. But do get ATI Crossfire graphics cards for that chipset.

BTW, have been to tomshardware.com? They have good information on all things hardware.

CKL | October 19, 2006 12:57 PM

Online backup services are all the rage now. I've heard good things about Carbonite.com, Mozy.com, and rsync.net (in increasing order of geekiness). Mozy also offers a free version, so you can try it out before coughing up the monthly fee.

JonathanMoeller | October 19, 2006 12:57 PM

Hell, if you want a system just for typing, get a $500 eMachines box, put Ubuntu Linux on it, and pound away with OpenOffice.

But if you want a gaming rig, I'd say get one that's Vista Premium Ready, but stick with XP. I've been using the Vista betas and Release Candidate builds, and I suspect Vista's going to seriously suck (and that doesn't even get into the DRM can of worms).

That thing's going to suck up the wattage, so you'll definitely want a 450W and higher power supply (500 better, probably).

And why get a Crossfire chipset if you're going to get two NVIDIA cards?

Arlo | October 19, 2006 01:04 PM

I've been *really* happy with the Dell I recently purchased.

Specs in a nutshell:

Dell 9150 Dimension case (XPS 400 = same thing)
3Ghz Dual-core
250GB HD
DVD-ROM plus DVD+/-R burner
nVidia 7900GS (256MB RAM)
and the kicker:
Dell's 24" (2407FPW) Widescreen monitor

Yes, everyone thinks $700 is too much to spend on a monitor. Subsequently, everyone that has seen mine in action (especially with games) realizes the error of their ways. I could go on at length about it if you'd like, but for now I'll keep it brief. I mean, seriously, the 2407FPW should come with a drool guard.

All this for $1970 of your American Dollars (though that's after wrangling an educational discount of about $200.) Course, it's about 2 months old now, too, so it may be $200 cheaper.

Michael G. R. | October 19, 2006 01:13 PM

Whatever you get is going to be pretty damn fast, John, so I highly suggest that you run protein folding science with your IDLE cpu cycles.

You can learn more here:


David Baker's team at Washington university are making good progress on one of the "holy grail" of biology. Your computing power can help.

Joe Rybicki | October 19, 2006 01:13 PM

I will risk the beating:

You do know you can run Windows on the new Macs, right? Dual-boot FTW!

Ow! OW! Stop hitting me with your Campbell plaque!

Kate Nepveu | October 19, 2006 01:19 PM

On the backup device tangent: we love our Seagate pushbutton external hard drives. They can stand either horizontally or vertically, do backups at the touch of a button in native format, and add new/changed files but don't delete files unless you ask them to.

Dave | October 19, 2006 01:30 PM

I second theophylact comment on the sonata cases, I put together a sonata II not to long ago and it's a really nice case. I have a sonata that I've used for 3 or 4 years now, very nice very dependable case, nice and quite.

As far as the SLI setup I don't think you can run nivida cards on a crossfire board, at least not in SLI mode, you need an SLI nvidia chipset on the southbridge, from what I've read it sounds like you can force it to run with some hacked drivers, but frankly you're better off getting an Asus board with the intel chipset that supports SLI or going with a pair of ATI X1950XT's if they're priced comparable.


Thats a link for certified Crossfire cards. You can mix the crossfire cards as well, you don't have to have like for like. gives you a little more flexibility than the Nvidia cards.

Dave | October 19, 2006 01:35 PM

Also some thoughts on a backup drive, since you have the mac and the new desktop you'd probably want to have some kind of network attached storage, there is a device called a ReadyNAS by Infrant


We purchased one here at work as a temporary stop gap mesure and I'm really impressed with it, it's a nice piece of gear and works really well, but it can be a little pricey. I think it starts at about 600 to 900 dollars for the enclosure plus hard drives however you can hook things like digital cameras or smartcard readers up to it and have it dump them directly into a share at the touch of a button, you can also have backup portable drives with the touch a button, it is very user configurable and if you're very paranoid you can setup a second unit offsite (ISP colo for example) and have it use rsync to replicate changes (Rsync is a *nix based app that has very low overhead for transmitting changes)

gerrymander | October 19, 2006 01:44 PM

I don't know if it matters to you, but the NVIDIA 7950 GX2 comes with 2 graphics processors on a single board, so you'd save one expansion slot for roughly the same cost as 2 7950 GT boards.

