I’ve long wanted to put together a computer. Shopping for prebuilt computers is usually an exercise in frustration, as it’s hard to find a prebuilt system that has all of the needed features and capabilities, and one that is upgradeable in the future. On the other hand, a custom system will have exactly what is needed and be very upgradeable in the future.
This is a long post, with pictures galore. It details my progress through this project, from initial requirements to the final result. Enjoy!
One of my inspirations on this topic has been Jeff Atwood’s series of blog posts on building and then upgrading a custom system. There are other places where I’ve learned about this process, including magazines, Youtube etc, but Jeff’s series sparked the interest in me.
My use cases are specific, and I have particular requirements and limitations. With them in mind I set out to plan my first custom computer.
I’m not a big gamer. That said I do wish to play recent games at high settings, including Starcraft 2, Civilization 5, and the recent Might and Magic Heroes games.
Outside of gaming, one of my other big use cases is digital photo processing. My tools of choice are Photoshop and Lightroom, which both like having lots of memory and discrete graphics power.
I also do development work, so the kit needs to support smooth operation of Visual Studio, Jetbrains’ IDEs and tools, and other sundry development tools.
Virtualization is another use case. I run virtual machines to experiment with Linux distros. I would also like to make use of tools such as Vagrant, so virtualization support is a necessity.
Lastly, I do have the typical computer usages in mind – web use, email, watching videos, listening to music, etc.
I went into this with a budget in mind, at the same time wanting to make good part selections for today, tomorrow, and next year. Overclocking is a popular topic in computing circles, however I decided to focus on stability and so avoid overclocking considerations. Similarly, multi-GPU setups and liquid cooling are interesting but I decided to avoid the added complexity for my first build.
A computer is made up of as number of components. Some of which are essential bare-minimum requirements, while others are “extras” to enhance the end result. Given my requirements, my own research, and some help, I arrived at a parts list. I was able to purchase the case locally, and the rest of the parts I ordered online.
The following sections provide a tour of the various components I selected and the reasoning behind the selections. Lots of pictures ahead!
I was initially inclined towards using an Intel i5 processor, however I was advised that for my use cases I may benefit from using a Xeon processor instead. The main reason being that the Xeon brings hyperthreading, causing the four cores to yield altogether eight effective threads. A secondary reason is that since I was planning to use a discrete video card, I could avoid the overhead of integrated graphics. Ultimately, I paid slightly more than for an i5, but much less than an equivalent i7 (the Xeon is essentially a locked i7 4770). A minor negative – a non-issue for me – is that the Xeon cannot be overclocked. The upside is that due being at stock settings, and not having the overhead of integrated graphics, the Xeon uses slightly less power and generates less heat.
On a related topic, I elected not to purchase a separate cooler. Normally this is a recommended component especially if the processor is going to be overclocked. However, since this processor will not be overclocked, and in fact cannot be, plus it does not have the overhead of integrated graphics, the cooling requirements are lower. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is a very popular option, and I considered purchasing it, but elected to see what the heat situation is first. Opinion on the web is that third-party coolers are generally unnecessary for locked Xeon CPUs.
This is a budget-friendly motherboard with the essential features and no more.
- LGA 1150 socket
- 4 DDR3 RAM slots, totalling up to 32GB
- 4 SATA3 ports (white)
- 2 SATA2 ports (black)
- 3 fan headers, and one for CPU cooler
- 1 USB 3 header for case front panel
- 2 USB 2 headers
- 1 PCIE x16 slot
- 1 PCIE x4 slot
- 2 PCI slots
Back panel ports:
- 1 PS/2 for keyboard or mouse (still??)
- 4 USB 2 ports
- 2 USB 3 ports
- 1 VGA
- 1 DVI
- 1 HDMI
- 1 Realtek ethernet
- Realtek audio jacks
Aside: I’m surprised that USB 2.0 is still so prevalent these days, and PCI as well.
The motherboard kit includes:
- 2 SATA data cables
- driver CD
- I/O panel cover
Important distinction: this board will not work for overclocking CPUs – a non-issue for me since my chosen processor can’t be overclocked anyway – due to the B85 chipset. Also, this board supports Crossfire but not SLI.
