Choosing the hardware for a new PC

I always buy the separate pieces of hardware required for a PC myself, and then assemble it, or pay the hardware store to assemble it. I never buy factory built PC’s from large producers like Dell, HP or Acer, building your own PC allows you to completely customize it so that it meets your demands better. I like to play computer games a lot and I don’t want to spend more than € 800. Dell and friends either don’t offer PC’s with a graphics card that is powerful enough for my needs, or their comparable configurations are a bit more expensive than the collection of separate pieces of hardware that I selected. This time building a silent PC is also a priority, most factory built PC’s aren’t quiet enough.

The PC I currently use allows me to play most of the latest games I like, but it’s two and a half years old now, which is old for a high performance PC. It has an AMD Athlon 3500+ CPU, 2 GB RAM and a GeForce 7800 GT graphics card. Most of the time I play Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Counter-Strike: Source. My PC can handle CS:S fine, but ET:QW often displays a temporary decrease in the frame rate if a lot of activity is going on. Those frame rate drops can be quite disruptive and often result in my untimely death. So I need a newer graphics card, and a newer CPU would be required as well because the Athlon 3500+ is still a single core CPU, while quad core CPU’s are already available for some time. A new CPU also means a new motherboard, and it would be wise to get faster new RAM and a new hard drive as well. So in fact I’m going to replace all the contents of my enclosure, including the enclosure itself. I could keep my currently enclosure, but I want to get a better one.

I intend to buy most of the hardware I want at Azerty, a Dutch Internet store with a very large assortment of hardware. I’ll only need to buy the graphics card at a second Internet store. All these part, including delivery costs, cost approximately € 770. I expect to sell my old PC for approximately € 200, so the real cost for me will be € 570. I think that’s rather cheap. hardware has gotten cheaper in general, two and half years ago I paid more than € 350 for a GeForce 7800 GT graphics card, now it’s less than € 150 for a GeForce 8800 GT.

Enclosure – Antec Solo – € 75,23

Compared to my old enclosure, an Antec SLK3700BQE, the Antec Solo is a serious improvement. The SLK3700BQE has an annoying door which constantly needs to opened to push the power button or to access the DVD drive, the Solo doesn’t have a door. The Solo possesses some features the SLK3700BQE doesn’t have, like dampening sheets at the side panels inside the enclosure for noise isolation and elastic suspension for the hard drives to prevent hard drive vibration and noise. The Solo is one of the enclosures which is recommended by Silent PC Review, a popular website covering PC silencing. Arguably the Solo still looks a bit cheap with it’s black finish and silver grey front, but that color would actually fit in very nicely with Dell 2007WFP monitor, Logitech Z-5500 5.1 speakerset and Logitech UltraX keyboard, which also are black with silver grey. The Solo is a bit more expensive than other enclosures because it doesn’t come with a power supply. For example, the Antec NSK4480 is € 10 cheaper at the same internet store and comes with a 380W power supply. That is all right for me because I want to buy a separate power supply anyway, which is more quiet and efficient. The higher price of the Solo is worth it for the extra features. I have also considered the Antec P182, which offers some interesting advantages like a separate chamber for the power supply and a nicer design. It’s an interesting choice but unfortunately the P182 is € 40 more expensive, so I stick with the Solo.

Power supply – Enermax PRO 82+, 425 Watt – € 64,32

The new Enermax PRO and MODU series are currently the highest ranking recommended power supplies at Silent PC Review. This power supply is very efficient and quiet, which is exactly what I want. 425 Watt is enough for me, and I’ll settle with the PRO version which doesn’t have modular cabling like the MODU version. The 425 Watt MODU is € 10 more expensive, which isn’t much, so I might want to buy that one anyway even if the advantage of modular cabling isn’t that important. With modular cabling you can get rid of unnecessary cabling in the enclosure easier, which might be better for airflow and look more tidy. The next best thing before the PRO and MODU series is the Corsair VX450W, which is just a little more than € 2 cheaper. In case the PRO series wasn’t available at my internet store yet I’d choose that power supply.

Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 – € 86,97

For the Intel Core 2 Duo processor I want to use I need a motherboard which supports this processor. I’m not going to use overclocking or RAID, which means that cheaper motherboards will be adequate for me. I’ve settled on the Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 for the simple reasons that this motherboard uses Intel’s current mainstream chipset, the P35, and because it’s one of the cheaper solutions. The cheaper P35 motherboards can be found for € 20 less, but what sets the P35-Ds3 apart from others is that it uses a RealTek ALC 889A codec for it’s onboard audio, which is a better than the onboard audio solutions provided by other motherboards. This is important to me because I don’t want to buy a separate sound card. An alternative is the Gigabyte GA-P35-DS4, which posesses DTS Connect among it’s extra features over the DS3. DTS Connect can convert analog 5.1 sound sent by games to a DTS, so that the analog 5.1 sound can be sent to the speakerset over a digital connection. This could have a positive influence on the sound quality, because apparantly the 889A codec is still inferior to the more expensive separate sound cards when an analog connection is used, according to this review. But I still don’t understand the advantages and disadvantages of DTS Connect and a digital connection completely, so I’m not really sure. Besides a choice between an analog connection or a digital connection with DTS Connect, there also is a choice between waiting for motherboards with the P45 chipset or buying a motherboard with the current P35 chipset. Because it’s better to wait with buying a graphics card at this moment, it’s probably a good idea to wait for the P45 as well because the new graphics cards and the P45 will be introduced around the same time.

Processor – Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 – € 146,62

Reviews here and here conclude that buying  an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with the latest Wolfdale or Yorkfield core is the best choice now. AMD’s processors might be a bit cheaper, but they are outperformed by the Core 2 Duo’s and they consume more power and run more hot. I could buy a E8200 or E8400 dual core processor, or I could buy a Q9300 quad core processor. A quad core processor only makes sense if you use multithreaded software which can take advantage of quad core processors, which is made clear in those two reviews. I might spent some time in the future doing 3D rendering with Blender, but probably not enoughto warrant paying the extra price for a quad core processor. However, the E8200 can currently be found for under € 140 while the slightly older Q6600 quad core can be found for just over € 170. The price difference isn’t much, so why not. But first I’m going to wait a bit before the prices of the new Wolfdale and Yorkfield cores settle down in comparison with the Conroe and Kentsfield cores which preceded them. The E6750 and E8200 are currently equally priced, but some Internet stores are probably overcharging on the E8200 because demand is higher than supply. This is especially evident with the Q9300 which is € 220 at minimum while the Q6600 can be found for € 170.

Thermal interface material – Arctic Silver 5 – € 4,14

This review shows that Arctic Silver 5 isn’t the best, but it still reduces temperatures with nearly 10 °C compared to the thermal grease that is pre-applied to the Intel heatsink (which is shipped with their processors). With the exception of Intel’s thermal grease, the differences are small. Arctic Silver 5 is the best which is available at my Internet store and it’s not very expensive.

Thermal interface material remover – Arctic Silver ArctiClean – € 5,00

If the need arises to remove thermal interface material, Arctic Silver ArctiClean might come in handy.

Heatsink – Thermalright HR-01 Plus – € 36,37

Silent PC Review recommends a lot of heatsinks. Initially I wanted to buy the Scythe Ninja, but after reading complaints about it’s push-pin mounting system I decided to go with the Thermalright HR-01 Plus which uses a better mounting system. The HR-01 Plus is an improved version of the HR-01 which is recommended by Silent PC Review, and does support socket 775 unlike it’s predecessor. The Thermalright Ultra 120-eXtreme is at the top of the list of recommended heatsinks, but it’s € 45,26 at my Internet store. That’s not a huge price difference, but I think it’s overkill to pay so much money for ‘just’ a heatsink. Besides, according to it’s review at Silent PC Review it doesn’t give an advantage compared to the Ninja or HR-01 Plus in situations with low airflow like I intend to create. What’s important to me as well is that I’m able to mount a 120 mm fan on this heatsink. If I wanted to cut costs I’d probably buy an Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro for € 16,18.

120 mm fan – Scythe Slip Stream SY1225SL12L – € 7,00 x 2

I will buy two of these, I will place one on the HR-01 Plus, and I will use the other to replace the stock exhaust fan of the Antec Solo, which isn’t as silent as the SY1225SL12L. The SY1225SL12L runs at a fixed low 800 rpm, so I won’t need to use tricks to undervolt it to get it to run slower. According to these test results it’s very quiet and performs good.

