So I built a gaming PC

The last time I built a PC with gaming in mind was sometime right after college - 2005 I think. I basically crammed as much as I could into a Shuttle PC and prayed for it not to overheat. What I built at the time was actually pretty sweet - Athlon 1.2 GHz, ATi Radeon x850 AGP, 2 GB RAM - and somehow it still runs today.

When it was ready to be put out to pasture, my brother happened to be moving overseas for work. He couldn't bring his full-tower gaming rig, so he gave it to me. It's done well these past 5 years, but nothing lasts forever.

Now that it's time for me to build again, I figured I'd document the process and see what's changed since 2005.

Picking the Parts

I've got a method for this that used to serve me well, so I dusted it off again. First, define your goals. For me, I wanted to hit the following points:

  1. Reasonable price
  2. Plays current and future games at full settings
  3. Smaller form factor
  4. Better heat management

Now, the trick to making sure it plays current and future games is to ensure you're using the most recent architecture you can. I learned this the hard way by making a cheap AGP-based PC right after PCI-E was introduced. I loved that PC, but upgrading it was impossible.

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So here's where I ended up:

  1. CPU: AMD FX-8250 - this was the point right where returns start diminishing
  2. MB: Biostar A960D+ - dictated by need for AM3+ socket, and by price
  3. RAM: 1x Kingston Hyper-X 8GB - two modules would be faster, but one gives me room for future upgrades.
  4. GPU: HIS IceQ X2 Radeon R9 270X - This relatively cheap card hits two important notes for me. It's R9-based and it's built specifically with heat and noise management in mind.
  5. Case: Fractal Design Core 1000 - This was the nicest looking of the whopping 2 mATX cases at my local Micro Center. I just didn't want to pay $20 to ship from Newegg.
  6. PSU: Something on sale at Micro Center. The last time I built a computer these were always bundled with the case, so this was a new experience. One of their high-end PSUs was on a ridiculous doorbuster sale so that's what I went with.

Total part spend came out to about $550 - Though there's another $60 for taxes and shipping, plus $20 worth of mail-in-rebate I'll be waiting for.

Assembling the PC

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I started to think I might've jumped in beyond my depth when, after buying pretty much the only mATX case available to me, I couldn't figure out where the hard drives go. (We'll get back to that, it's kinda weird.) I calmed down again once I got down to the actual job.

PSU goes in first (because I'm terrified I'll drop it on something if I don't put it in first), then the motherboard. I'm a little disappointed that with the recent trend toward standardization that we're still using movable motherboard risers. This motherboard didn't come with a diagram. If that happens to you, hold the board up in front of a light so you can easily make note of all the screw holes.

Pop the back-plate into the case, then place your risers, then slide the motherboard into place. Get every screw started loosely and then, only after every screw is started, tighten them all down. 

The CPU seats like it always did (just line up the arrows and release), and then the heat sink. Drop it straight on, connect the arms to the hooks, then close the latch. Regarding the heat sink: first, I'm amazed that stock coolers come with heatpipes now. Second, AMD uses a cheap plastic latch that feels like it's going to break off before it secures the processor. That's gotta go.

RAM is a cinch. It only goes in one way. Apply firm pressure until the clamps close on their own but don't force it.

My biggest surprise with the RAM, Mainboard, and CPU is that very little has changed with these components in the last 9 years.

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The one change that caught me off-guard is the sheer size of the GPU in relation the the entire rest of the PC. I made a mistake in seating it the first time around entirely because it's so large. The card obscures the front USB connector, front audio connector, the SATA connectors, and the front switch/LED connectors. I ended up having to take the card out, hook up all of the case's cables, then re-seat the card - which isn't nearly as big a deal as it seems.

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With all the critical components connected, it's time to make sure the thing POSTs. Now you see why I keep a cheap-ass keyboard around for this stuff.

One change from years ago is that every current GPU supports HDMI. Not having to procure a monitor to test was pretty welcome.

Brain Transplant

With the new PC POSTing, that means it's time to shut down the old PC and swap over the hard drives (then hold your breath and cross your fingers and hope you won't have to re-install windows).

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It took a good 15-20 minutes to go get my old PC. The full-tower case doesn't actually fit under the front of my desk. My solution for this was to build the desk around the PC. Now that means I have to move and disassemble parts of my desk to get it back out.

