Hardware Game: Round One

Saturday, 05 March 2005

After I moved to the UK at the end of 2004, I learnt that I had toasted my graphics card by accident some point before the move. The effects on the graphics card were not immediate, but the card gradually became more and more unstable, until it was unusable. I felt a bit sad about the card, especially as it was yours truly that had brought about its untimely demise. In its short life, only 12 months long, it had offered up both the visual treats of Halo and Call of Duty.

Of course, I couldn't mope around all day, so I got to purchasing a new card pretty darn sharpish. I still had Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 to look forward to, after all. What do you expect me to do? Wait for Santa Claus? Santa is dead, man, Santa ain't bringing me nothin' this Christmas.

I was horrified to discover that I had bought a state-of-the-art card, the ATI Radeon X800, only to discover that the other components of my PC were a ball and chain on its graphical agility. The performance I had been patiently waiting for was ridiculously poor.

Of course, I couldn't mope around all day, so I got to building a new PC sharpish. I've already explained that we couldn't count on Santa. However, building a new PC was not something I had attempted before, but I was damned if I was going to go to the trouble of setting up an entirely new PC if it wasn't the PC I actually wanted. That's the trouble with single-minded sociopathic geeks like myself, we just can't be happy with an off-the-shelf model.

Days of research behind me, a new oversized PC emanating blue radiation at my feet, I thought I would try to put to rest one of the geek-propagated myths about building a PC. Namely, that building a PC is easy. You bloody liars.

Yes, I might do it again, but I would pause and consider before doing so. There is so much that can go wrong - forums are full of the lost who are pleading for help with "I built my PC but it crashes all the time" - and yesterday's hardware knowledge is not as useful today as you might expect. And certainly someone with scant hardware know-how should not even entertain the idea.

Begin.

Rules

There are very few rules in the Hardware Game and no major sources of information. Tom's Hardware is a good site but the information there is generally scattered and incomplete. Any guides you find out there on the Wild West Web come in two forms: overly simplistic so as to cover all the bases, or incredibly detailed and specific which may not be applicable to your situation (heh, or worse - full of technical jargon).

So this is why I decided to write this particular article. When originally conceived, it was a single piece. Writing it, however, took several weeks, fitting it in where I could and I found myself having to research more deeply than when I had actually built my PC. Once complete, it was obvious that the article was too big to release in one go and so it became a three-part series.

The game is best played by planning everything first. The first two articles will focus on the hardware decisions, while the third will discuss how my build was executed and what was learnt. In this article we discuss the major components of a new PC: the processor, the motherboard and the graphics card.

Processor Choice

Processor is a good thing to decide first. Motherboards have a socket into which the processor is inserted and each motherboard will normally only support one particular processor pin layout, thus the processor will influence your choice of motherboard. In recent years, the pin layouts go by names such as "Socket T" and "Socket 939" (some older layouts are called Slot instead of Socket). It is important to realise that the number in a socket name is not really a "version number" and usually just refers to the number of pins; a very clear example is the Socket 939 layout which is newer than Socket 940.

Before I get carried away, it is a little simplistic to think of the relationship between processor and motherboard in this way. Longevity is something else worth considering. Purchasing a motherboard locks you into a particular socket, which controls what potential processor upgrades you will have at your disposal down the line. The only way to use a processor that needs a different socket is to rip out your motherboard, throw it out the window, wait for sound of the impact and go buy a new motherboard with the right socket. If you're looking for upgradability, you might need to get a relatively new socket at the start of its run. For maximum value without care for upgradability, you might want to pick up a processor/motherboard combination that are the dying gasp of a particular socket architecture.

Now consider the manufacturer of the processor. Modern AMD and Intel processors, as you might expect, cannot use the same sockets. Just as the socket architecture locks you into a certain upgrade path, it also locks you into a manufacturer. Once Intel, always Intel, until the motherboard takes the leap from the window.

