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Building a System

Revised on June 4th, 2003

If you think that building your own system is daunting, think again. The only thing you need is a screwdriver and some money. We recommend buying all this new. More frustrations and anguish from building a system stem from the builder not fully understanding the compatibility of the components. When you get a pile of parts in a box from your friend or coworker that you think is fine, you'll soon discover that it's in a box for a reason.

We are going to focus on one system here. I could go into all the variations of CPU, Motherboard, Video cards and Sound boards but I won't. I could fill a novel with all the combinations. I just want to keep it simple.

 

The Case
A lot of people say you should start with the motherboard but I disagree. I think the most important option is the case. Choosing a good computer case is critical to running a good computer system. Its most likely going to stick it out with you for 3 or 4 motherboards and upgrades, so pick one you're going to like for a long term.

The case should have at least the following:

  • 300 watt power supply that is 2.03 PC compliant. Make sure the 5vsb line has at least a 2.0amp rating!
  • two 5 inch drive bays
  • two 3 inch drive bays
  • good ventilation in the front near the bottom and in the back. See AMD's tech paper on cooling. I like cases that have an extra place below the power supply in the back of the case to mount a fan for better cooling.

The case I use and like is the Antec SX630

 

CPU or Processor

Choosing the CPU is the second most critical choice when building a system. Personally I like the AMD Athlon. It's cheaper and faster than most Intel models for it's class. I have benchmarked this CPU against other Intel competitors and have found that the Athlon does outperform the Intel chips after splitting hairs. It should also be said that when you benchmark these chips like I have the difference is marginal but the price difference is as much as 30% off for the Athlon's.

My personal Favorite is the AMD Athlon 2400+ CPU. You can get these for under $100 and for the most part, it's a great all around CPU for most people. If you look over on Pricescan.com, you can find a good price from one of the vendors there. They come in two types; 1) OEM and 2) Retail or Boxed as they say. What's this OEM and Boxed stuff about? OEM CPUs are just that. Just the CPU. Shipped to you like integrators or computer manufacturers get them. Plain package all by itself. Here's a major piece of advice, get a boxed unit. Boxed units carry a longer warranty than and OEM unit and you're more likely to damage a OEM unit by fiddling around with it during installation, something the reseller counts on.

 

Motherboard

I have 4 boards I like these days. Most of the people I encounter in my shop want something for just surfing the net, checking email, and running quicken. Maybe a little website editing and things like that. Some want something with a little more power, and then some (very few) want a monster.

1) The Asus A7N266-VM all in one board. All you need is a DDR memory chip, a hard drive and then a Athlon XP CPU. Asus recently upgraded the BIOs on this board and I have successfully installed the Athlon XP 2400+.

2) The Asus A7V333-X. This is a few levels about the A7N266-VM with support for the AMD 2.8GHz Athlon XP CPU, 333MHz FSB, UltraDMA 133 IDE hard drives, USB 2.0 (6 ports in all), and onboard sound and support for PC2700 memory. It's a great little board for user that want a bit more punch.

3) Asus P4P800 Deluxe. This is a absolutely awsome motherboard. Asus has done it once again producing a mobo with more options than the Space Shuttle (I know that's not saying much). This motherboard

4) Intel

 

Video Card

Really there are only two choices here kids; nvidia and ATI. Personally, I like ATI. Why? Well when it comes right down to it, these two cards run neck and neck when it comes to performance. Really, go read the reviews out there on TomsHardware, Anandtech and the like. The reason I like ATI is when and if I have problems, they have always, promptly, fixed me up. Meaning, I got a return card in the mail, cross shipped (they take your credit card and ship you another one, when they get the bad card they credit you) and on my doorstep gettng me and my client on happy street. The number one thing I can say that is bad about ATI is the little fans that keep the card cool go out every now and then. ATI has always fixed me up though and replaced the fan. They do make you send in the whole card and that's a pain, but they do stand behind the product.

When I've bought a nvidia card, I must say, I've been screwed more times than not. Whether I buy retail or wholesale, nvidia based cards have been a problem for me. So, I like to endorse ATI.

