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Building the Right Box

Date: March 23, 2012
Author(s): Brett Thomas

A lot of effort goes into choosing the right parts for your newest computer, but Senior Editor Brett Thomas thinks the focus can sometimes be a bit off. In this article, he outlines where the best bang for the buck can be spent on your high-performance rig… and believe it or not, it might not be where you think!

Introduction, Chassis, CPU Cooler & PSU

So here we are again, at the cusp of another great graphics card release from NVIDIA. We can see the tests showing the newest card trouncing everything that came before by tremendous amounts…and at $500, it will also stomp on your wallet. With GPUs routinely selling for $300-500 and CPUs that can come close to $1,000 USD, how is someone supposed to build a decent system to game on anymore?

Buying the best and brightest card, CPU and motherboard might be the way to go for increasing your Fraps and 3DMark results to mind-boggling levels, but most of us have a budget to keep in mind. Given that, we often have to get the most out of our parts for as long as we can, and I think we overlook some of the best ways to do that while we stare at the shiny spectacles of new cards on launch day.

This little article isn’t designed to tell you not to buy that bleeding-edge card if your heart is set on it. After all, someone has to pay the early-adopter cost and we ALL want to have a top system once in a while. Instead, consider it a little treatise designed to help you look towards what will last you from build to build, and what you might not want to skimp on.

What lasts?

In enthusiast computing, we’re often amazed at the pace in which technology moves. Things get outdated in matters of months, and support for legacy – particularly in recent times – has been falling by the wayside. However, not everything gets replaced as quickly as your socks get changed.

Chassis: When you buy yourself a chassis, you aren’t buying something to only hold the computer you’re just building. Most people use a chassis for many builds and hardware change-outs over the years. Personally, I used the same Antec P180 for years, before finally switching over to a beautiful Corsair 650D mid-tower for my gaming rig. When I had the Antec, I needed the silence – and now that I value the airflow and access more again, I wouldn’t trade the Corsair for anything.

Corsair 650D Mid-Tower Chassis
A well-built and feature-rich chassis will last for years.

A chassis doesn’t have a lot of technology that changes on it – it needs to be roomy enough to hold your gear, and it needs to have the ventilation necessary to support good airflow. Outside of that, a chassis should be valued on its ease of operation and aesthetics – a good chassis gives you access to your components, can handle a few bumps and bruises, and matches your style. Purchase based on your needs, but don’t go to the bargain-basement – that same chassis that looked like a steal at $75 in the local store is likely to rattle like crazy when closed and cut your fingers when open. Splurge a little bit to buy yourself something that will stand the test of time and give you room to grow, and looks good doing it.

Power Supply: I don’t know how many times I’ve had to mention the that the power supply is just as important as any other component in your system. In fact, it is the one component that can actually ruin everything else in your system in one fateful go. With that kind of power (pardon the pun), is it wise to skimp here?!

PSUs have a lot of mystique around them and even more smoke-and-mirrors advertising, so here’s some basic facts: A PSU gets more efficient as it comes closer to its maximum load, so there’s no sense in buying a 1KW PSU to power… well, damn near anything. 500W-750W is a sweet-spot for most true gaming rigs. If you follow the advice listed later, then 500W should be about all you need for the foreseeable future.

This is why you don't skimp on a power supply.
The dangers of skimping on a power supply.
Credit: Brandon Mietzner

An “80+” PSU is guaranteed to be at least 80% efficient at all loads, though the best brands look at that as under-performing. As a final point, efficiency matters – that being the percentage between the efficiency at a given wattage and 100% – it’s all lost in heat. So if your system needs 350W at full load and your PSU is 82% efficient at that wattage, you’re pulling 426W from the wall – and that extra 76W is lost as heat. That’s power you’re paying for.

So what happens with a cheap PSU? First, the efficiency graph is pretty lousy. Sure, it might say “up to 89% efficient,” but that’s at 495W of 500W capacity. Very importantly, there is an inverse relationship between the wattage of output and the stability of the voltage in cheaper electronics, as well. That means that the closer you push a PSU to its maximum, the less reliable voltage your parts are getting. Too little power can cause crashes, too much can fry chips. Neither is particularly appealing, particularly since a cheap PSU isn’t that much less expensive than a good one. Why chance frying a $300 graphics card over a $30 PSU?

Though there are several “good” PSU brands, I need to give a special nod to two in particular for phenomenal efficiency and reliability: Seasonic and Corsair. The Seasonic models tend to be a better “all around” PSU and the Corsair has very reliable power even at high loads, so choose based on your needs. Either way, they won’t be cheap – but they will last you years. In fact, my Seasonic 420w is going on nine years, five of which have been nearly constant operation.

CPU Coolers: The CPU cooler, or heatsink – particularly nicer after-market ones that we all know and use – will probably stick around nearly as long as your chassis. Motherboards don’t change pin-outs too often, and most heatsinks include multiple brackets to avoid that issue. A good model may cost a chunk of change (usually $50+) but it will come with brackets for both AMD and Intel, and likely be of use for years to come.

Noctua NH-D14 CPU Cooler
Like a chassis, a quality CPU cooler can last through many generations.

A good heatsink is more than just something that keeps your chip running cooler – it also helps maximise airflow in your case. This, in turn, is beneficial to every other part in there! Assuming it can really keep the heat off, it also will allow you overclocking headroom that you wouldn’t normally have, helping you extend the usability of your CPU. Oh, and if your GPU doesn’t have a decent one, look into replacing that one, too!

I should also mention that it could be wise to consider buying a heatsink from a vendor that regularly offers cheap bracket upgrades in the event of a new socket. Paying $10 for a new bracket after your upgrade is preferable to buying an entirely new heatsink!