Blaine | October 19, 2006 01:45 PM

RE: JonathanMoeller
And why get a Crossfire chipset if you're going to get two NVIDIA cards?

He shouldn't, as I mentioned earlier. For Nvidia cards - use the nForce 590 chipset, for ATI cards - use the Crossfire chipset.

So, to sum up this is what you should buy (cause you know us commenting geeks have all the answers):

CPU: (Sckt775)Intel® Core™ 2 Duo E6600 CPU @ 2.4GHz 1066FSB 2x2MB L2 Cache

MOTHERBOARD: Intel D975XBX I975X Express CrossFire Chipset LGA775 Supports Core 2 Duo CPU FSB1066 DDR2/800 Mainboard w/GbLAN, USB2.0, IEEE1394, &7.1Audio

MEMORY: (Req.DDR2 MainBoard)2GB (2x1GB) PC6400 DDR2/800 Dual Channel Memory (Corsair XMS2 Xtreme Memory w/ Heat Spreader)

VIDEO CARD: 2 Radeon® X1950 CrossFire™ Edition PCI Express Video Cards

HARD DRIVE: Single Hard Drive (250GB SATA-II 3.0Gb/s 8MB Cache 7200RPM HDD)


SOUND: Creative Labs X-Fi 24-BIT PCI Sound Card

CASE: Antec Sonata II

POWER SUPPLY: 500W Antec (for ease, since you can get the supply and case together)

CPU COOLER: Zalman CNPS9700 (never trust the stock fan. Ask me how I know)

BACKUP: WD or Seagate External HDD w/ One-Touch Backup

I guess thats it...

Bill Blum | October 19, 2006 01:48 PM

Antec cases are what I typically use for building/rebuilding PCs. The Sonata is my favorite case, by far-- but I typically add a 2nd 120mm fan by the drive cage.

With the components you've chosen though, I'd be I *do* build computers, typicainclined for one of the larger Coolermaster/Thermaltake cases. 450-500W powersupply for sure, get a fanless one if possible....

And for pete's sake--- get a 2nd optical drive.

(I'd be happy to build/deliver the system, or help YOU build it, since I'm relatively local (Springfield). Added benefit-- you get the "my wife likes your books" discount.)

Diplomachismo | October 19, 2006 02:20 PM

I would rather get a beating then go without saying it is entirely pointless to buy another PC when you know it is going to die...and yet your Mac is still there to pick up the slack until you replace the PC...and will be there well after your next PC dies.

Go get a Mac. They're better, cheaper, faster, safer, and yet inspite of these traits is still more fun then a PC. Why buy anything else?

*braces for the well-deserved beating to commence*

John Scalzi | October 19, 2006 02:30 PM


"Go get a Mac. They're better, cheaper, faster, safer, and yet inspite of these traits is still more fun then a PC. Why buy anything else?"

Well, among other things, the Mac I have died after I had it for only a few months and I had to get it overhauled. On the other hand the PC I want to replace now worked largely without a hitch for nearly four years. So I'm not convinced a Mac is better, in terms of quality.

xaaronx | October 19, 2006 02:34 PM

I'm not going to say you should buy another Mac, but I really don't get why anyone who has seen the light would ever buy another Windows box these days. I finally got one--a Macbook--and have no desire ever use Windows again.

Admittedly, I seem to be the lone midtwentysomething male who has totally lost the ability to be interested in gaming, so I don't even know what the disparity in that realm is anymore. Is there really anything else to recomend a Windows machine at this point? And are there really people with lives that have enough time to devote to learning new games? Because the cost/benefit ratio long ago slipped out of balance for me a a philosophy/religios studies undergrad and I don't see it turning around. Though Penny Arcade occasionally makes me want a DS.

Timothy McClanahan | October 19, 2006 02:39 PM

Build this machine and dual boot between Windows (for gaming and NOTHING ELSE) and something like Ubuntu Linux. Problem solved, no need for a Mac. (Plus lots of extra money left over.)

Reliability-wise, perhaps you guys haven't heard of the enormous reliability problems Macbooks and Macbook Pros have lately. Ugh. I've not heard of any problems with Mac Pros, though.

ern | October 19, 2006 02:39 PM

Heck, that thing's not only Vista capable, you could probably go to Mars with it.

As for crossfire or SLI, I've run SLI for a year and a half and it works great (I'm running two GeForce 6800s). But you can't go wrong with either.

