The world of PC gaming can be a slippery slope and often has a much higher cost associated with it than its console counterpart. One of the often overlooked aspects of PC gaming is the pride and joy that comes with building your own machine. With a little bit of time and hard work you can build a PC that will run all the newest games with silky perfection and have the power of a top fuel dragster under the hood. The world of custom modded PCs has also taken off and created a flood of products to help the average person create a slick looking machine without too much work.
Like the chassis of a car, the foundation of any well built PC is the case (and the power supply, but I will address that in a moment). Computer cases come in all shapes and sizes with pricetags of an equally dynamic range. You have no doubt seen the $30 cases that your local small time computer shop sells and you have probably seen the top of the line aluminum Lian-Li or CoolerMaster cases that grace the covers of the PC magazines. Choosing the case that is right for you is an important step in the planning process and I think it goes without saying that planning your build requires a lot more time and patience than the actual assembly of the machine.
There are a few key factors to keep in mind when selecting a case. First of all, how well is it built? You can typically judge the quality of a case just by holding it. If it is lightweight and doesn’t seem very sturdy then it would probably work, but I wouldn’t go down that road. Remember, a 1976 Pinto will get you from point A to B, but it won’t be the best or safest way to make that trip. I would also recommend checking for rounded edges inside the case. This may not make a whole lot of sense to you at this point but the first time you take a chunk out of your hand or finger because you rammed it into a sharp case edge, you will wonder why you didn’t pay more attention when selecting a case. I would also just give a brief look at the thermal capabilities of the case. Make sure there is plenty of room to mount case fans should you need them. My computer is overkill and sounds like a jet engine, but there are cases were you may need additional cooling such as if you attempt to overclock your CPU or GPU. A few additional items to look for are removable drive cages, the use of drive rails to mount optical drives, removable motherboard trays, and the number of bays to mount drives.
With the functional items of the case addressed you can move on to aesthetics. The look of your case can be as wild and crazy or as bland as you like. I recommend finding a high quality brand of cases and selecting one that appeals to you. This is not to say that off brand cases are bad, but you typically won’t get all the same features of a name brand case. I typically stick with [url=http://www.directron.com/antec.html]Antec cases[/url] as they offer high quality at a good price point. If you are building a very high end system them I would recommend you take a look at [url=http://www.directron.com/lianli.html]Lian-Li[/url] and [url=http://www.directron.com/coolermaster.html]CoolerMaster[/url]. [url=http://www.directron.com]Directron.com[/url] is where I buy all my cases. They are located in Houston so it cuts down on shipping cost and time. They will also do an upgrade on the power supply and let you choose from any one they have in stock. This really is a life saver since it doesn’t make sense to purchase a computer with a power supply and turn around and buy a much larger one. Instead, you get only the power supply you want for the additional cost. I typically recommend getting a 400 watt power supply or higher to prevent having to upgrade that in the future.
[b]Pictures of my 1080AMG with the optional side panel. The side panel comes stock on the Plus View 1000AMG, but that typically doesn’t come with a power supply.[/b][/center]
With the foundation picked out, it is time to start picking components. Picking what motherboard and cpu you plan to use is probably the most confusing and daunting situation you will face in building this machine followed closely by the video card. There are really 2 routes you can go right now and I would venture to say that with the release of the Athlon64, the smart way is to go with AMD. This is not to discredit Intel in anyway because they have really pushed the limit in terms of raw clock speed but I think AMD played a smarter hand in going for the 64 bit and dual core concepts. AMD is not without its flaws right now though. They introduced the 64 bit cpus on a socket 754 form factor and quickly made it known that socket 754 would be short lived. The replacement which is already out is socket 939. While the cost effective route may be to scoop up some “outdated” (the 754 stuff runs at equal speeds to the 939 stuff right now) socket 754 gear and know that a full overhaul is in your future, I would recommend going for the more bulletproof solution of the socket 939 setup. This is my personal preference and you may find that a socket 754 setup fits your budget better than going with 939 gear. I will leave that up to you but I am only going to cover the 939 stuff here.
[b]The Athlon 64 3000+[/b][/center]
The obvious next question is “Ok Cone, which motherboard and cpu do I get?” and the answer to that is simple. I have recently decided that I prefer Abit motherboards over Asus. Asus has been nothing but great to me in the past but I feel the quality of Abit’s products make them a no brainer for me. You can safely go with either brand and have my blessing. I have nothing against brands like MSI and Chaintech as they make great boards, but I would rather spend an extra $20 and know that my setup is rock solid. That will be your call and considering that [url=http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2128&p=19]Anandtech[/url] actually ranked the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum board ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=13-130-468&depa=1]Newegg – $131[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=241143]ZipZoomFly – $129.99[/url]) above the Abit and Asus boards it is worth a look. With that being said I would go with the Abit AV8 KT800 Pro which is retailing right now for about $111 at [url=http://www.newegg.com/app/viewProductDesc.asp?description=13-127-181&depa=1]Newegg[/url] and $118.50 at [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=240140]ZipZoomFly[/url]. For a cpu you have a ton of options and they pretty much all relate back to your budget. Your low end chip will be the Athlon 64 3000+ running at 1.8GHz with a 512KB cache ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-103-499&depa=1]Newegg – $215 OEM[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80699-2]ZipZoomFly – $180 Retail[/url]). The difference between OEM and Retail is that an OEM CPU probably has a 30 day warranty and does not come with a Heatsink or Fan. Retail CPUs come with a 3 year warranty and a Heatsink. I typically prefer going with retail chips for that reason. In this case ZipZoomFly seems to have Newegg beat on price and is offering retail versus OEM. Sounds like a winner to me.