SSDs, Displays, What Not to Buy & Final Thoughts

SSDs: Solid-state isn’t just for the super-speed machines anymore. The costs on small drives (60GB and below) have fallen so much that it’s silly not to use one for your operating system, given the performance improvements over a conventional drive. If possible, buy a couple 60GB – one for Windows, and one for your Steam catalog.

OCZ Octane SSD
Moving to an SSD is one of the best possible upgrades you could make.

SSDs are, again, something with multiple benefits. Aside from being speed demons, they’re incredibly low-power. This low power also means no real heat effects in your case, making for a cooler, quieter computer. Every little bit helps!

Display: You should really never skimp on your display. The fastest refresh is not the best! This “millisecond myth” has been propagated again and again, and cheap-as-chips displays nowadays prominently display that ms rating and a dynamic contrast ratio that’s often imaginary.

ASUS PA238Q Monitor
You’ll be looking at this thing nearly everyday. Enough said.

In fact, let’s talk about dynamic contrast – on many cheaper models, it’s rated by turning the brightness down to nothing on the backlight, then up to full! This is not how we view monitors, and it’s unrealistic at best. It covers the monitor’s total possible gamut, but there is simply no way to display even a decent fraction of that ratio at once, eliminating the entire purpose of measuring contrast. There’s no real a way to tell whether this is how it is measured for the one you are looking at or not, so make sure to read reviews and focus on the ones that sound intelligent about colors.

Odds are good that even a decent monitor is going to last you for years, and it’s the sole viewport to every other dollar you’ve spent on the machine! You might as well enjoy feasting on the visual fruits of your labor in the best way you can.

What NOT to buy…

Ok, so the title of this section is a little misleading, given that I stated in the intro that my point isn’t to dissuade you from the best and shiniest. But let’s put some things into consideration, shall we?

Top-end Graphics Cards: The top graphics cards easily cost over $400, with new releases starting around $500. But do you need to play your current games at 240 FPS? Even 3D gaming monitors are capped at 120Hz refresh, and a non-3D monitor is 60Hz (that’s 120 and 60 FPS) – meaning that if your framerate never drops below that, your monitor is dropping the frames long before anything else. If you don’t have a need or desire to go 3D at present, even this generation’s mid-range card ($150-225) will play today’s games at high resolution with all the bells and whistles dialed up to 11 and keep up with that.

New graphics technologies evolve at a fairly quick rate, as well – DX10 was barely in infancy before DX11 was being pushed out the door, and the cards with new features were less than a year apart. Microsoft has promised a continual march forward in this technology now that it has unshackled itself from the DX9 model, and so improvements are likely to continue at a rapid rate. All of this makes it a bit silly to spend $500 on a new card when $225 or less will do all you ever needed it to do – you could spend the same amount on a new card in 2 years to do it all over again and still have saved money.

SLI/Crossfire: If your old card is not playing games the way you want it to, odds are that either you went for the ultra-cheapo model or we’re another generation forward. Either way, buying one of this generation’s mid-range will serve you better and last you a lot longer than buying a second old or cheap card. Buying two of this season’s mid-range to start off with SLI is also essentially a waste since one will likely play today’s games fine for you and two still won’t have tomorrow’s technology.

Super-clocked CPUs: This one could have some argument against it – but more speed is more heat, and more heat is faster failure and more expensive cooling. I’d rather have another thread than an extra 10% in MHz, if for nothing other than the fact that I often run a few pieces of software and still want to game. Most games don’t max out the CPU anyhow, as most of the strain is put on the GPU.

The only true argument against this is probably serious photo editing – despite programs like Photoshop and Lightroom having support for multiple threads, they don’t do a great job of utilizing this yet. As this improves over time (as things do), the benefits of more cores will greatly outpace more speed. I hold this belief so strongly that when I had my pick of processors for my newest system, I chose AMD’s six-core processor over a faster Intel processor with four cores and HyperThreading, as HT is not a true core!

What’s missing?

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned the motherboard or RAM in my discussion – and that’s because these are items where it truly depends on other needs. Motherboards are a pain to change and people usually don’t until there’s a reason, so that’s an argument for spending decent money. Also, better mobos will have better power regulation, which keeps the whole board and everything connected to it lasting a lot longer. On the flipside, technologies on the motherboard move at the same pace as graphics cards, it seems – bus speeds, PCI-Express versions, and numerous other things all seem to take steps ahead at different times and you never know which one will compel you to actually need a new one.

RAM, as well, is an “as you need it” decision. For my own needs, I went with as much as my motherboard could handle – a shiny 16GB – because I run a lot of virtualization and debugging tasks along with (and sometimes alongside) games. Normally, my suggestion is to add it as you need it, but RAM functions best when it’s all matched up and can be cheaper per GB in large kits. So, this becomes an “as your budget can handle” choice – if you think you’re going to need 16GB in a reasonable time, maybe pick it up so that it’s not an expense down the line.

Wrapping it up with a bow

I hope that you find this article to be some intriguing food for thought when it’s time to scope out your next system or even what to replace on your current one. There are always a lot of variables to be weighed – what’s out on the market, what your needs are and what your budget is. It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of the latest and greatest GPU or CPU… and then outside of choosing a decent motherboard, the rest of the parts get the budget of “whatever is left.”

In reality, it’s the unsung heroes – the chassis, the PSU, the heatsink – that carry a lot of the load from build to build. Whether you buy a new processor, add some RAM, or update yourself to a shiny new GPU, you’re likely going to put them into that same chassis and hook it up to the same power supply. It’s worth it to invest in these “old faithfuls” – they’ll be there time and again.

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