Also, depending on what you're needs are for data security, you might consider running a RAID array, with one drive used to mirror data. That way, if the drive fails you haven't lost any data. It's automatic, and you don't have to think about it at all (unlike external hard drives). But then you might prefer to have your data portable, so the external hard drive might be useful to you as a backup instead.

As for "Macs are cheaper"...uh, no. Really, no. They are more expensive for the hardware you get, and if Scalzi wants to play games, he'd be better off on a PC (Mac video cards are far more expensive for less power). I like Macs, and they're great for some things (I'm a graphic designer, and have used macs a great deal). For what Scalzi wants, a PC is probably best.

James | October 19, 2006 03:16 PM

Sounds like a good config. I agree with the poster who suggested dual displays. (or more) It is so handy to have Word open on one monitor and source material open on the other. Much easier to do than if you have 1 big monitor.

Some games do not play well with dual monitors but it is easy enough to disable one or the other.

Tor | October 19, 2006 03:42 PM

Hey - lets talk some more about whether Scalzi should get a mac! How could you read ALL the way down here, and not have noticed the fact that he said *allllll* the way up there that he *already* owns a mac? And if you read this blog regularly, you should know that he has a mac and a pc, he reviews pc games, and knows enough about computers to know the various strengths and weaknesses of each.

Are you honestly suggesting that someone who games fairly often, knows a fair bit about pcs and macs, already owns a mac and a pc, should switch to being all mac when it comes time to replace/upgrade the pc?

I mean, come on, he's already made it clear that he is utterly uninterested in a mac v. pc debate, as is everyone else who has heard or read the exact same damn thing over and over again since the first mac came out. Perhaps it is the only thing you can talk about?

TallDave | October 19, 2006 03:44 PM

My experience has been that it's easiest and most efficient to go to Dell and work through their tiered, choose-your-upgrade system. Their support has been extremely good to me, and it's easy to find upgrades when you want them later. Of course, if you find the build process fun (as opposed to infuriating) that may defeat your purpose.

I haven't ever found a CPU swap to be very useful, personally. My performance bottlenecks always seem to be memory relsted (of course, that may change depending on technology). I usually find with a memory doubling, I can get another useful year or two from the comp.

Chang who is theoretically at "work" | October 19, 2006 03:50 PM

Hey this makes Vista look fun, too!

Not. Not for me especially, as I like Apples. Love them. Yummy. Macintosh, though a Fuji or NEw Zealand will do as well.

Jp | October 19, 2006 03:57 PM

Seems like a sensible spec. One point on the Vista-capable bit though - there aren't any DirectX10 compliant graphics cards out as yet. There are rumours that NVidia's first (GeForce8800) will be out next month, but that's a bit speculative. ATI's is unlikely to arrive before Jan 2007. And prices are obviously likely to be high at first.

In short, you might be better off re-using the graphics card you have now or getting the bottom of the range that will support what you're doing, then upgrade mid-next year. DX10 only games will be short on the ground at first, but DX10 enhanced games will probably arrive quite early, and there's little point in getting top-of-the-range now if you're going to have to start turning performance options off in just 6 months time.

JonathanMoeller | October 19, 2006 04:09 PM

"RE: JonathanMoeller
And why get a Crossfire chipset if you're going to get two NVIDIA cards?"

Heh. I ought to read the thread before I begin bloviating (not that that's ever stopped anyone, of course).

Hao | October 19, 2006 04:11 PM

I'm not entirely sure you need two video cards, but it depends on your monitor I guess. I have a single nvidia 7800gt hooked up to my 23" hp (I have a grudge against Dell), and it runs new games fine, as long as you're willing to settle for 2x fsaa. If your monitor doesn't have a rdiculously high resolution, I think one top of the line graphics card will do until UT2k7 comes out, and you can always get a new card at that point anyway.

As far as cases, I'm partial to Lian-Li, but Coolermaster has some nice ones as well that are price-competitive with Antec. (Not that there's anything wrong with Antec, but hell, everyone has an Antec.) I'm also a fan of Enermax's power supplies, but they come with a bit of a price premium sometimes.

I also suggest upgrading to the WD 150 raptor for boot and apps, and a large secondary drive for storage. I prefer a secondary internal drive as opposed to an external backup, but that's just me. I dislike having yet another peripheral with extra wires running all over the place.

