Getting to know your machine, by building it

Back in September of 2009 after a fair few months of thinking about what to put in to a new PC, the stars aligned and along with some friends of mine decided to take on a small project of building our own PCs. At that point I had never done the activity on my own, as in assembling everything from scratch, but was well across how the hardware did connect, and what the steps were.

The systems back there were Core i7 920s @ 2.6 Ghz, with 12Gb of RAM (6x2gb), 2x 1TB drives, 2x NVidia GTX 275s 892MB. At this point it’s obvious these machines were to be gaming rigs with some nice SLI action in the GFX department. These machines are CPU overclocked to run at 3.5Ghz and have been running well for just over 2 years now.

Fast forward to August 2011. Almost 2 years on, and I’m at it again, but this time to build our primary software development machines at work.

This system consists of Core i7 980 @ 3.2Ghz, with 24Gb of RAM (6x4gb), OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, 1x NVidia GTX 560 1Gb.

The following is just a summary of my experience, and those who took part in the builds with me, your millage may vary and in no way is this a definitive guide, there may be some useful tips and insights, either way this is to be an entertainment post, full of hardware pictures.

Choice of parts
“Bang for buck” is obviously your best bet, which translates into purchase what is important in your budget. This being 2011 very much the year of the SSD, this is where your first bit of attention should be.

In 2009, an SSD was well out of our price range, in particular with 32Gb models being the most popular and still not very affordable or even reliable yet. In 2011 this is not the case, and with budgeting to ensure a great SSD we ended up with 240Gb OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS drives. These were of the top end of the SSD spectrum, the only thing typically more expensive was larger capacity 500+Gb which had just come out, and some other specialised SSDs.

ocz vertex box and on case tray

Ensuring part capability
This just takes research as there isn’t much that can go wrong. The main concerns typically revolve around the capabilities of the motherboard, after you clearly select the motherboard that’s appropriate for your CPU chipset. Also of concern to double check on is physical space inside the chosen system case. This did bite us when early 2010 we decided to build a similar spec’d machine as the 2009 machine, but chose a newer and physically larger GFX card which did not fit the 2009 cases.

2009 Case -> Cooler Master CMStorm Scout
2011 Case -> Corsair Graphite 600 (black)

I found just searching for reviews and combinations people are bench-marking online make a good guide to compatible choices.

motherboard Gigabyte G1.Guerrilla

Shop around for any discounts if buying a larger quantity, combined order. We went as far as to choose to shop at multiple locations to obtain the best prices, and to ensure all the parts we wanted could be acquired exactly when build time came around. This may be a negative as if there are issues with multiple parts then you have to deal with 2 or more business for parts exchange. Luckily in both the 2009 build and the recent build there were no issues requiring travelling back to the store.

graphics card gtx 560 1gb

The Build
A quick checklist of the order of configuration, in both times, even trying both combinations, I found that at least for our cases, it was easier to assemble almost everything on the motherboard with it on the build table, and not in the case. This is the order that worked well for us.

  1. Install the RAM onto the motherboard.
  2. Lock in CPU with thermal paste.
  3. Add your CPU heat sink, plus any rear of motherboard mounts.
  4. Wire up CPU fans into motherboard.
  5. Clip on RAM cooling fans (wasn’t a feature on my 2009 machine).
  6. Screw-in feet for motherboard into case.
  7. Bolt motherboard down into case.
  8. Insert GFX card.
  9. Run SATA cables for SSD/HDDs, BluRay/DVD roms
  10. Link up any case based connections (HDD lights, fans, power button, etc)
  11. Tidy up cables now and as you go.

Cable Management
I’m of the opinion you should attempt to get all the internal cables tucked away as neatly as possible to help with airflow, and general appearance, in my machines a strong touch of OCD helped get them in a near perfect state of “out of the way”. Zip ties, twisty ties and making use of the case are your best friends here.

Fans, fans and more fans. Here I don’t believe it’s necessary to go that overboard with advanced alternate tech cooling. But to each his own.

In both the 2009 and 2011 systems, we chose to go with an aftermarket heat sink for the CPU, this was clearly the right choice in 2009, but when we saw the stock fan that came with the Core i7 980 it looked like it would do a good job. None-the-less dual fans and larger grill section on the Noctua NH-U12P is what’s cooling the overclocked 920s and 980s.

noctual cpu fan, and corsair ram fan

Testing the configuration
Double check nothing is out of place, and turn it on. Good luck! šŸ˜‰

case assembly complete

Start using the system. After you have your Operating System installed that is.