Overall a straightforward board with all the important parts. I got lucky and got a good price for this on Amazon. Budget-friendly for those who don’t need gamer-oriented features. I was briefly tempted by the likes of the Asus Sabertooth Z97 Mark S, but that’s overkill for me and too much of a premium. The MSI Krait also looks very good, but is reportedly a poor performer.
Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 (100352-2L)
Ordered from gpuShack in the USA. Good card selection, good prices, and well recommended in the PC builder community. The seller receives refurbished GPUs from the manufacturers and resells them. I liked that gpuShack allows making purchases via Amazon Payments.
The card was delivered in just over a week after purchase. I was pleased to see it had been well-packed in layers of bubble wrap and packing material, having been worried about how well it would travel without original packaging.
This model is a few years old. Despite that it has been kept updated with new driver releases. Sapphire is well-regarded as a manufacturer of quality video cards in the previously Radeon, now AMD, line.
The exposed circuit board will be a bit of an eyesore when visible through a windowed case. Apparently some card models either come with backplates, or can be fitted with aftermarket options. Oh well.
It’s memory. Simple enough.
I contemplated getting 16GB, but I’m used to working within 6GB on my laptop, and am unsure I will need more than 8, much less up to 16. Memory is a relatively easy and inexpensive upgrade, so I may add more later if warranted.
It’s been common for a while to have at least two drives within a desktop PC – one smaller faster drive for the operating system and applications, and a larger slower drive for mass storage. This has been taken further by using a solid state drive as the system drive, to benefit from the speed inherent in the technology, and to use a standard mechanical hard drive for mass storage. I decided to go this route as well.
I already had a Samsung EVO 850 500GB solid state drive that I purchased for my laptop a while back to take the place of the standard disk drive. Instead of spending more money on another SSD I decided to remove that SSD from the laptop and restore the original HDD (which still works). The laptop’s about to become a secondary system anyway.
I also elected to purchase a Seagate 1TB hard drive to use for mass storage.
Because of where the computer is going to be located, there’s no ready access to an ethernet hookup, so a wireless solution is needed. The main options for adding wireless capability to a desktop system are a USB dongle and an internal card. I don’t like having dongles hanging onto the computer all the time, so took the card option.
The adapter supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n and Bluetooth. The latter is of import to me as I use Bluetooth devices, and I didn’t want to have an extra Bluetooth adapter.
The motherboard has no PCIE x1 slots – at all, surprisingly – but it does have a PCIE x4 slot. The Wi-Fi adapter card is sized for PCIE x1, but will fit in the bigger PCIE x4 slot. Research indicates that smaller PCIE cards will fit in larger PCIE slots, so this adapter should be good to go.
This is a semi-modular power supply – the motherboard, CPU, and two PCIE cables are integrated into the unit. Also included are four separate cables which can be plugged into the PSU if needed.
- 2 SATA cables, each with four SATA connectors
- 1 peripherals cable with molex connectors
- 1 peripherals cable with molex connectors and, surprisingly, a floppy drive connector (!)
There’s no shortage of case options for today’s builders. I knew I didn’t want a full tower case, and preferred subtle rather than glitzy. I eventually discovered the S340 from NZXT, and quickly knew it was the one for me. It has clean lines, an umblemished front panel, useful cable management features, and a clever way of hiding “messy” parts of a computer’s innards.
There’s one notable aspect of this case: it has no opening or bay for optical drives. It looks like a decision that was part of the case’s design process, to simplify the interior, reduce cable management, and improve airflow. This isn’t really a problem for me as it’s been a long time since I needed to use optical media; that said, a lot of online reviews reveal surprise at the absence of at least one 5.25″ bay. Either the case’s marketing materials need to spell this out more clearly, or people just need to read better before purchasing 🙂
- top panel: 2 USB 3 ports, headphone and microphone ports, HDD activity light, power button with surrounding status LED
- two fans pre-mounted – top and back, both 120mm
- 2-pin connectors
- top can take a 140mm
- both connected to a single molex connector from the power supply – run at full speed
- can mount two 120mm or 140mm fans at front panel
- no included fan control
- filter at front panel, and below power supply
- power supply at bottom under shroud
- inserted from back panel
- no vibration measures included
- no 5.25 inch drive bays
- two 3.5 inch drive bays opposite the power supply
- require standard screws
- no anti-vibration measures included
- can also mount one 3.5 inch drive or SSD at bottom of case, secured from bottom surface
- on shroud atop power supply, two bays for SSDs
- not a lot of features, but suits a straightforward build
- simple clean design
- smart hiding of power supply
- ease of cable management
- removable panel on both sides
The accessory box was located inside the case when first unpacked; it contained some zip ties and sets of multiple screws for different uses.