I'm also surpised no one has recommended swapping out the intel motherboard for an Asus p5w dh deluxe.

I also have issues with Creative, but that's mainly because of the lack of digital output on the Extreme Music version of theri x-fi line.

Tripp | October 19, 2006 04:35 PM

Has someone explained the need for two video cards?

I'm curious.

Nathan | October 19, 2006 05:09 PM

Little Girl, pointing: "Daddy, what are those"?

Daddy: "Those are the geeks. Don't get too close; some of them bite".

Little girls: "What are they saying"?

Daddy: "Nobody knows. Some of it sounds like English, but the rest is just gibberish".

Little girl: "They scare me. Can we go home and play on the Mac"?

Daddy: "Sure, honey. I hear it's contagious if you hang around too long".

Jp | October 19, 2006 05:10 PM

The two video cards would be working in tandem: http://www.slizone.com/page/slizone_learn.html

MWT | October 19, 2006 05:22 PM

My old Mac (a Powermac 8500 upgraded to a slow G3) lasted 9 years, so to me "3.5 years" sounds really short. And by "lasted" what I mean is that it took that long before I bought a new computer. It's still working well and still has all of its original parts (except RAM and the CPU, which were also still working when I removed them to upgrade). I could conceivably continue to upgrade it to run modern software if I wanted.

On the other hand, my modern Mac (a G5 iMac 20 in screen Rev B with the mysterious sudden shutdown problem that started right after warranty ran out, for which I have no Applecare because I expected it to work as well as the old Mac) is having serious hardware issues. It's getting a replacement logic board which will make it the third logic board it's had in a year. (I've only had this computer for just over a year. I was expecting it to last ten like the last one.)

So I can't automatically say "Get a Mac" ("ow!") anymore. They don't seem to be making them as well as they used to. And since I can get Stupid Computer Problems like everyone else for much cheaper with a PC, I'm beginning to wonder if I should just go that route instead.

Andrew | October 19, 2006 05:31 PM

The Ars System Guide is being updated for this month. Can't say exactly when it'll be out, but the thread on it does label it as the October Guide...

Bill Bradford | October 19, 2006 05:35 PM

As others have said, the only way to go for power supples is PC Power & Cooling (pcpowercooling.com).

I've been using their stuff since the Pentium Pro days and refuse to put anything else in "home built" machines.

Chuk | October 19, 2006 05:38 PM

You might want to check out the Sharky Extreme buying guides -- they've got a High-End and a Value version (I think there might be an in between one, too), and I find they often have useful suggestions. They keep price and performance in mind.

(I don't work there or anything -- they're just a reference I've been using for the last few years and probably 8 or 10 PCs built.)

Miko | October 19, 2006 06:00 PM

If you only need it to be good for three years or so, I wouldn't bother with Vista capability. XP should see you that far.

Timothy McClanahan | October 19, 2006 06:40 PM

You might want to just skimp on the videocard portion for now and upgrade to duallies when the DX10 cards are all out, and you can make an informed choice and not pay early adopter fees.

GMHedon | October 19, 2006 10:22 PM

My 2 flattened copper disks:

Antec Sonata II - Yes! Awesome case. Beautiful to work with/in. Quiet. Elegant. DO snip the wires that power the Blue LEDs on the front tho - they're nutty bright.

Western Digital Caviar 250 HDs with 16 MB cache seem to occupy the sweet spot in performance/capacity/price trade off (fastish, kinda big, crazy cheap). As some have mentioned, you might give some thought to hooking them up in a RAID configuration (either striped for speed or mirrored for backup/redundancy... Or just buy a bunch of 'em and do both)

Jonathan | October 20, 2006 03:17 AM

Rarely do I see someone upgrade their CPU, since afterwards you'll have a perfectly good used CPU with no motherboard for it. A waste. I always buy CPU and motherboard together and replace together.

Tim | October 20, 2006 03:54 AM

If multimedia means a lot of video, you might take a look at http://www.videoguys.com/DIY.html. Videoguys're a video & editing tools shop. Their DIY pages list parts they've used for $1K, $2K, and $3K edit machines. I've had good luck going off their lower-end configs.

Anonymous | October 20, 2006 09:25 AM

I disagree about the Antec Sonata II. I've got one and it's pants. I paid through the nose for it (as computer cases go) and it's an order of magnitude poorer than the brand-X cheapest-in-the-shop case I had before.