[b]The Abit AV8 KT800 Pro(top) and the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum(bottom)[/b][/center]
If you have decided that being on a budget is not for you and you want bleeding edge AMD then here ya go. Pick yourself up an Abit AV8 or even the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum that I mentioned before and mate it with an AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-103-459&depa=1]Newegg – $826 Retail[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80714-R]ZipZoomFly – $822 Retail[/url]) which delivers you 2.4GHz and a full 1MB L2 Cache. There is also an FX-55 ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-103-492&depa=1]Newegg – $869 OEM[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80723-R]ZipZoomFly – $890 Retail[/url] that runs 2.6GHz also with the 1MB L2 Cache. This is bleeding edge stuff and will cost you a pretty penny.
[b]The Athlon 64 FX-53(left) and the Athlon64 FX-55(right)[/b][/center]
If you prefer Intel based systems and decide to go that route then here are my recommendations for you. For the budget conscious Intel shopper, pick up an Abit AG8 i915P socket 775 motherboard ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/viewProductDesc.asp?description=13-127-182&depa=1]Newegg – $129[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=240142]ZipZoomFly – $119[/url]) and a Pentium 4 520 ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-116-185&depa=1]Newegg – $162 Retail[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80800]ZipZoomFly – $160 Retail[/url]). The P4 520 runs at 2.8GHz on an 800MHz FSB with a 1MB L2 Cache and also sports hyperthreading. Hyperthreading is a technology that allows a single CPU system to emulate a dual processor setup. It is quite neat and you can read about it [url=http://www.intel.com/technology/hyperthread/]here[/url]. For the bleeding edge Intel fans you will want an Asus P5AD2 Premium motherboard ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=13-131-505&depa=1]Newegg – $261[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=240335]ZipZoomFly – $258[/url]) which sports the new 925X chipset which is running about $261 right now. For CPU you can opt for the P4 560 ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-116-181&depa=1]Newegg – $475 Retail[/url], [url=http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80811]ZipZoomFly – $448 Retail[/url]) which is the 3.6GHz version of the chip I just mentioned or you can get crazy and buy a P4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=19-116-187&depa=1]Newegg – $1,019 Retail[/url]). The 3.4 EE is based on the same core as the other 2 CPUs with an 800MHz FSB but it halves the L2 Cache to 512K and has a massive 2MB L3 cache. The EE would be strictly reserved for someone building a very high end system.
[b]The Abit AG8 i915P(top) and the Asus P5AD2 Premium(bottom)[/b][/center]
[b]The Pentium 4 520/560(left) and the Pentium 4 3.4GHz EE(right)[/b][/center]
Memory is another important area that can severely affect system performance. Selecting the proper memory is a crucial step in having a rock solid system. For you budget builders I would suggest picking up 2 512MB sticks of the Mushkin PC3200 memory. The timing on this ram is 2.5-3-3. You can expect to drop about $173 shipped for the Mushkin solution ([url=http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=20-146-299&depa=1]Newegg – $173 Retail[/url]). Your alternative should you choose to step it up in the memory department would be the [url=http://www.crucial.com/ballistix/store/PartSpecs.asp?imodule=BL6464Z402&cat=]Crucial Ballistix PC3200[/url]. The Ballistix packs a 2-3-2-6 timing and will only set you back about $131 per stick bringing your memory total to about $262. For the high end builders I would also suggest the Ballistix PC3200 memory. As a high end alternative you can also go with OCZ’s [url=http://www.ocztechnology.com/products/memory/ocz_el_ddr_pc_3200_dual_channel_platinum_rev_2]Dual Channel Platinum PC3200 Rev2[/url] that sports 2-2-2 timings. The OCZ solution can be had for about $285 from [url=http://www.directron.com/4001geldcper2k.html]Directron[/url].
[b]The Crucial Ballistix PC3200(top) and the Dual Channel Platinum PC3200 Rev2(bottom)[/b][/center]
That should do it for selecting the foundation and the main components of your gaming system. Part 2 of this series will address the additional internal components you should be using in your system and should be up shortly.
[i]Pricing is current as of 10/22/2004 @ 3:30pm CST[/i]