Graphics card – Sparkle SF-PX88GT512D3-HP Cool-pipe 3 – € 174,95

The NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT with 512 MB performs better than the ATi Radeon HD 3780 with 512 MB according to this review. The difference isn’t large. There are reasons to buy an ATi graphics card, ATi actively supports the development of an open source driver for Linux, unlike NVIDIA. I use Ubuntu Linux when I’m not using Windows XP for gaming, so that is very important to me. A lower idle power consumption than the 8800 GT is also important. However, performance is more important to me at this moment. There isn’t a large price difference between the 8800 GT and the 3780 HD. As I said silence is important for this new PC, so want to buy a graphics card that is passively cooled. The Sparkle SF-PX88GT512D3-HP Cool-pipe 3 is a passively cooled 8800 GT, according to this review it’s a nice product. Unfortunately this graphics card is the single product which is not available at Azerty, where I buy all my other parts. I need to buy it at another Internet store, which means added delivery costs and less convenience than buying everything at one store. Azerty does sell a passively cooled Radeon HD 3780, the Sapphire Ultimate Radeon HD 3870, for € 158,46. Another alternative is to buy the cheapest versions of the 8800 GT or Radeon HD 3780 which are available at Azerty – the XpertVision GeForce 8800 GT or the PEAK Radeon HD 3870 which sell for respectively € 130,90 and € 129,06 – and mount the Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 passive graphics card cooler on them. The second revision of the Accelero S1 costs € 15,68 at Azerty. I’m not sure if I’d rather go the ‘safe’ way and buy a graphics card which is cooled passively out of the box but a bit more expensive, or if I’d buy the cheapest actively cooled graphics card and mount an Accelero S1 on it. However, at this moment waiting would probably be the wisest choice, because the future products of NVIDIA and ATi/AMD, respectively the GT200 and the RV770, could possibly be released in the beginning of June. Those could offer a serious improvement over the current generation of graphics cards.

Random Access Memory – Kingston KVR667D2N5K2/2G (2 modules of 1024 MB, PC-5300) – € 30,18

RAM is really cheap these days, it’s tempting to buy 4 GB of memory but that probably won’t be necessary. I chose RAM with a PC5300 specification, which means that it has a clock frequency of 333 Mhz. This means the memory has a speed synchronous to the speed of the Front Side Bus of the E8200, which is 1333 Mhz. Because a quad data rate is used, this translates to 333 Mhz as well. This means that memory with a lower specification than PC5300 would slow the E8200 down. Memory with a faster specification won’t give better performance unless overclocking is used, which I don’t intend to do.

Hard disk drive – Samsung SpinPoint F1 320 GB – € 51,82

The SpinPoint F1 series has been around for some time already, but only more expensive models with more storage space were available until now. Because 320 GB is enough for me, I don’t want to pay more for more storage space. The 320 GB model also features just one platter, which means that it consumes less power and performs better because of it’s high data density. According to this (German) review, it’s a very good hard drive. Western Digital also released a 320 GB hard disk drive with a single platter, but according to this review it’s performance is limited by it’s high random access time. Performance, silence and price are all three important factors for me when it comes to choosing a hard disk drive. This hard disk drive excels in none of those aspects, but it is the best compromise.

DVD burner – Lite-On LH-20A1S – € 21,27

I almost never burn CD’s or DVD’s, so all I need is cheap DVD burner which is just good enough. It should have a SATA connection because I don’t like those wide PATA cables obstructing the airflow in my enclosure. Almost all hard disk drives already use SATA, but CD/DVD drives/burners seem to a bit slower in switching to SATA. It should also have a black bezel, because my enclosure is black as well. The Lite-On LH-20A1S meets those requirements and performs well according to this review.

Antistatic wrist strap – € 7,87

An antistatic wrist strap prevents static electricity from possibly damaging the hardware. I’ve never used them before and I’ve never damaged hardware with electrostatic discharge, but apparantly it’s better to be safe than damage that expensive hardware.

Considerations on buying a new notebook

The notebook I currently own, a Fujitsu-Siemens Amilo 1505 Pi, does not satisfy my requirements. I bought it ten months ago, but already after one month of use the paint at the back of the display was showing signs of wear. Some months later, a piece of plastic attached to the edge of the enclosure near the hinge of the display broke off. I can notice easily that the display is lit very unevenly by the backlight. The design of the enclosure looks cheap, the build quality isn’t good enough either because the display can be subject to flex and because that piece of plastic broke off. Because it’s got a 15,4 inch display it’s not

portable and heavy. It’s battery life is limited to approximately a little more than three hours if the display is set to the lowest brightness, which is just barely enough for me. These are serious disadvantages because I never use this notebook as a desktop replacement – for which a 15,4 inch display would be a good thing – but always travel with my notebook. The most important hardware specifications of the notebook are a Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 CPU, 1024 MB RAM and a 80 GB hard disk. The CPU was relatively new at the moment when I bought it, but because I use my notebook exclusively for word processing and other tasks which don’t demand any serious performance, it’s a waste of money. Retrospectively, it wasn’t a smart choice to pay € 900 for this notebook. I’ll never buy Fujitsu-Siemens notebooks again for the foreseeable future.