The rear panel has an oddly-placed gap to the side of the expansion card slots.
As previously mentioned, the case comes with two 120mm fans already mounted, at the top and rear, to exhaust warm air. The case also supports up to two 120mm or 140mm fans at the front to pull cool air in. I decided to add a fan to one of the case’s front fan spots.
This is a 4-pin fan, can can be controlled by PWM or voltage. There is currently no direct means to control fan speed. It can be done through the motherboard if it includes software for doing so.
The fan comes with a nice kit; it includes an extension cable, a 3-to-4-pin adapter cable, a voltage step-down cable (to reduce speed), screws, and rubber mount pegs. The fan itself is sturdy, and has rubber pads on each corner for where it will be mounted against the case to reduce vibrations.
Perhaps noticeably absent from the above listing is an optical drive. It’s been a long time since I needed to insert a CD or DVD to install anything, and the case I selected has NO slots for optical drives, so ehhhh. It’s one less thing to pay for now, one less thing to install, and one less thing impeding airflow. Plus I can always get an external drive later if I really need the capability for e.g. watching movies.
A brief summary of my needs, constraints, preferences, and parts selected:
- using locked CPU and mobo, so no overclocking but lower price
- using a Xeon for hyperthreading, getting i7-level performance for i5-level price
- no onboard graphics, so need a video card
- not overclocking, so used stock cooler
- video card from gpuShack
- considered 16GB of memory, but elected to use 8GB for now and upgrade later if needed
Once I was happy with the parts list, I went about making purchases. I was able to acquire the case locally, but everything else was ordered online, mostly through Amazon but also through NCIX and NewEgg. I placed the orders on a Sunday, and parts trickled in until Wednesday the next week. It was a long wait 🙂
With the preliminary steps out of the way, as well as the waiting for ordered parts to arrive, the next step was where the project got really interesting. Time to assemble!
I made sure to have the case and motherboard manuals close by, as I was switching between them frequently. I had had a small toolkit as well as a bag of zip ties for cable management. Lastly I opened the accessories box from inside the case and extracted the contents. The screws were nicely bagged and labelled, and the instructions clearly indicated which to use where. Props to NZXT.
Setting up the motherboard
It’s widely recommended to add the processor, cooler, and memory to the motherboard outside of the case, since these steps are harder to achieve within the confines of the case. I took the motherboard out of the antistatic bag and placed it on top of the box it shipped in.
Adding the processor was interesting as the CPU is keyed in a way that there is only one possible orientation for placing it in the socket. This took me a little bit to be sure, but I observed the notches in opposite edges of the CPU which corresponded to studs on the socket. With the orientation figured out, I simply placed the CPU in the socket and closed the containing latch cover. It took a frightful amount of force to get the latch engaged; I had expected that from watching and reading about other builds, but still I was fervently hoping nothing would break.
Next step was to add the cooler. As mentioned earlier, it is recommended to use an aftermarket cooler if overclocking, but locked CPUs are fine with the stock coolers. The included cooler had some pads of pre-applied thermal paste, so there was little to do but place the cooler atop the CPU and secure the mounting posts to the motherboard.
Lastly, I added the memory. It’s worth checking the motherboard manual to find out the recommended slots to use with two memory chips; in my case, they were the first and third slots from the right side of the motherboard. The memory chips are also keyed in that there is only one orientation in which they can be installed. Just open the latches, line up the key slot, and firmly press the chip down at both ends. The latches should click back in place, which they did.
Filling the case
Cases these days usually come with standoffs preinstalled. These standoffs form the support necessary to keep the mother board in place away from the side of the case, and are laid out to support the motherboard sizes the case supports.
I almost forgot this, but the IO plate should installed into the case before the motherboard. It’s much easier this way. It took some pressing at each of the corners a couple of times before it snapped into place.