 

Memory

Have you ever had a GPF or General Protection Fault pop up on your screen? Who hasn't. If you run Windows ME 98 or 95, then chances are you have. The most likely cause of a GPF error is one program walking over another one. The second most common cause is a memory problem. Memory can go bad. When you are building a system, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to check with the Motherboard manufacturer for a list of known good memory chips. All motherboard manufacturers have these lists and if they don't, pass on it. Crucial.com (where I buy most my chips) has a drop down list of motherboards and systems that have verified by Crucial or the manufacturer so you don't have any problems.

 

Sound Card

SoundBlaster is the kingpin in this arena. I own a SoundBlaster Live! MP3+ first generation sound card. I play computer games and listen to music while I work. Personally and professionally I recommend this card. You can go with a lower end card that will play music and the games and for the most part will provide you with most of the functionality that sound cards are supposed to for about $15 to $20 ( SoundBlaster Ensoniq ). There are other sound cards that come and go in this industry, but to be honest with you, like my 3dfx card, I've never had a problem with SoundBlaster and I don't think I ever will. These guys have been around since the beginning of computer time and something tells me they will be for some time to come.

 

Speakers

There is a difference when it comes to speakers. I've had everything from the little desktop 8 inch tall ones to the Theater Surround Sound model that I currently have. I have purchased several different models for clients and compared the sets. Frankly its hard to tell a difference in sound when you buy a quality set. Cambridge Sound Works, Altek Lansing, Boss, Creative Labs, they all make pretty darn good speakers. I suggest you go to a computer store and listen to the models they have set up. If its a good computer store they'll have at least 5 or 6 sets working. MicroCenter has 10 sets the last time I was there.

If you really want a good speaker set, and you buy a good quality sound card like the SB Live! MP3+ or better, then I suggest you get a separate amplifier with real stereo speakers that were meant for a home theater. I was at a friends house the other night and he had set up a set from Bose that combined with the sound card he had, just knocked my socks off. Wow! It was really really cool! Very impressive.

Click to enlarge photo,,, [01.05.00] - Best speaker/amplifier set I've had the pleasure of hearing to date (if you can afford it) is the Bose Acoustimass® 5 Series III Speaker System at $549. You may find it on the net for less ($375) but you'll have to look hard.
Combined with a SoundBlaster MP3+ or X-Gamer, its is absolutely fantastic. Go down to your local Bose shop and check it out for yourself. Nice. Really nice.

 

Monitor

Samsung for most intensified purposes is most likely the best monitor you'll find for the price. Again, I've never had one go down, and I've checked with Samsung and they offer a 3 year replacement policy. You'll find that you can grab a 17" .26dp monitor for $175 and a 19" for $225 if you look around. Now if you're a graphics designer or webmaster and work with graphics a lot, you'll want a Sony, Mitsubishi or Viewsonic. When it comes to monitors, I tell my friends to buy what they think looks good according to their own eyes. People can get quite religious when it comes to their monitor.

Looking for a good flatscreen?!? Well the prices have come down a lot and the quality is getting much better. A year ago I look at 3 top name LCD monitors. I played games, ran all kinds of self-tests and concluded it wasn't for me. It just wasn't there. No here comes Samsung again with thier SyncMaster 770TFT 17" baby. I picked up one of these and man I gotta tell you, its the niceest LCD I've ever seen! Just check out the specs here on Samsungs site. I've also seen around town LCDs selling for 500$, but I dunno guys. I'd stay away from these.

 

Hard Drive

IBM Deskstar all the way. Maxtor is my second choice. I don't even consider anything else. Why should I? When shopping for a drive make sure that the RPM is at least 7200 and it's a ATA66 rated drive. 10000 RPM and ATA100 is the rave now, but you'll find bargains for the ATA66 7200.

IBM and Maxtor drives have proven themselves time and time again for me. IBM has the market share and Maxtor has a good chunk of the rest with the others following. IBM just released the ATA100 specification adding to the ATA66 calling them ATA66+ drives. If you consider getting one of these drives with the ATA100 specification, make sure your motherboard has this capability to support it or you'll be wasting your money. If you buy a ATA100 drive it'll work on your older board, only at a slow rate.

