Building a Computer, Part Three

I’ve been a bit delayed with this series.  Life has this way of intervening.  On the plus side, there have been galley proofs to read for Seeking Hyde.  On the not-so-plus side has been a root canal treatment.  That turned out to be painless while it lasted, but the two weeks waiting for treatment weren’t quite so pleasant.  In any case, I’m back to talk about processors.

My motherboard selection meant that I had to choose an Intel processor.  The reason isn’t so much that I bought an Intel motherboard as the socket on the board that the holds the processor.  The motherboards I considered all had LGA-1155 sockets, which designed specifically for a line of Intel processors.  The “1155” means that there are 1,155 pins that plug into the processor.  AMD processors have a different socket design, as do some Intel processors such as the Itanium.

In any case, I still needed to decide which Intel processor to go with.  I don’t play games, and I don’t do heavy lifting with databases.  I’ll usually have no more than three or four windows open at once. My computing needs are really fairly modest. I could have probably gotten by with a Pentium or some older technology, but where’s the fun in that?  Besides, I wanted to take advantage of on-board high-definition graphics and on-board support for USB 3.0, so that meant stepping up to one of the new processors.

Intel has taken to giving cute names to the latest releases of microprocessor architecture.  First there was “Sandy Bridge,” and now it’s “Ivy Bridge.”  Blech.  Anyway, at the time I built, Ivy Bridge was the latest.  But even here, you’ve got over two dozen different processors in the I-3, I-5 and I-7 product lines.  I opted for a mid-range I-5 processor.   It has four cores, which means it can run four processes at once.  This greatly speeds things up, especially if you have more than one window open. It has on-board graphics with support for up to three monitors.  It can be “over-clocked,” which means that you can increase the voltage and thus the speed.  However, I don’t plan to do that as there are downsides relative to stability and heat.

In fact, one of the reported downsides to the Ivy Bridge processors is that they seem to run a bit hotter, by as much as ten degrees, than the older Sandy Bridge.  For that reason, I invested another $28 and got the third-party CPU cooler at right.  It’s more efficient and it’s also shorter.  Since I was planning to purchase a smaller case, size was an important consideration.

Just as your CPU has to fit into the available socket, your memory also has to be compatible with both your motherboard and your processor.  Most memory vendors have tools on their websites that let you specify motherboard and processor and will then display compatible memory.  Memory chips tend to be come from a small number of manufacturers, no matter what the label says.  They also tend to not overheat, so there is little reason to buy a memory chip with cooling fins. All those fins do is take up space, which can be at a premium in smaller cases.

My board had room for four memory chips.  Here’s one of the places where building your own machine has it all over buying a big box machine.  Typically, the commercial stores will populate all four of your memory slots with 1GB chips, giving you a total of 4GB of memory.  That’s not very much with the current bloated operating systems and office automation packages.  The more memory you have, the more efficiently your computer will run.  I wanted a minimum of 16GB of memory.  If I’d bought a big box machine, I would have had to throw away the 4GB they forced on me and replace them with my own chips.  Worse, if you do this yourself, you void your warranty, which means you have to pay a premium to have a technician at the store do a five minute job that doesn’t even require a screwdriver.  That’s good for me, since I can’t use a screwdriver without cutting myself.

One final component that’s often obscure is the power supply.  The first question you’ll encounter is how big should it be–how many volts?  Most vendors have a web tool to help you calculate this. For example, there’s one here:

But the big advice I have on power supplies is, first, get a modular power supply and, second, get one with flat cables.  Absolutely the hardest part of cabling your new system will be connecting the power supply to the components.  An inexpensive, non-modular power supply will have permanently attached all the cables any system could possible need.  That means you’ve got a whole bunch of thick, ungainly cables stuffed in your system that do exactly nothing.  With a modular system, you chose which cables to plug into the power supply and hence into your system.  You use only the ones you need.

The other thing about inexpensive power supplies is that they have these thick, inflexible cables.  They are hard to handle, won’t go where you want them, and in general make me swear like a sailor. Flat, modular cables solve both problems.  They are flexible, they fit through the channels built in your case, you can tie them off in a corner, and you use only the ones you need.  I figure I spent an extra $40 or so on my power supply. It was the best investment of all the parts.

Next:  The peripherals and the case

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