Building my new Computer, Part 1: Preliminaries, Preparation, and Planning

Hello dear reader. I know I wrote about building computers just two blog posts ago, but things did happen in the mean time. I’m now in the concrete planning phase of building a new computer for myself, sometime July-ish. (Maybe July, maybe August, we’ll see. Don’t hold me to the date too much just yet.)

In fact, since I am a rather compulsive note-taker, my text file with notes is at just over 850 words already. And that’s not including the separate file with research/pondering on how I’m going to paint the case. If this isn’t a perfect opportunity to walk through the actual process, hands-on and with a real world example, I don’t know what is. My friend Maria nudged some subtle encouragement my way, so here we have this first article in (I hope) a series about me building my computer.

As I mentioned in the earlier article, assembling a list of computer parts is the most difficult and most involved part of the process, but it’s also the easiest one to misrepresent in written form. The final parts list never shows the process that preceded it. All that remains is a scant few lines of fully-realised justification, with no trace of all the doubts and ego-searching and budget minding and making sense of conflicting reviews. Especially when you consider building a computer for the first time (which you really should!), this can make assembling such a list look overwhelmingly difficult, when it is ‘just’ a good bit of informed legwork and some honest thinking about your priorities.

To avoid hiding the list-building process, I’d like to write this first installment now, way in advance of when the building starts. We’ll look at a run-down of what this computer should be fulfilling, and then go through each section of my note file as it is right now, half-finished, with some decisions still some time off, and others fairly firmly dialled in. I’ll also try and add in some helpful links to give you an impression of the things I read during the process. (Note: I am usually not that well-read on hardware, and only start reading up when I want to build something.)

If you are in Germany, geizhals.de (.at for Austria) is a useful general purpose link for checking the financial impact of different choices, getting an overview of available products by their features, etc.

What kind of computer do I want to build, and why not RIGHT NOW?

It is to replace my current rig, which is a fairly old-ish middle-of-the-line quad-core processor with an ancient graphics card in a fairly noisy and dusty case. It kinda still does its job, but you can feel it’s not the youngest anymore, even with my recent addition of an SSD hard drive. So I want to go all-new and not just upgrade a few parts. It should be doing well enough for my somewhat limited gaming ambitions, and be really good for extensive graphics work. Most of the other things I do don’t hit performance that hard. Think versatile allrounder, not ridonkulously top of the line hyperexpensive gaming monster.

Why upgrade some time in the second half of this year and not now? Great question! It’s because later this year, nVIDIA releases Pascal, a new line of graphics card processors, and they could be pretty darn impressive. (The article isn’t new, but explains why the new GPUs should be a much larger jump in performance than the last few jumps.)

So when games are a concern, not waiting for nVIDIA’s Pascal or AMD’s Polaris chips is madness, no matter whether you build or buy pre-assembled.

The plan, so far

Thankfully, virtual reality just hit the enthusiast PC gaming market. This means there are many articles on building capable new gaming rigs. Here are a few for your reading pleasure:

I used these as entry reading material, just to get started. Naturally, I don’t want to build a computer for VR, so I’ll have to change things around.

Case

I really need to retire the noisy old case. It’s a bit clunky to build in, and some newer ones look like they make the job much easier, with less cable clutter. My note file reads:

favoured: fractal design define r5, ~100 EUR

backups:  fractal design define r4, ~80 EUR
          practically the same thing, bar some better details on the r5.
          (main board tray, usb/power switch/headphone jack panel)

          fractal design define mini, ~80–90 EUR, micro-atx only
          only one usb3 port, smaller means air cooling even more difficult

          nanoxia cases on a similar general design train, but don’t seem entirely up to par.

The Define R5 looks nice, is very silent, and has a bunch of features I like. It’s not cheap, but a nice case goes a long way, and will be good for many future builds.

All the alternatives I considered fell short in one aspect or the other, so the R5 gets the nod.

CPU

Ok, actual computer parts now. My note file has this leading line:

something intel. mid–high i5 or low i7? skylake sounds more realistic than kaby lake for late 2016.

In plainspeak: Intel builds several lines of CPUs. Their Core i5 ones are the upper end of the mainstream segment, while the Core i7 ones are considered Performance CPUs. Skylake is the code name of the currently available CPU generation (Wikipedia), and Kaby Lake is the upcoming one. CPUs haven’t been getting that much faster over the last years, so I don’t see much benefit in waiting for Kaby Lake.

What I’m really wondering here is whether to get the same class of CPU I have right now (mid–high i5), or step up a notch (i7).

Here’s the CPUs I considered, from my notes:

i7-6700    3.4 ghz    ~315 EUR
i5-6600    3.3 ghz    ~215 EUR
i5-6500    3.2 ghz     200 EUR

As you can see, the i7 is faster and significantly more expensive, while the two i5s are practically the same speed and price range. There is another i5 above the i5 6600, the i5 6600K. While it sounds good on paper (a little faster and a little more expensive than the 6600), the chips ending in -K are for overclocking and you have to buy a cooler separately. Since I have no interest in overclocking, this would end up more expensive for less gain.

