Building PC lessons learned

Last modified: Wed Feb 23 22:08:10 EST 2011

Lessons learned while building "Yellowbeard" between December 2004 and April 2005:

Hindsight added October–November 2007; additional hindsight and updates February 2011.

Build vs. buy

  1. If you want it good, build it.

    Why:  The big retailers only offer you certain choices, and they sometimes use dumbed-down OEM versions of components that are demonstrably inferior to what you can buy.

  2. If you want it cheap, keep your old computer.

    Why:  Cheap computers offer sucky performance for a few hundred bucks.  Your old computer offers sucky performance free of charge.  Why pay more?

  3. If you want it fast, order from a retailer.
  4. If you buy a whole system, you get a whole-system warranty.  So if for example a defective motherboard destroys your memory, it's the retailer's problem.  If you build it yourself, you get separate warranties for all of the parts, but you could get stuck holding the bag on "incidental and consequential damages" like that.

Choosing parts

  1. Don't plan on reusing a lot of parts from your old computer.

    Why:  Old computer parts only work in old computers.  Obsolescence is a continuously running treadmill.  Compatibility does not stretch very far in either direction, neither for hardware nor for software.  Rather than update drivers for new OS's, many manufacturers will brick their own products.

  2. Buy a good case.

    Why:  A good case is designed to make it easy for you to assemble, disassemble, and maintain your computer.  Cheap cases as used by certain retailers are made to snap together once and never come apart.  It makes a big difference.

  3. Get a big power supply.

    Why:  An accurate power budget is impossible.  Nobody publishes good numbers.  (Update 2011-02:  The situation is reversed now.  Even at the low end, power supply overkill is difficult to avoid.)

  4. Read the mobo manual before you buy, but also read the manuals from several different manufacturers that use the same chipset.  If using an Intel chipset, read the Intel manual for the Intel mobo using the same chipset.  Look for warnings of bad behavior with certain memory configurations and assume that they apply equally to all boards with that chipset.  Even doing all this, you can still get burned.

    Why:  The advertised statistics as well as the manual for the mobo that I bought claimed that it would support up to 4 GiB of PC3200 memory.  They failed to mention that PC3200 memory will run only at PC2700 speed if double-sided DIMMs are installed in all four slots, or that only 3–3.5 GiB out of the 4 GiB is actually usable because the address space of high memory is reserved for AGP, PCI, etc. overhead.  These are known as material omissions, and they violate Section 5 of the FTC Act.

  5. Do not use the manufacturer's web site or product manuals to determine which features you will get in a given product.  If buying from an online retailer who quotes features for the product, use their statistics.

    Why:  Because many features are optional but the manufacturer's statistics are catch-all.

  6. Do not make optimistic assumptions based on statistics or reviews posted on the web.  If it is ambiguous whether or not you will get something, assume that you won't get it.

    Why:  Because you won't.  See previous.

  7. If you use "interesting" parts like aftermarket heat sinks or extra large cards, it is entirely possible that something will physically not fit where it is supposed to go.

    Why:  The heat sink I bought collided with other hardware on the mobo in 3 out of 4 possible orientations.

Ordering parts

  1. Mail-order everything.

    Why:  Where I live, the local retailers never have the best selection, and what they do have is always overpriced.

  2. Check the manufacturer's web site before settling on a particular model of something.

    Why:  Even large retailers don't carry every model from every manufacturer, and not everything is always in stock.  If you find the perfect model, you may need to go to a different retailer to get it.

  3. If you need quantity greater than 1, and they all need to be identical—for example, for dual channel memory, RAID, or SLI graphics card setup—then you need to order them at the same time.

    Why:  Manufacturers don't always support good configuration management.  Ordering the same part number twice won't necessarily get you identical hardware.  I got DIMMs with the same part number on the label but different CLs.

  4. When something arrives, examine it carefully to verify that it is exactly what you ordered before breaking the shrinkwrap.