I gently lowered the laden motherboard into the case and prodded it up and left until the motherboard holes matched up with standoffs. There was a standoff near the center that was more like a pin, used to guide the motherboard into place. I found that the bottom edge of the motherboard was unsupported; fortunately the case came with a spare standoff, so I placed it where it would support part of the motherboard’s bottom portion.
The case also came with screws used to secure the motherboard to the standoffs – I used four screws to do this.
The power supply also needs installation at this point. I removed the PSU frame from the back of the case (attached via four captive thumbscrews). The power supply came with four small screws which I used to attach the case PSU frame. I then inserted the PSU, cables first, into the case rear, securing it in place with the frame’s thumbscrews. It’s worth pointing out that it’s easier to install any modular cables on the PSU before the insertion.
The hard drive was easy to install. This was done by removing the case front panel and the mesh filter – this exposes holes for screwing the hard drive to the drive bay. Once again, the case included screws for this – I used two screws to fix the hard drive into place. Attaching the SATA power and data cables was easy. The HDD and SSD are in separate locations, yet I was able to run the PSU’s SATA power cable in a way that it could reach both locations, rather than needing to use both SATA power cables. Of course, this would be less of an issue if the SSD was also mounted in the drive cage, which would require an adapter caddy.
Installing the solid state drive was a bit more interesting. The case has two removable SSD mounting sleds atop the PSU shroud – these sleds are held in place by captive thumbscrews, and have holes for securing SSDs in place via screws. And – you guessed it – the case included those too. While four screws could have been used, I didn’t see the need, and only used two for opposing corners of the drive. That done, I attached the SATA power and data cables to the SSD, set the sled in place, and re-engaged the thumbscrew.
At this point, I carefully threaded the PSU cables for the 24-, 8-, and 6-pin connectors out of the basement and into the main case area. The first two were plugged into the motherboard (the 24-pin for the motherboard itself and the 8-pin for the CPU), and the third was for powering the video card. I ran the 8-pin cable through a hole at the top of the motherboard tray, since said cable plugs in near the top left corner of the board. The 24-pin cable was run out from behind the cable management bar. And the 6-pin cable went through one of the holes in the PSU shroud, just below where it would be needed.
Speaking of the video card, that’s the last part that needed placing. Because the card is double height, I had to remove two slot covers at the back of the case, after which I slid the card into place and screwed it down using the case screws. Last step was to insert the 6-pin power connector into the matching location on the card.
In hindsight, it would have been better to assemble the motherboard, insert the video card, and connect the power cables while the mess was still outside the case just to ensure that the setup actually booted. I got lucky, and didn’t have the pull the mess out.
The case has an input-output panel at the top front edge. The button, lights, and USB sockets are connected via cables to the motherboard. These cables were included with the case and pre-affixed to the panel. I just had to route the cords to their correct locations, which required consulting the motherboard panel.
Oddly, the front panel audio in-out cable had to be plugged into the bottom-left of the motherboard, as far away as possible from the IO panel while still being in the case. Strange location, but then it’s a crowded board, and it had to go somewhere. Fortunately the cable was long enough to reach.
With everything in its place, it was time to see whether it worked.
The first step in ensuring a freshly-assembled build works is to boot into the BIOS. To simplify the first boot, I disconnected both the SSD and HDD (but left them in place), and then pushed the power button.
Fortunately, it worked. I quickly got a message about there being no boot devices attached (as expected) after which I was able to enter the BIOS. There wasn’t much to do at the time, but I spent a little while looking through each of the screens and took some notes on the current setup. I did have to modify the system date and time here.
Enough of that. I switched the computer off and re-connected the hard drive and SSD. Booting back into the BIOS verified that both drives were detected and properly labelled. So far so good.
The next big step was next: the Windows installation.
Windows installation is much simpler than it used to be. In the Windows 7 days it could be a bit iffy trying to install using a USB memory stick, but 8 and 10 facilitated that approach. Which saved me the trouble of somehow connecting an optical drive to a case that has no space for one 🙂
I elected to have Windows installed on the SSD (as had been the plan), so I had to make sure I was selecting the correct drive.
The install went impressively fast. I think it took about fifteen minutes from when the progress bar started to when I was at the new computer setup screen. I remember when the Windows XP installation took at least an hour to run. Granted I’m using much faster storage technology, and Windows 10 itself has been streamlined.
