Building your own machine used to be a way to save money but recent price drops on entry and medium level PCs inverted the situation. It is actually cheaper to walk into PC World and buy a no frills box than to build something equivalent. That is not true in the high end of the market, though. Granted, you can buy a Dell with the latest iCore 7 for around £800 but it is housed in an anaemic box without any extra space for further expansion. It still makes sense to build your own if you are looking for some fun and good performance at a reasonable price.
When I set out to build a new PC I was using a cheap two core AMD based box that had been “supercharged” with extra memory, two reasonable graphics cards and an extra hard drive. This setup drove four monitors: two 24′ plus two 19′, and did not cope very well with moving windows between monitors connected to different cards. This was a minor annoyance; the big issue were the ten plus seconds pauses whenever I started any WPF application, longer if started from within Visual Studio. For non developers this may sound irrelevant but when you start the same application over and over, hundreds of times a day the pauses can become rather painful. With this in mind and after looking at the alternatives I settled for the following components:
- Intel iCore 7 920 CPU
- ASUS P6T motherboard with three PCI express 16/8x
- 6 Gb of Corsair Dominator RAM
- Two Asus GeForce GTS 250 SLI 512MB graphics cards
- Two Samsung 64GB 2.5″ SATA-II MLC Solid State Hard Drives
- Hitachi 500 Gb hard drive.
- Antec 550 TruePower PSU
- Antec Twelve Hundred case
I considered a cheaper option built around AMD’s Phenom II but feared that the end result wouldn’t be such a big departure from what I already had. So I sacrificed another hundred pounds and went for the fastest processor in the market (crazy priced CPUs aside, of course). Altogether the grand total was close to nine hundred pounds but I did not have to buy the PSU, the DVD Drive and the Hitachi hard drive so it would have cost somewhere around the eleven or twelve hundred pounds. This is not bad considering that Dell’s top of the line workstations start at £1,200 and don’t have SSDs or even space to install two graphics cards in some cases.
The components I am happier with are the SSDs and the CPU. The SSDs are installed in RAID0 and form the boot drive. With them Windows 7 takes a few (very few) seconds to reach login and there are no pauses after login. It is a huge departure from what I had where start up would take up to a minute and after login Windows would continue to hit the disk for a while. On the application side, Visual Studio Team System starts up in about three or four seconds despite having Resharper and several other add-ins enabled. SSDs are the single best upgrade ever and are worth the premium price. This is a game changer for the storage industry and it will not be very long before conventional hard drives are history.
This is the fastest PC I have ever built by a very long shot and it is does not run hot at all so I can keep it rather silent. The CPU is never maxed out and keeps a steady 45 degrees throughout the day with the odd 50 here and there. The iCore has eight hardware threads and four cores which is still overkill for most everyday computing including development. The most I have seen in CPU utilisation was 25% which is one core maxed out, nevertheless this will change very soon since one of the big new features in the next version of GeneXproTools is multi-processing.
The biggest disappointments were the graphics cards and the case. The graphics cards are quite good in the graphics department but noisy to the point of distraction and I nearly returned them as I could not find any aftermarket solution. After a lot of searching I found Artic Cooling’s Accelero Twin Turbo that, despite the name, is nearly silent. Not all bits of this cooler fit the Asus card perfectly so I had to improvise a bit but the end result was very good. One tip, the cooler has two power cables for the fans and you only need to connect one. Make sure you try both as one runs the fans faster and noisier than the other. At normal operation one GPU is at 49 degrees and the other at 55. Not sure why they are so different, maybe because one is closer to the CPU? Also in the cooling area, I bought an Xtreme Freezer for the CPU but, although it is less noisy, the standard cooler that came in the box was perfectly appropriate. The coolers added another ninety pounds to the grand total.
The case was another adventure. It looks stunning and has loads of space but it is a bit noisy so I had to turn off several fans. But the main problem was the top monster fan. It did not work. I asked for a replacement and was asked for pictures of the fan and then told to break it (!) and send a picture of the broken fan or they would not send a new one. In the end I received a new fan and although it starts it has to turn too fast to be silent. It is off at the moment. Antec’s customer service was not nice at all. Nobody likes to be assumed a liar after receiving a partly working one hundred pounds case. I will avoid buying Antec products in the future despite quite liking them.
A final minor note: Setting up the RAID in the motherboard was quite a chore. The P6T BIOS was quite finicky and the instructions were not very clear. After a lot of wasted time I found out that the two first Sata connectors are dedicated to an easy to use RAID feature that did not recognise both SSDs. A side effect of using these two connectors was that the RAID start up prompt is hidden which caused endless reboots and frustration. The solution was not to use the two first ports but the poor instructions made me loose a couple of hours.
As for performance, I am quite happy with the result. The PC registers a 6.1 Windows Index for what is worth it, the lower being the graphics card and the higher at 7.2 the CPU. I am closing with a few pictures of the box and internals. Enjoy.
The case has several holes that allow passing all the wires to the back. A big plus.
An overview of the front with the CPU to the right and the PSU to the left, which is the bottom of the case. The coolers of the graphics cards cover all the PCIe slots reducing the expandability of the system.
The SSDs are still waiting for the rails to arrive…
The original and very noisy cooler on the GTS 250 graphics card.
Removing the original cooler was bit scary since it was quite well glued. In the picture you can see the small heat sinks that ship with the Twin Turbo. I had to improvise with the heat sinks on the far right because they did not fit very well between the capacitors that surround the voltage regulators.
The final result: a very fat card that takes more than two slots.
This cooler is huge with a 12 cm fan inside it.