Build a Better PC
Article:  Andy Collinson
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Last year I decided to update my personal computer (PC). My first decision was should I build one myself or buy one from a retailer? After looking at the specifications in magazines, I decided I could build a better spec PC for less money, so the rest of this article is devoted to building a better PC.

Whether you're upgrading an old PC or building a new one, hopefully, this article will contain some useful advice. The computer industry is continually changing so keeping up with current technology is not possible. I do not have the space or time to cover every possible hardware combination, but I have included photographs at each stage to help anyone wanting to build their first computer.

As this is a large article I have created a new sub-menu on the left hand page. This will remain fixed in position on most browsers. The last page is a glossary of terms commonly used in the computer industry.

To Build or Buy?
Buying a PC from a shop or ready built may sometimes be a good deal and you may get technical support as well. Often though shop computers, or from large manufacturers use custom motherboards and it may be difficult or not possible to update later in time. Also if the specification says 160G hard drive then the hard drive may not be the fastest drive and could be a slower model.

Building your own computer gives you the choice over each and every component. You can build a custom PC to your own requirements and have control over everything.

The first question to be asked is what do you need your computer for? The applications you use will determine your choice of hardware. For example, if you want a fast gaming machine, then you need every component to be fastest, including CPU, memory, hard disk and graphics card. If you want a computer for office work or word processing then you can probably buy a motherboard with integrated video card and safe money. If you require a computer for fast numerical operations e.g. a chess computer then fast CPU and memory are essential, but graphics card not so essential.

As I work mainly under linux, but also play some windows games, I wanted a machine that would work without problems on multiple operating systems, and also be a very fast gaming machine. My components and assembly of my new computer are on these pages.

Choice of Components
If you're building a PC for a single operating system like windows, then there should not be too many problems, as all components are designed for windows, you just have to make sure that the components will work under your operating system; in other words, if you run Windows XP but plan to upgrade to windows 7 make sure your components are compatible with each system.

However when building for different operating systems, e.g. Linux or FreeBSD, this job becomes much harder, as you have to ensure that each part is compatible with each other and will work happily on each platform.

The processor (CPU) is the brains of your new computer and will determine how fast your computer is. The main choices are AMD or Intel but you need a matching motherboard.

A PC by definition is a computer running Intel architecture. An AMD processor is a strong alternative to Intel but the motherboard for AMD must support AMD CPU's and will have AMD Chipsets.

The CPU you choose will have a particular pin-out and require to fit a particular motherboard socket. If you buy parts online then the socket type CPU speed and other details will be listed. Dual Core and Quad Core processors are now available in both Intel and AMD flavours. A quad core CPU is equivalent to having 4 single core CPU's in the same physical chip. A Dual Core or Quad Core CPU can therefore be expected to run any application much faster than a single core CPU. Intel have also released Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. The Core i5 requires a motherboard with a socket LGA1156 and works with DDR2 and DDR3 memory.

Clock Speed, FSB Speed and Bus Speeds
The Clock Speed or clock rate is the speed the internal core of the CPU runs at. Generally this is very fast, in fact much faster than the speed of the external memory and other peripherals. To get around this, various buses (high speed data links) are used that run at slower speeds than the core CPU. The Front Side Bus (FSB) runs between the CPU and memory controller. It is the memory controller that passes data from a particular area of memory to the CPU. The faster the FSB and memory then the faster the overall speed of the computer. Other parts of a computer communicate via a PCI or PCI express bus. More in-depth articles can be found on Wikipedia and similar sites.
Every component in your PC connects to the motherboard (sometimes called Mainboard) so it is essential to choose one with appropriate sockets, slots and ports, and with all the features you need. Motherboard also can have built-in graphics cards, sound, LAN or wireless chipsets. When looking for a motherboard many manufacturers allow you to download a PDF manual. This is great, as it allows you to peruse every detail of the motherboard without even buying it. Often contained in the manual is a comprehensive overview of the BIOS, a list of recommended memory and power supply requirements. Following the manufacturers guidelines will give you stability from the start.