I did worry about any potential issues that might appear during the installation; after all, Jeff Atwood said that if the Windows installation failed then the build wasn’t stable. Fortunately the install was problem-free.
After getting into Windows, I quickly realized that while Windows 10 was installed on the SSD, the installer had also for some reason placed a system partition on the hard drive, which was intended to be mass storage only. So I shut the system down, disconnected the hard drive, and ran the installer again. When that was done I went to the control panel, disk management, and deleted the system partition on the hard drive and created a new partition spanning the full drive. All that to say, if installing into a multi-drive system, probably better to only have the intended system drive connected at the time, then add others after installation. Lesson learned!
I had to open up the Disk Management tool, right-click the partition on the hard drive, and choose to delete the partition. I then right-clicked the same drive and chose to create a new volume. The wizard did the work, and I was left with a partitioning spanning the full available space on the drive.
Windows was up and running, but there was a little more hardware to install.
There were two items I didn’t install initially: the wireless adapter and the front intake fan. They weren’t strictly required for the initial build, so I left them out to get the basic system working first.
For the fan, I had to remove the case front panel and the mesh filter. With the fan on the inside of the case – and correctly oriented, check the arrows on the edge! – I used the included rubber pegs to fix the fan unit in place. It took a little bit of pushing and pulling to get each peg fully through. I wonder how durable those will be after potentially multiple uses, but time will tell. There’s always the packaged screws if necessary. The extra cords in the kit were unnecessary, as the one integrated on the fan unit was more than long enough to reach the SYS_FAN3 header on the bottom edge of the motherboard.
The wireless adapter, as mentioned before, fits in a PCI Express slot, of which precisely one more was available on the motherboard. I removed the corresponding slot cover and slid the card home, replacing the thumbscrew that had secured the slot cover.
On the next restart, the fan spun up immediately and the wireless adapter was readily detected by Windows. The Bluetooth functionality wasn’t enabled, and I had to adjust the positioning of the connector on the USB header. It tuns out there’s very specific positioning and orientation required, and it took me a few tries and restarts to get it working. Once I got it right, Windows picked it up immediately.
One other change I made was to remove the molex fan splitter included in the case with a Silverstone PWM splitter, connecting it to the SYS_FAN1 header near the motherboard’s top edge. This prevents the included fans from running at full speed all the time, and allows speed control via the motherboard.
Drivers, Updates, Configuration
With the wireless adapter now installed, my computer could use wireless internet. As with any fresh Windows install, there were drivers to update, updates to install, and configuration to be done. I’ve done this enough times before that it was pretty straightforward.
A general guideline for device drivers is to not bother with the ones included with the devices are they tend to be updated by the time the device is on hand. I had beforehand navigated to the websites of the respective device manufacturers and downloaded the appropriate drivers to another USB stick. While Windows now does a good job of installing generic drivers that usually work, the specific drivers tend to be better. So I ran the installers for each, restarting where needed. Afterwards I went into the Device Manager and ensured there were no exclamation marks next to any of the installed devices. There weren’t.
Then the updates. This used to be pretty tedious with older Windows installs as they had already been out for some time and had many available updates. As Windows 10 hasn’t been available very long there weren’t all that many updates for it. But there were some, and I waited out the installs and restarts until Windows Update was sucked dry.
For users of their solid state drives, Samsung provides the Samsung Magician software, which is useful to check the status of the drive, test it, and do configuration to optimize for lifetime, speed, or stability.
Because I was using a two-drive system, I wanted to shift as much of my files as possible to the second drive. Windows makes this possible by allowing a user to specify a different location for personal files such as documents, photos, etc. I wound up relocating documents, pictures, music, videos, downloads, and desktop to matching folders on the hard drive.
Windows provides a way to do this. In Explorer, right-click one of the folders such as Documents and choose Properties. Switch to the Location tab and change the value of the text field – it might be easier to open another Explorer instance, navigate to the destination location, and copy/paste that location from the address bar. On confirmation, Windows will move things over. Future accesses to the initial location will be automatically forwarded to the new location, i.e. the separate hard drive.