 

CD-ROM or CDRW Drive

Hewlett Packard & Plextor are the forerunners here. HP offers steadfast reliability and a name brand and the challenger, Plextor offers speed and cool software. Guess which one I chose. HP. My reasoning is this; I have a HP Deskjet 970Cxi, a HP ScanJet 5300 USB, and a HP 8100 CD-Writer internal IDE CDRW. Some time ago my HP scanner died. Just stopped working one day when I was scanning some pics for the website. I thought... oh no... I called HP and in less than 10 minutes I was being told that my new scanner would be on my doorstep in 24 hours and I was to place the bad one, a older model 4200 non-usb in the special pre-paid shipping carton and send it back. Nice you may say? It was 1 month out-of-warranty!

Now you know why I like HP. You can try the Plextor, if fact, I may be purchasing a external unit for archiving onsite client data in the near future, but it'll sure be hard to break that bond I have with HP.

Aside for the cuddling, HP offers a very competitive product with speeds matching the Plextor in every area. A SCSI version of a CDRW would be faster, but you'd be splitting hairs here and you would have to fork over another $100 at least for a SCSI card, and there would be installation complications to deal with.

For my money, IDE drive are the most cost effective solution.

 

Modem

8 months ago I was singing the praises of the IBM 56K ISA DSVD internal modem, but my good buddy Bill Schmelzer from Ziff-Davis Publishing tells me one day [11-02-00] that the Diamond SupraMax 56K ITU PCI internal was a deal at $29 from my local computer store. So, I pop down and get a few for future installs. I was pleasantly surprised! Installs in a snap, no conflicts and easy to update. What a deal. Compared to my CreativeLabs Modem Blaster 56K which was a pain in the butt to install, not to mention that software uninstall feature dosesn't uninstall properly leaving you with a modem in the control panel when you already removed it.

As you can see from the description above, you should look for a 56K ITU v.90 PCI modem. Anything else will most likely cause you problems.

 

Network Card

If you are on a local area network (LAN) and want a little extra boost from you network and DSL connections, I like the 3Com Etherlink XL 10/100 PCI (3C905B-TX) but I've found that the Kingston KNE111-TX 10/100 PCI work fine for 99.99% of all the other applications. Kingston gets 5 for customer satisfaction from me. You might ask yourself why you think you may or may not need a network card? Let me tell you that you do. Even if you don't have a network at home, its great just in case someone comes over your house and they have a laptop and want to transfer a file or something to your computer. And if you don't have a broadband connection like Cable or DSL, you should and you'll need Network Interface Card or NIC to facilitate this.

 

Floppy drive

Not much to say here. We don't use floppies much these days anymore. To be safe, get a Sony or a Teac 1mbit rated floppy drive. You could also look into getting one of those SuperDisk's that will read and write standard floppy disks and 120MB HD disks. They are generally cheaper and faster than ZIP drives and most newer motherboard offer support for these devices so you don't need a special software program or driver to use it. I haven't used one of these yet but people I know who have say they work just fine.

 

Keyboard

This is definitely a user preference. Everyone have something they like about a particular keyboard. My favorite is a Microsoft IntlliType Pro. Its suits me. I did have a Logitech Internet keyboard but it had software driver issues Logitech couldn't resolve. All I can say here is choose the one you like the feel of.

 

Mouse

Another look and feel computer item. Personally, I like a trackball. One like Logitech's TrackMan Marble Plus with a wheel for scrolling webpages and documents. This trackball has a unique ability to keep itself clean. The trackball rests on 3 tiny little balls and the pointer is directed with a electronic eye under the ball. When you move the ball with your thumb, the light watches the dots on the ball go by and then calculates where the pointer should go on your screen. Really cool. But, I did fib a little on the last paragraph. Once in a great while (about every 8 months) you need to remove the ball and take a paper towel or something and clean the little balls and the electronic eye because dust

 

Optional Items {coming soon}

 

Printer

 

Scanner

 

PC Camera

 

 


Suppliers Section

Antec ~ Computer case, enclosers, and all sorts of stuff. They make the case featured in my AMD 1GHz Build Review.

 

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