The moving parts that need to move on a regular basis don't so much move as snap off. Turning in my chair, I lightly bumped the door on the front with my elbow and a little plastic bit of the hinge snapped off and disappeared into the ether, rendering the door uncloseable.

Removing the dust filter for cleaning is a complete bastard to do as well, and the second time I was doing it one of the little knobbly plastic bits you have to bend in order to extract the filter snapped off, and now removing it has to be done by poking around inside the case with a long pointy thing, which I really don't like to do.

Also, the passive cooling duct has a range of motion of about half an inch, and cannot be placed over my processor cooler, which is kind of a bitch since a quieter computer is why I got the thing in the first place.

All in all, I'm thinking of writing the company to tell them that I think they're selling an overpriced POS and I want my money back and a new case, preferably not made by them.

Dane | October 20, 2006 09:32 AM

I'd favor a PC of a MAc for the simple reason that when you buy a PC you aren't inducted into a cult.

Dane | October 20, 2006 09:33 AM

I'd favor a PC over a MAC for the simple reason that when you buy a PC you aren't inducted into a cult.

fuz | October 20, 2006 09:46 AM

Other possibility for two graphics cards: Two monitors.

Personally, I no longer understand how anyone can get any work done with only one.

rhandir | October 20, 2006 09:54 AM

Nutshell advice:
Get two drives, one small, cheap drive for the operating system, one large drive for your data and the swap file. Advantage: performance and ease of backups.

Better nutshell advice:
Get three drives, one small, cheap IDE drive for your operating system and swap file, and two large SATA drives to run as RAID-1 for your data and program files. Put the SATA drives in drive sleds, so you can pull one out and replace the drive without having to open the case. (Drive sleds/trays are 5.25", so your case will need at least 3.)
Bigger is better. More room to work. A motherboard tray that slides out easily is a tremendous help.
Too much is never enough. Big, slow fans; watercooling is prone to mechanical failure. If the case has a built in "finger protector" for the case fan, dremel it out before you put the motherboard in - you'll get better airflow, and motherboards do not like fine metal shavings. If noise is an issue, note that 10' of vga cable is 20$, so if you can put the box in an adjacent room, you can trade off quieter, more expensive cases for, er, hideousness. (If you are good with drywall, it could look quite slick indeed, so long as you don't mind going to the next room to put in disks.)
Too much is never enough, particularly if you have a bunch of harddrives. Startup load can cause problems. (Read the specs and reviews closely, and buy from a reputable manufacturer. Anyone can make cheap RAM work, but if you have dirty power, you're screwed.) If you don't have an uninterruptible power supply this whole discussion is moot. Dirty power will kill your machine before it's time. Go buy one today, it's that important. I like APC's BE350R, which runs about 58$ with shipping from newegg.
Those of you reccomending Dells - recall that Scalzi said he was interested in building, not buying. Unless something's changed recently Dell uses a proprietary power supply plug with one or two wires switched, so you can only upgrade the power supply with Dell hardware. Rumor has it that "regular" supplies do bad things to Dell motherboards.
Drive configuration:
XP doesn't like to boot from most SATA raid cards or SATA motherboard chipsets. I have not been able to get it to do so without providing windows with an IDE drive to put a little bit of data on to get it past boot. If you can get windows to boot from a RAID 1 (redundant) array, that is probably worth the money in terms of less possible downtime. The cheap alternative is installing xp on one ide drive, and using an imaging program (or Knoppix, which is a free CD-booting linux variant) to make a duplicate disk that you can put on the other IDE channel. You'll need to check if this makes the windows activation thing trip - it may not if you have identical model harddrives. Vista will very likely have a problem with this - they are tightening up the licensing enforcement. This also gives you a place to put the system paging file that is on a different drive/channel which is very likely to improve performance.
Paging files:
You probably know this stuff, sorry. The paging file (swap file, pagefile.sys) is the dedicated hd location the system uses in place of memory. The total amount of memory that applications want usually is much greater than the motherboard will support and run windows at the same time, so things are swapped out to disk so the currently used stuff is in memory. Photoshop (and I think video editing programs) also likes having a "scrach disk" for temporary files on a different drive than the one that has the pagefile. So, the moral to the story is, get a minimum of two harddrives, and put the pagefile on a different one than the one that contains your data or your system files. (Ideally you'd have three: system, programs, and data)
Paging file tips:
Set the paging file to be a fixed size, most defrag programs can't move it, and if it grows, you can end up with bits of it all over your disk, slowing down sequential reads. You can set the paging file to a small amount on your system drive and a large amount on an additional drive, since windows really is bright enough to prefer the non-system disk for paging. (kudos to the software engineer that got that right!)
Two drives in raid 0 (no redundancy) disk will make some operations substantially faster. For linear reads, it effectively doubles the access speed. For video editing, very large file operations, much to the good. Loading Photoshop's memory requirements to the paging file, for instance. This is unlikely to improve game performance. (And I believed that Ars proved that it doesn't.) It also reduces mean time between failure, so have a rock solid, easy system restoration plan. (Norton ghost is supposed to not suck anymore. YMMV.) I used RAID-0 on my data drive for about a year and a half before it fell over, but I had several external drives that I used as backups. (Still a pain though.)