    Why:  Unscrupulous retailer shipped an earlier patchlevel of software than what was listed in my order; I did not notice until after I opened it (it was very hard to tell, actually) and they refused to exchange it.

Assembling

  1. Hurry up.

    Why:  Because the clock is ticking on the return period.

  2. Keep all of the packaging FOREVER, even if everything seems to be working and you think you would never ever need to return it.

    Why:  Just because you think it is working doesn't mean you won't have problems later.  I sure did.

  3. Polarity matters for LEDs; not so much for switches or case speakers.
  4. After assembly, IMMEDIATELY run Memtest86 or Memtest86+ and run it for at least 24 hours.  Do not install any software until memory is thoroughly checked out.

    Why:  The memories all passed the POST memory test.  I proceeded to install operating system and software.  A week later, the system disintegrated.  Subsequently, I had two flaky memories go 15 passes in Memtest86 before the failure would reproduce.  That may be a world record but it happened.

Hindsight

The following lessons were not learned immediately but came out after some experience with the new computer.

  1. Limiting fan noise should be top priority.

    Why:  WHAT?  I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE COMPUTER.  While each fan individually was rated as "whisper-quiet," the noise and vibration from the two case fans, CPU fan, northbridge fan, GPU fan, and PSU fan combine inside the case and come out as a roar, not a whisper.  It doesn't help that the CPU fan is 3-pin:  I should have stuck with the stock 4-pin fan, which would run at a lower speed if the CPU wasn't too hot.  Back then, the philosophy of manufacturers seemed to be that more fans is better.  Now there are more options with passive cooling and low-speed fans, and it would be wise to consider them.  One big fan and a bunch of passive heat sinks is a lot quieter than a bunch of separate little fans.

    Update 2011-02:  Building a quiet PC is a lot easier than it used to be, thanks to cooler CPUs, integrated graphics, and SSDs.

  2. Avoid LEDs.

    Why:  Noise pollution is bad, and light pollution is also bad.  It's hard to watch a movie when you've got multicolored LEDs flashing in your face.  Between the fans and the LEDs I can't hear or see a darned thing.

  3. Sharing a PC between Windows XP (or Vista) and anything else is a bad idea.

    Why:  Windows Activation forever locks you to a specific hardware configuration.  If you tinker with your PC too much (and who doesn't want the freedom to tinker?), Windows thinks you may have illegally copied it to a second computer and refuses to run.  In theory, victims of the most expensive retail boxed version of Windows are entitled to call Microsoft and get a new activation code (if Microsoft chooses to believe their story), but victims of the more reasonably priced OEM version are simply out of luck.  So in order to keep the money that you spent on a Windows license from going straight down the Proprietary Software Toilet of Doom, you really need to keep the tinkerable PCs and the Windows PC strictly separate.  The Windows PC becomes an unmodifiable legacy system from the minute that Windows is activated.

  4. For power management to work as expected, the BIOS setting for ACPI Standby State must be set to S3 not S1.

    Why:  In S1, all the fans keep running.

  5. You need the following, which are available cheap in the electrical section of the hardware store:

    Why:  cable management.

  6. Beware of decisions that may overcommit you or limit your ability to adapt.

    Why:

    RequirementPlanned forRealityConsequences of mis-planning
    Gaming capabilityDOOM 3DOOM 2.  I didn't like DOOM 3.My video card is too expensive, too power-hungry, too hot and too noisy, and I configured the system in such a way that I can't run DOOM 2.
    Home theatreNot applicableApplicableNoise and light pollution are a serious problem; no video-in capability.
    Backups1 GB100 GBNo support for RAID 1.
    64-bit4 more years of 32-bit Intel CPUs and chipsetsAMD had their best year ever and Intel added EM64T support to all their CPUs and chipsets almost immediately4 GiB RAM on a 32-bit chipset is a rarely seen configuration with unique problems and no support or sympathy from anybody.


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