With Windows installed, correct drivers in use, and all available updates installed, I wanted to try running some benchmark tools to see how the system stood up. There are many such tools available, but I made use of 3DMark, PerformanceTest, and Unigine.
Overall a pretty respectable system, though graphics performance is lesser than current standards due to the older video card in use. As long as it works…
Aside from benchmarks, I used some other tools to ensure that system specs are what they should be. Both CPU-Z and GPU-Z are popular and lightweight options for reviewing the CPU and GPU details, respectively. CrystalDiskMark is useful for checking drive performance. Lastly, Speccy shows a high-level view of the system components and allows drilling down into categories; it also includes temperatures of certain components such as the CPU, GPU, and drives.
As stated at the start, my common uses include programming and web development, some gaming, and photo processing. Visual Studio is still a beast, but it’s very responsive on this build. Projects compile and run faster, likely thanks to the extra threads the Xeon processor provides. Similar for my preferred web development tools: much faster! Lightroom was laggy on my laptop, which just didn’t have enough graphics oomph to keep up. This desktop system cuts through photo imports, edits, and exports like a hot knife through butter. And Starcraft 2, which scarcely worked on my laptop, is now very performant, surprisingly so despite the older video card. Given the recent final installment in that game, I have lots of catching up to do! I have been enjoying the playing game as well as the cinematic scenes.
The only non-new component in this build is the video card. I got it at a good price, and that generation is well-regarded and it handles my needs fine. That said it will probably be the subject of the first upgrade in a year or so. It’s working pretty well for now, so I’ll just watch for price drops on current cards, or wait for the next generation models.
I mildly regret the motherboard I picked. It was at a low price, but also has the cost of limited expandability in the future. There are only two PCIe slots, both of which are occupied, and two usless (to me anyway) PCI slots. There are also only two USB headers on the board, with one taken up already. Depending on what other features may get added to this system in the future, that one remain USB header may be in demand. The board also looks funny in that it doesn’t fill the available space in the case, but that’s a minor aesthetic quibble. It’s a basic board, so there’s no support for overclocking the processor; it does support Crossfire but not SLI. None of these interest me so no big, but something to be aware of when using a budget board.
By choosing the 1150 socket I’ve limited upgrade options insofar as the motherboard, processor, and memory. If I wanted to upgrade to the current socket, 1151, I’d have to replace all three of the above components. I’ll more likely wait for the next socket generation, whatever and whenever that may be, and then do a big core upgrade. As it is the Xeon is running smoothly, and the computer just flies, so I’m not too fussed about missing out on the 1151 goodness.
The semi-modular power supply was not difficult to setup ad use, but that unused PCIE cable kept getting in the way. Next time I buy a power supply I’ll likely pay a bit more for a fully modular unit.
The case is lovely. It’s very sleek and relatively unblemished. The matte finish does mark easily, so I’ve been careful when working on it or in it. Same for the window, as has been reported, but I’ve so far been lucky to avoid any markings on it. Very minor downside in the lack of room for an optical drive, but in my case (pun) it’s pretty much a non-issue. I also appreciate the cable management features, and the hiding of the “ugly” parts down below, both of which are part of the case’s wide appeal.
The fans included in the case are basic – they have no anti-vibration measures, run loud, and are 2-pin only, meaning they can’t be directly controlled. I might replace them with better quality ones similar to the one I installed at the front. Speaking of, I currently only have one fan at the front (bottom) of the case. I’ll have to monitor system temperatures a while to see whether it’s worth putting another similar fan in the top of the front panel.
I got three things out of this project. Firstly, it was a very interesting diversion, and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Second, I have a much better understanding of current hardware options, particularly where processor and mobo abilities and compatibilities are concerned. And finally, I have a much more capable primary system to replace my laptop, and one that will be upradeable in the future.
Altogether there isn’t anything too peculiar about this parts list, except perhaps using a Xeon processor for a desktop, but it seems to have gained some traction. It’s also conservative in that there is no possibility for overclocking with the selected motherboard or processor, or for a dual-GPU setup. Maybe I’ll get more ambitious for my next build, whenever that may be 🙂 At least I’ll have some parts I can reuse.
Building a computer was a fun process, and came with numerous wins and a few minor losses. I recommend it for anyone wanting a custom system or just for the experience and knowledge gained.