rhandir | October 20, 2006 10:09 AM

I apologize. On more closely reading your original post, I noticed you mentioned that you had an additional harddrive you could dedicate to the project. I also noticed that I had not actually answered any of your questions about: cases, power sources, or cooling. I will attempt to do better next time.
I can only contribute these tiny tidbits of information: Antec cases are efficiently designed, and their power supplies will run loads outside of their rated range without complaint - it shortens their lifespan, and you get to smell scorching electronics, but they don't fail catastrophically. My own cooling regimes are, er, sub-par, and not worth mentioning, other than the novelty factor of placing a box fan against an open computer case. (Which does indeed work, but is neither elegant, quiet, or fully catproof.)

ern | October 20, 2006 01:02 PM

Beware geeks bearing advice.

I knew as soon as I saw the post that the advice would flow wide and deep. It's mostly good advice, though, and only minor flashes of the classic geek battles. I am surprised that there's no significant debate between AMD and Intel fans here. Looks like Conroe has silenced that one, at least for the moment.

As for the two monitors bit--most cards are coming out with two DVI ports, so even if you wanted to run dual monitors, you only usually need one video card.

I suppose the comment about DX10 compliant cards is a good one. They're due soon, though the prices will likely be $600 a pop or higher. Also, if you're planning on going Vista when it comes out early next year, I'm wondering if you'd want to go through the trouble of installing it on a machine you've been using for a bit (since you'll probably want to do a clean install of Vista). So, if you want DX10 cards and Vista, it might be worth it to wait until you can get both at the same time.

On the other hand, you might not want to or be able to wait. Conundrums, conundrums. It's always the waiting game with components. There's always something better just over the horizon, but if you keep waiting, you never get your computer.

Bob Wall | October 20, 2006 01:10 PM

John, keep in mind that many of the Core 2 capable boards (965 and 975) do not have any parallel ata channel at all - it's all SATA. I just bought a Dell that was like that - the optical is sata, and there is no parallel. So that extra drive of yours, if it is a PATA might need to go in an external case, if you don't make sure you get a board with pata.

Jonathan | October 20, 2006 01:11 PM

rhandir, that was it in a "nutshell"? My friend, I think you provided several bushels of nuts.

htom | October 20, 2006 01:23 PM

The newest ArsTechnica guide will be out in probably a week or two; there's a discussion about what changes to make in their forums. I would wait and look at their recommendations (and the discussion on the forum) for both the HotRod (gaming) and GodBox (ultimate) for ideas and the tradeoffs made.

Two, or better, three hard drives can give you a lot of disk access without competition. Removable drives are going to be the new floppies for backup.

You may want to consider moving to BSD or Linux, at least as a backup system, since the M$ EULA seems to be becoming draconian. I keep waiting for them to claim copyright on anything created with it, but they have not done that -- yet.

Mark | October 20, 2006 01:30 PM

You might enjoy looking at pc s built by Falcon N.W.
They have many models, and you can custom design their "Talon" series. I have 2, one 6year old 750mhz, and one 3 year old Athlon 2800+ which is tough and fast. They are a great small company, and I have had nothing but praise for those I have recommended to them.

Best Luck-

rhandir | October 20, 2006 01:32 PM

Yea, that was a bit nutty. My friends often say that I am nuts to supply so much "advice," but it only costs me peanuts. I should at least shell out for some linebreaks between my nutshell advice and just going bananas talking about stuff. But that's all apples and oranges, or at least Jonathans and Macintoshes.