Some help on choices. At the time of writing both DDR2 and DDR3 memory were available. DDR3 was the fastest memory but most expensive. If you plan on future expansion it is worth buying a motherboard that can accept both types of memory; there may come a time when memory prices fall and upgrading memory can give a worthwhile gain in usable performance.

Also, regarding memory, 32-bit CPU can only address 4GB of memory. If you load windows XP, windows 7 or a 32bit version of linux then the operating system can only address 32 binary address lines. This works out at 4GB but in practise some memory is shadowed and cannot be accessed, giving around 3.5GB of usable memory.

Motherboard ports include USB, USB2 and USB3, Firewire ports etc. The card slots may be PCI or PCI Express (PCI-E) for graphics cards. A PCI-E x16 slot will allow the fastest data transfer from a graphics card to the CPU.

Many motherboards have built in sound cards. The connectors are 3.5mm jack connectors and many boards offer 5.1 surround sound, line inputs and mic inputs. Some boards also have digital coaxial or optical S/PDIF outputs for surround sound equipment. A motherboard with an HDMI socket can also supply audio via this socket.

Modern motherboards use DDR2 or DDR3 memory and the faster the CPU can access memory the faster the overall system. You can buy memory individually but not all brands perform the same. It is better to buy matched memory modules in the form of a kit, these will have been tested by the manufacturer to run at the rated speed. In addition, some motherboards have recommended Manufacturers so it is worth consulting the motherboard manual. Depending on your motherboard, sometimes only particular banks of memory can be used, or they may be colour coded. DDR (double data rate) memory transfers data twice per clock cycle on the leading and trailing edge of the clock pulse, effectively doubling the memory bandwidth. Sometimes memory is described by speed in megahertz (MHz), so DDR2 800MHz actually runs at 400MHz but the data rate is doubled. You will also see memory described by its transfer rate in megabytes per second MB/sec which is 8x higher than the speed in MHz so names like PC2-6400 is equivalent to DDR2 800Mhz.

Graphics Card
The choice of graphics card is usually either Nvidia or AMD. Other considerations are power requirements as some high end gaming cards require an extra power feed from the power supply. Heat and power consumption, and noise of the card under idle and full load conditions should also be allowed for. The power supply demands can be considerable under full screen high resolution fps games. Sites like Toms Hard Drive measure graphics card performance and are useful for comparisons.

Hard Drive
Hard drives become larger and faster as time progresses. Having a slow hard drive means your system takes longer to boot, longer to start your favourite game and other applications. SATA 3 drives offer the fastest rates speed but recent advances in technology have produced the Solid State Drive (SSD). An SSD drive has no moving parts and offers the fastest data read and write times, but currently most expensive.

Optical Drives
The choice in optical drive includes Blue Ray, DVD, CD etc. SATA drives have better transfer rates than IDE drives but the choice is usually down to individual needs.

Power Supply
At the heart of every computer is the power supply. No power, means no computer, and power supply rating must be chosen to power your system under full load conditions. It is worthwhile buying a high quality power supply as components will be better quality and hopefully last longer as well.

Checking for Problems
Choosing the hardware is the most difficult part of the job, as a wrong decision here can make a difference between a working stable PC and one with poor performance, or instability issues.

Once you have chosen your hardware check for problems using google. For example if you decide to buy a Gigabyte H55-UD3H motherboard then searching "Gigabyte H55-UD3H problems" on google will give an indication if anyone has had an issue with the particular product. If you are building a computer for windows, then usually all hardware has windows drivers, however if the computer is to be used with linux, FreeBSD or other alternative operating system then it is worthwhile to search for more in-depth problems, querying each chipset on the mainboard.

My Components
I wanted a fast, performance PC that would run without problems, be capable of working with multiple operating systems, run the latest games but also be silent in operation.
It was a big ask, but after many hours research, I decided on the following hardware. Some of the components are shown on the right:

Intel i5 750 CPU
Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD3 Motherboard
Crucial 4GB DDR3 Kit
ATI Radeon HD5770 Graphics Card
LG Sata DVD Recorder
Antec 650W PSU
Clodus ATX Tower Case

The next step is assembly, the page can be accessed here or from the fixed sub-menu on the left.