My plan of action was to pull the desk away from the wall and pull the PC up from the back.

I cracked the top of my desk.

And since there aren't any handholds on the (I'm guessing) 40lb case, I didn't even get the PC. I ended up having to move my desk farther and pull the case around the side and behind the file cabinet.

Before decommissioning it, though, I decided to give it a name. The Albatross.

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And here it is, the completed build. Remember I said I couldn't figure out where to put the drives? Turns out that this case doesn't have a dedicated HDD cage. There's an adapter if you want to put one in the CD-ROM cage, and a rail to install additional ones onto.

Sure it's weird, but once you screw your drive either into the adapter or onto the rail, you just put those in place with a couple of thumbscrews. Also, keeping the drives vertical like that results in a clear path for the case's front fan to blow onto the GPU and motherboard.

One of the most common complaints with this case is that there's nowhere to put your excess power cables - but if you're willing to live without an internal DVD drive, you end up with a nice little space to stuff them all.

External DVD drives are cheap now, and aren't really all that annoying if you rarely use DVDs. Plus, as an added bonus, you get a case with a clean, uninterrupted front.

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The moment of truth and ..... it boots! And that blue power LED is blindingly bright in person. Gonna have to disconnect that.

Clearly I have no GPU drivers so I'm at 800x600. What you can't tell from this is that I also have no ethernet drivers so it looks like I have to break out the portable USB DVD drive and install them from the motherboard disc.

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If you've ever wondered what SNAFU actually means, it's an acronym. It means "situation normal: all fucked up." The external DVD ROM didn't work at all. I don't know if it was the discs, or the drive (windows seemed to recognize it just fine), but if I was ever going to get onto the internet it was clear that I'd have to use my internal DVD drive.

I still have no plans to install an internal DVD drive but it might be time to get my own instead of borrowing the crappy one from work.

Benchmarks

I'm not going to lie - I'm a little disappointed in the CPU so far. A friend of mine suggests that having only 1 RAM module might be the culprit - but I'm sure a part of it was me forgetting that even though this CPU is newer, the old one was an incredibly expensive CPU designed for a server environment (and also had 4 RAM modules, for what it's worth).

For these benchmarks I used:

Old system: AMD Phenom II x4 920 / GeForce 8800 GTS OC

  • 3D Particle Motion (CPU - higher is better)
    • Single Threaded: 70.2866
    • Multi Threaded: 235.8943
  • Dirac Encoding (CPU - lower is better)
    • 2:01
  • Sleeping Dogs
    • Performance: 62.1 fps
    • Quality: 30.1 fps
    • Extreme: 9.2 fps
  • Tomb Raider
    • Performance: 85 fps
    • Quality: 39.1 fps
    • Extreme: crash to desktop

You know what? Hats off to my brother. For a 5 year old PC, those are some pretty damned good numbers.

New system: AMD FX-8320 / AMD Radeon R9 270x

  • 3D Particle Motion (CPU - higher is better)
    • Single Threaded: 65.7380
    • Multi Threaded: 243.4512
  • Dirac Encoding (CPU - lower is better)
    • 1:57
  • Sleeping Dogs
    • Performance: 79.6 fps
    • Quality: 58.9 fps
    • Extreme: 35.8 fps
  • Tomb Raider
    • Performance: 219.4 fps
    • Quality: 118.6 fps
    • Extreme: 36.9 fps

And there's the let-down. Every benchmark has a margin of error - there's always something running in the background - so for all practical intents and purposes the two CPUs are about the same speed.

The GPU performance floored me, though. Sleeping Dogs and Tomb Raider at their highest quality settings look amazing. I was used to my PC being marginally better than an HD console. Now it's not even in the same ballpark.

I still have some gremlins to work out. My wireless keyboard and mouse have become incredibly laggy and unpredictable and my framerate in Dolphin Emulator has actually dropped - from 25 fps to 7 fps. That can't be a performance issue. That must be a legit bug.

I think it's safe to say that this PC will be able to handle the upcoming crop of DX11 games. It's small, relatively quiet, and it didn't cost me an arm and a leg to build. There's still room for improvement, but for now I'll call that a success.