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Friday, June 16, 2017

Building a custom desktop

In recent years, performance on consumer desktop processors have pretty much stagnated, so I felt comfortable sticking with my 2009 HP m9600t. That machine's had several upgrades: to SSDs, additional RAM, and a new GPU. It's had hard drives added and expanded, and a blu ray drive when those became cheap. Over the past year, the ethernet port went out, so I added a PCI ethernet card to it. The machine's gotten flakey over the years: it no longer slept or hibernate, waking up whenever it put itself to sleep. While this was annoying, I lived with it by hard powering off the machine every time I turned it off. For a while, it wasn't a big deal as I used a laptop for non hard core tasks (any Adobe software).

Then I won a Gigabyte Z170X Gaming 7 motherboard during a web-site lottery. The motherboard was not the latest, but it's over-clocking enabled, and was forwards compatible with the latest intel desktop processor: the Core i7 7700K CPU. Since I had a friend at Intel who could supply me with the processor (and a PCIe m.2 SSD) at employee discount prices, I figured i could build a new machine. Note that in most cases you can usually purchase equivalent machines from Dell or some other white label device at a better price than putting it all together yourself. Those manufacturers, however, typically skimp on parts. For instance, the case of my HP m9600t was so tightly packed that I pinched my fingers every time I installed or replaced a part. Similarly, the PSU is usually not an energy efficient PSU. Back in the old days, you wouldn't keep a PC around long enough for a more efficient PSU to pay for itself, but now that you typically keep a PC around for 10 years or more (because of the failure of Moore's law) there's no reason not to pay for a better unit, especially if it's quieter.

As a first time PC builder, I went with the Fractal Design Define R5 case. I picked it because it was a fairly large case, which meant no more pinched fingers. It comes with 7 3.5/2.5" drive trays and 2 5.25" drive trays, which I figured would be sufficient capacity even for a storage-hungry photographer/video processor. The case was indeed huge but to my surprise was well balanced and easy to handle. It also came with an ample set of screws and nice features such as being able to change the direction in which the front door opens.

The instructions start with screwing in the power supply, which apparently is a fixed size in PCs. Mys elected power supply screwed in just fine, and then I plugged in the power cord and then grounded myself using an anti-static strap. Next came the motherboard. Plugging in the processor was easy, but then the cooler felt like you had to be much more careful. I'd acquired both a water cooler and an air cooler, but at the last minute went with the air cooler for simplicity, so I wouldn't be managing 2 pieces that are attached to the motherboard. The air cooler was interesting because it had multiple orientations, and you're supposed to point it up or out of the case for better airflow, so I played some 3D rotation games before I settled on "up." I then plugged in the memory and the SSD. The SSD is weird because the motherboard had a bizarre table which showed what configuration of SSD installation would preclude the use of which other SATA slots and/or reduce the speed of the PCIe SSD. I found myself thinking: "Really, Intel? Really?!" Apparently this has been fixed in the latest Z270X motherboards, but of course, I wasn't going to buy one when I had one for free. But the next step after selecting the right slot really puzzled me.

All motherboards come with a back plate. You're supposed to insert it into the case, and then insert standoff screws into the motherboard and then insert the motherboard and then screw it down. What I was surprised by after having such an easy time with the processor, cooler, memory and SSD was how much I had to wrestle the motherboard and backplate together into the case and make everything line up. You have to tighten down the screws because otherwise if you insert or remove display cables or USB cables from the computer you'd shift or move the motherboard, which would not be good. I did so without damage (I thought!).

Then I started plugging in cables into the motherboard. The manuals here just don't help much. For instance, some of the case fans have only 3 holes while the corresponding motherboard pins have 4! I had to do some googling around before figuring out which 3 pins should be used. Similarly, for many of the single jumper cables I practically needed magnifying and tweezers to get a 5mm cable plugged into a pin squeezed into a 8mm space. This was definitely a pain. This was also where spending lots of money on the case helped. The Fractal Design case had rubber grommet windows where many of the cables were already pre-wired to run correctly. Unlike my HP, where there were cables everywhere, you could place only the cables you needed and route even those cables under the motherboard, so you had nothing hanging on top. Working on this was a pleasure.

Then came the moment of truth: plugging a display cable in and seeing if the machine would POST. To my horror, when I powered it on, the fans spun up and then spun down. Something was horribly wrong. I googled around and finally figured out that I'd made the rookie mistake: I had forgotten to plug the CPU power cable in. For whatever reason I thought that giant 24pin cable plugged into the motherboard ought to be sufficient. It's not. I plugged in 2 4-pin cables into the motherboard socket, and the device posted!

After that, the rest of the process was easy, though I was disappointed that the "backside of the motherboard" 2.5" SSD trays didn't actually fit 2.5" SSHD drives. But I moved over the blu ray player, intalled 3 HDDs, and still have room and power left over for more.

After installing Windows 10 (which transferred the license over with no issues), the machine sleeps and hibernates with no issues and is also incredibly quiet. I tried over-clocking it a little with no issues, but probably won't do too much. Lightroom and Premiere Elements 12 now fly! A usual, the storage upgrade to a PCIe SSD was probably more responsible than the mere 3X increase in CPU performance.

I haven't installed a GPU yet so am relying on the built in Intel GPU which many enthusiasts love to complain about. I am still of 2 minds as to whether to decommission the old machine or to let my son use it, but if the latter I can take my time to shop for a GPU.

I must say that over-all, the process has been much easier than I expected, and some of it was (dare I say it) even fun! Just like with a bicycle you've built yourself, there's something special about a machine you've built yourself. I expect that this is probably the best approach if you're not in a hurry for a machine and have time to shop. My wife's Dell now sounds loud by comparison, while my old HP sounds like a jet-engine whenever it does anything compute intensive. Given the changes in the PC market over the past years, I fully expect this to be the correct approach going forward.

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