AnandTech considered the i5 6600 the best CPU in early 2016 for normal gaming systems. Meanwhile, the i5 6500 features in both polygon’s and ars technica’s minimum spec VR build.

Given the tiny differences between the i5s, i’m pretty sure i’ll go for the i5 6600. The i7 is just too expensive and I’d just buy it to have a CPU with a larger number, not because I need it. Reason must prevail.

GPU

As I’m going to wait for the new GPUs, I’ll just quote my note file:

something nvidia pascal, >4 gb, GTX 970 equivalent.

The GTX 970 is nVIDIA’s current GPU at the bottom end of their upper segment. These cards are in the 300-ish EUR range, whereas their bigger brethren go for 500 EUR and higher. With the expected performance increase of Pascal over current GPUs, I should be more than fine with the new slowest-of-the-fast GPU.

Mainboard

Quoth the file:

something z170? or is h170 enough?

With a Skylake CPU, there is a choice between several mainboard chipsets (Wikipedia) that provide a different amount of features each.

There’s the home market’s top contender Z170 (overclocking etc.), its smaller brother H170, and its entry level brother H110. Looking at the features table on Wikipedia, the things that tangibly matter to me are how many USB ports are supported and how many RAM slots they can provide.

The Z170’s 10 USB3 & 4 USB2 ports look super tasty, but I’ll live with the cheaper H170’s 8 USB3 & 6 USB2 offering. The H110’s 4 USB3 & 6 USB2 ports won’t do. 10 ports is not much, and skimping on the fast ones doesn’t sound wise. RAM wise, I also am much happier with the H/Z170’s four slots over the H110’s two, so it looks like I should go with an H170 board. Polygon.com agrees with me, choosing an H170 board for their 900 USD VR computer.

Some random reading and specs-comparing later, I scribbled down:

MSI H170M-A Pro looking pretty good.

So that’s the favoured product so far. It’s possible something changes here, but at least I wrote something down for now.

RAM

Besides having so many fast USB3 ports, the Skylake chipsets have another advantage: We’ve been stocking our computers with DDR3 RAM for years, but now we get support for its successor, DDR4. DDR4 has become cheap enough to make no budget difference as well. Thus the concise:

ddr4, ~16 GB

Because why would I want less?

Hard Disks/Storage

Hard disks will probably all be scavenged from my old rig. I’m using a 250 GB SSD (Samsung 850 Evo) for the operating system, and a 1 TB HDD (Western Digital Blue) for file storage. In addition, there’s several terabytes hooked up in external HDDs.

The only thing I’m pondering is whether to supplant my 4 TB external HDD (media library) with a 4 TB internal HDD, and use the external drive for a backup copy.

Anyway, I can vouch for both the Samsung 850 Evo SSDs (not the bleeding edge of SSD speed, but infinitely faster than any conventional HDD, and affordable) and the Western Digital Blue HDDs. (a reliable jack of all trades, and not expensive.) Cheaper alternatives can be had, but I’ve been burned by a cheap HDD’s complete failure before, so now I’m paranoid.

Power Supply

Once all the other parts on the list are picked, I can use an online calculator to get the total system wattage, and then choose a power supply accordingly. Until then, only this remains scribbled down:

80+ bronze sounds like a good idea.
an evga 500W 80+ bronze can be had for 45-ish EUR

80+ is a line of energy efficiency standards, so let’s buy a certified one because trees are nice. The 500 W PSU is mentioned as a placeholder to give me a rough idea of price.

Drives

probably keep dvd-r from old system.

Nuff said, right? A lot of systems these days skip the optical drive (CD/DVD/BluRay) entirely, but I’m not yet ready to go that far. My DVD-r isn’t getting much use, but when it does, I’m glad to have it. (Also, the fancy case I picked has a front door that hides the drive until used, so I have both clean looks and keep my DVD-r, muhaha)

Operating System

My current computer has two operating systems installed: Linux Mint and Windows 7. However, I haven’t booted Windows once, ever since setting up the two systems. I’m thinking of ditching dual-boot and going 100% Linux.

Linux Mint was really amazing for making the switch from Windows, but some things about it (and its parent & grandparent, Ubuntu and Debian) could click better with me, so I’m thinking of switching Linux distributions. Here’s what I wrote:

manjaro linux sounds like a nice distro to test: arch based, configurable, accessible, and kde plasma 5. manjaro xfce looks pretty damn nice on my mother’s laptop.

That’s what my plan looks like so far. CPU, RAM, and case seem pretty decided on. The mainboard is looking OK, but I haven’t been doing any reading so far. The graphics card decision obviously has to wait until we can buy the new ones, and power supply comes last. And I have to come to a decision whether or not to buy that additional 4 TB hard drive. I’ll keep you updated when there’s any progress.

So, is this helpful somehow? Are some things unclear? Is this interesting at all? I only quoted the most telling parts of my notes – would it be better to just give you the whole file, warts and all, with some annotations? Anything else to bring up? Please leave me a comment below.

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