NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2009
The Great Computer Build, 2009:
DIY in the Decade of Dell

By Jan Fagerholm, Associate Editor and
‘Puter Parts Purveyor, PC Community, CA
PCC News, November 2009
pcc4me (at) gmail.com (click to email author)

This article has been obtained from APCUG with the author’s permission for publication by APCUG member groups; all other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

First in a series on building a high performance computer with the latest technology.

Personal computers have become ubiquitous. Not only as desktop computers, but as a variety of portable computers. These days, laptops of various stripes outsell desktop computers by a large margin. And why not? – Laptops do nearly everything that a desktop computer can do, and are smaller and portable. The present crop of Netbook computers are a case in point: they are the first new variant introduced that break the march of the past (bigger, more features, faster) with a new reality appeal: the just-right size and performance for the task.

This scaling doesn’t always work in the performance direction. A high performance laptop with a big screen will cost lots of low performance dollars but its performance will still fall well short of a desktop computer that costs half as much, particularly in graphics performance. So if you want to build a performance computer, you are still looking at buying or building a desktop computer.

I use a laptop computer for much of my work for the same reasons most people do: it’s portable, and good enough for all but the most demanding graphics tasks. For the more demanding CAD/CAM work and for desktop publishing (DTP) I rely on my desktop machine because of its superior graphics capability.

In the early days of PCs, enthusiasts normally built their own machines from individually selected components, which had the advantages of getting exactly what you want, and it was cheaper to roll your own than buy one pre-built from a retailer. Companies like Dell have turned this scenario inside out, and it is now possible to buy a pre-built computer cheaper than you can put it together yourself from identical components. Computer consulting is part of my business, and I have gotten away from building computers for my clients because I can get the computer they need pre-built from an online source cheaper than I can build it myself. This also has the advantage of knowing all the parts will work together (a potential problem when dealing with bleeding edge technology) and I don’t have to warranty the machine myself.

I remain an enthusiast, though, so the compulsion to roll my own still remains. The justification is that I still think I can build a machine best for my needs (not all rational) at a price I am willing to pay. If you lean toward the performance end of the scale, it is still possible to just throw money at the problem and get a high performance machine. Moore’s Law is still the rule (George Moore, while Director of Research at Fairchild Semiconductor, wrote an article for the April 19, 1965 anniversary edition of Electronics magazine where he hypothesized that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every year through 1975. Others, later, dubbed it “Moore’s Law”) Bill Machrone, in PC Magazine in 1984, stated a pragmatic corollary; “the computer you want will always cost $5000.” Neither Moore’s Law nor Machrone’s corollary has changed much to this day. Niklaus Wirth, inventor of the Pascal programming language, popularized what he credited as Reiser’s Law: “software is slowing faster than hardware is accelerating” (Martin Reiser, then at IBM Research, subsequently demurred, “It is not the first time I am accused of having said something that I cannot remember having said”.)

Stated in a canonical context, “what Moore giveth, Gates taketh away.” Ask yourself, does your newest computer boot and load applications any faster than the computer you had ten years ago?

But I digress. Today’s point is that I have been one of those who have spent money on the bleeding edge of this technology since 1978, and while I still want a fast computer, I’m not willing to spend $5000 on it right now. These days, that money will get you a high end gamer machine (that’s where the technology really rides) with the fastest quad core CPU ($1000), the fastest quad PCI-E video cards ($2400), 16 GB DDR3 RAM ($800), two 7200 RPM 2 terabyte hard drives with hardware RAID 0 ($750) (note that “10,000 RPM” and “terabyte” do not come together at this time – more on that later). We have spent $4950 on this and we don’t even have a monitor, case, power supply, keyboard and mouse yet. . . What’s a 3D gamer, -er, high end CAD/CAM user to do?

Obviously, some scaling down in expectations is required when you budget purchases. Your performance vs. pocketbook price point will vary, but I will explain mine as we go along. The objective is to build a machine capable of running high end software (Adobe CS4, CAD/CAM) and provide respectable performance with 3D game software. (3D games are one of the better informal benchmarks for hardware.

Right now, I’m starting with a budget constraint and working within that, much as I do for my clients.

Buying computer by parts, we are dealing with essentially these parts: CPU, motherboard, memory, hard drive, optical drive, monitor, the case, power supply, and probably a new keyboard and mouse to make the newness complete. (When building your own, it is tempting to recycle many of the parts from the old computer, but if the computer you are considering is more than three years old, you will probably compromise the new computer’s performance by using these parts.)

In subsequent articles, we’ll examine in turn CPU-motherboard-memory, then the rest of the stuff. Yes, there is even something to learn about cases and power supplies. Stay tuned.

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