John | October 20, 2006 02:23 PM

I don't have much to add except a chorus of "me too"s.

I love Antec cases. I have 3 PCs with them (including a Sonata II) and I've built 6 PCs for family & friends and have been using Antecs for many years now. I did buy one Coolermaster case, but it had some really flimsy parts. I don't remember the model but it was one of those flashy LED-bedecked jobbies that are all the rage with the hip kiddies (hey, it wasn't for me, he requested it).

My latest 500w Antec power supply is very cool, all the power cords have a modular jack that plugs into the power supply, so you only use as many cords as you need.

I also use 3 hard-drives, one smaller drive that holds the OS and swap file, and then two large drives in RAID 0.

And I'm about to buy one of those one-touch backup external drives, because they've finally come down in price and up in size so that they've outstripped the NAS I've had for years.

I'd also recommend the dual displays. I've found it invaluable for work, as I have my "workspace" on one screen and my "research & entertainment" (web browser) open on the other. I'm sure this would be particularly useful to your writing (I'm assuming you use a word processor?) as you can have your document open and banging away at it, and have your web browser open on the other screen for any quick researching you need.

I don't have SLI up and running yet, but that's in the works for my next gaming PC upgrade.

Hao | October 20, 2006 04:39 PM

Falcon charges a large premium for their building service. I once customized a system with nothing in it and figured they were charging around $700 for building a system.

For multimedia/gaming, one big monitor is preferred over two smaller monitors, simply because your full-screen uses all the resolution. There are of course advantages to two monitors, mainly cost/pixel, but I like the fact that my monitor supports up to 1080i, so I don't need to buy a TV for my high-def console gaming.

MWT | October 20, 2006 05:55 PM

Jonathan said: Rarely do I see someone upgrade their CPU, since afterwards you'll have a perfectly good used CPU with no motherboard for it. A waste. I always buy CPU and motherboard together and replace together.

Since I get the distinct impression that that one was aimed at me, I'll point out that in the world of ancient (but still working) Apple computers, it's common to switch out CPUs without also switching out motherboards. Apple motherboards last a good long while.

fuz said: Personally, I no longer understand how anyone can get any work done with only one [monitor].

Multiple virtual screens. Seems to be a standard on unix-based systems.

Heh, with my current work computer, I have four virtual solaris screens and XP running in a (minimizable) Window. :) Four seems to be the default, though you can specify as many as you want.

There was also third-party software for Mac OS pre-X for virtual screens that worked the same way.

MikeB | October 22, 2006 02:23 AM

I'll buy a MAC again when I know I can trust them to let me into the OS - I can hack Windows until it bleeds. OS-X, despite it pseudo-Unix roots is crippled in all the wrong places and, much as I would love to use it, I am old-fashioned enough to want to have complete control over it.

Jon | October 22, 2006 09:40 PM

I think two video cards is overkill -- but whatever floats your boat. I'd much rather spend the extra cash on a nicer display.

Building a quiet machine is non-trivial. You basically want quiet 120mm fans everywhere, including the CPU. For the video cards this can be problem, although you can buy a passively cooled (no fans at all!) 7950 GT ( XFX GeForce 7950 GT) right now. A good card with only make a lot of noise while gaming though.

Tom K. | October 22, 2006 10:52 PM

You dont have to bad of a build right now with the parts listed. But if your going to spend so much you might as well go all out.

Video: EVGA 7950X2 1gig GDDR3
Harddrive: 150Gig Western Dig Raptor 10,000 RPM
Motherboard: EVGA Socket AM2 590 Nforce
CPU: Athlon 64 X2 5200+ 2.8ghz
RAM: Cosair XMS2 DDR 800 = 2gig.
Dvd: Samsung DVD 18x burner
Power: OCZ GameXStream OCZ700GXSSLI ATX12V 700W
Sound: Creative Labs X-fi Fatality
(All parts can be found at newegg.com)

Along with cooling and case it will run about 2700 dollars (with shipping). If you go for a fancy water cooling system then it will be a ton more.

I would suggest waiting on the Vista system if that is what your planning on buying. Try the Windows Pro 64bit.

This is system i am in the prosses of building for myself. I am a gamer and have a ton of friends. These parts have been chosen over the past 4 months trying to find what will buy the most bang for my buck and get me something that will last me though college since I am not woring to work.

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