A more portable replacement for my current notebook

I have been reviewing for some time already what my options are for buying a new notebook. After my disappointment with the Amilo 1505 Pi, my requirements are that it is a more portable notebook with a 13,3 inch as the maximum diagonal size for the display, a long battery life, good build quality, attractive design and preferably a LED-backlit display. It would be best if the notebook came with a Linux distribution pre-installed instead of Windows, so I don’t have to pay the Microsoft tax for an OS which I will certainly replace with a Linux distribution as soon as possible anyway. Finally, price is also an important concern because I’m a student, I don’t want to spend more than € 1000 but preferably less. Some notebooks which could meet these requirements partially or completely caught my attention.

The Dell XPS M1330 is beautiful, it’s got a 13,3 inch display and it’s weight starts at 1,79 kg with the LED-backlit display and 4-cell battery. Currently the cheapest M1330 with the option for the LED-backlit display included costs € 929 at Dell’s Dutch website. Dell started selling the M1330 with Ubuntu pre-installed some time ago, but not yet in the Netherlands. At the Dell USA website, the same configuration of the M1330 with Ubuntu costs $ 1129, which is € 715. I’m not sure if I’d want to buy the M1330 at Dell USA, besides the hassle of getting someone to ship it to the Netherlands I’d probably have a problem with the charger because different power sockets are used in the USA.

The VAIO TZ is even more portable than the M1330 at 1,19 kilo with an 11,1 display. Almost seven hours of battery life is great. The design also exceeds the M1330, the TZ is the best looking notebook I have ever seen. Unfortunately, prices start above € 1400 and it comes with tons of bloatware pre-installed with Windows. The ThinkPad X300 is a great notebook as well, but because prices start at higher than $2900 it’s out of the question. The Apple Macbook is priced at a similar level as the M1330, € 938,91 with a student discount. It’s slightly heavier at 2,27 kg, the hardware specifications are comparable to the M1330, but Apple’s notebooks are arguably better designed. The problem is that I don’t like the white version, and the black version costs over € 300 extra. I’m not sure if I’d want to use Mac OS X, or if I’d want to buy Apple products. If I think about Apple’s image, I think about fanboys and hordes of mindless people who buy iPod’s without evaluating the competition in the portable media player market. With a M1330 or VAIO TZ I’d feel more exclusive than with an Apple MacBook.

The disadvantages of all four portable notebooks are that they are quite expensive, more expensive than equal 15,4 inch models (for example, the XPS M1530 is nearly € 200 cheaper than the M1330). With the exception of the VAIO TZ and X300 which use low voltage CPU’s to provide more battery life, most portable notebooks use the standard CPU’s and don’t provide much more battery life than my current notebook.

The Asus Eee PC’s successors

An interesting alternative to these expensive portables arrived in the form of the Asus Eee PC. This notebook has a 7 inch display, weighs only 0,92 kg, gives more than three hours of battery life, comes pre-installed with Xandros Linux (which can be replaced with Ubuntu of course, which I prefer) and best of all prices start at just above € 300. Initially I wasn’t interested in the Eee PC because 7 inch is just to small. However, recently news arrived that a new model, the Eee PC 900, will feature a larger 8,9 inch display. The Intel Atom CPU will be used, which will provide increased battery life up to 8 hours. Other producers are planning to release competitors for the Eee PC which will have larger 10 inch displays and use the Intel Atom CPU as well. MSI will release the Wind notebook and ECS presented the G10IL which contains HSDPA as a distinguishing feature. Gigabyte, Acer and Dell also intend to introduce Eee PC competitors. I’d consider 10 inch the minimum size to work comfortably with, hopefully these new versions with larger displays will be available soon with a low price.

Still, the Eee PC and it’s competitors don’t look as good as the VAIO TZ, and the 11,1 inch display of the TZ is a better compromise between portability and comfort. Ideally, Sony would take the exterior of the TZ and replace it’s internals with lower spec hardware similar to the Eee PC so the price of the TZ would be drastically reduced.