Disclaimer: I am an AMD person. The usual reason that Intel is chosen is because it's a safe option; reliability and performance. In the past, AMD has been seen as a value, budget option. The truth is that AMD is just as reliable - I have never had any processor-related instability - and in some cases has performance that rivals Intel. Differences in performance are usually subtle, so I choose AMD simply on value.

Certain processors can be discarded outright. Building a desktop PC means you are not interested in laptop processors (usually referred to as mobile processors) or server-end processors. The processors of interest are most likely only going to be the desktop processors listed on the Intel and AMD product pages.

Currently, there is an additional complication as we are amidst a transition from 32-bit to 64-bit system architecture. A 64-bit system will be able to handle large amounts of data more efficiently and, in time, all systems will be 64-bit just as all systems are 32-bit now. Intel, chose to create a backwardly-incompatable approach called IA-64 which runs 32-bit programs at a severe performance penalty. AMD offered an alternative known as AMD64 or x86-64 that was inclusive, capable of supporting 32-bit software without penalties. Intel has now adopted the AMD64 blueprint, rebranding it as EM64T. Confused?

Here's the bottom line: AMD has a 64-bit processor range which has been available for some time, while Intel, at the time of writing, has not yet released 64-bit processors for desktops. My personal choice was clear - only AMD offered meaningful 64-bit support. Just one caveat. Bear in mind that the benefits of 64-bit computing, by and large, have no impact unless you're running 64-bit software on a 64-bit operating system, so it is early days for the 64-bit revolution. Windows users are still waiting for the 64-bit edition of Windows XP to arrive, although 64-bit Linux already exists.

So let's choose the CPU. My personal choice was for a top performing chip so as to prolong the processor's useful life; I am a games player so my PC does need serious CPU power. I looked straight at the top of the AMD range which, at the time, was either the standard Athlon XP 3800+ or high-performance Athlon FX-53. The FX series definitely demonstrated superior performance, but the increased cost was unjustifiable in my book. I also suspected that the FX series was a pricing strategy to make the standard processor prices look like good value. I bought the Athlon 64 3800+ which is a Socket 939 processor.

There are other points you could consider, such as how overclockable the processors are or special features such as Cool'n'Quiet technology, but the major criteria have been covered.

Further information on the history of processor architecture can be found in an interesting two-part guide at Tom's Hardware. Part 1 covers the early years and the last decade of Intel. Part 2 covers the last decade of AMD.

Motherboard Basics

Whereas the processor is always considered to be the brain of the PC, the motherboard is seen as the spine. This prompts all sorts of questions, as to where the eyes, lips and the buttocks might be. These are not questions I have answers for.

It is through the motherboard that data traffic moves between the processor, memory and the different peripherals attached to the motherboard. In fact, the choice of motherboard is more about what you want to attach to your PC and the potential for upgrading rather than the motherboard itself. And as a result, all of the decisions about the hardware in the desired PC get mashed up into one giant ball of confusion.

Current motherboards typically possess a number of standard interfaces. Amongst the port cluster down the side of the motherboard, the bit that juts out of the back of the PC case, you would expect to see: a few USB 2.0 slots; a Firewire/IEEE1394 socket; a parallel data port; a serial port; PS/2 ports for the keyboard and mouse; an Ethernet socket for network or broadband connectivity. Motherboards now also come with onboard sound processors, so you may also find audio input/outputs in the cluster. A wireless interface may also be of interest, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. In my new motherboard, I wanted plenty of opportunities for USB and Firewire connectivity, as my previous PC had few USB slots and no Firewire connection; I had to add them using PCI cards.

Remember that love is all about what is on the inside and there is more to a motherboard than the port cluster.

PCI extension cards (such as a sound card) are attached to the motherboard via a PCI slot; think about the number of PCI slots that may be needed. For graphics cards, an AGP slot is standard, but are you one of these insane people that want a SLI (Scalable Link Interface) configuration, two AGP slots for a dual graphics card shootout? Probably not, but be aware that expensive SLI motherboards are out there.

At this point, I have to throw in yet another "technology in transition" spanner in the works. Both PCI and AGP are currently being replaced by a new standard called PCI Express which provides much more bandwidth (how much data can be shuttled between PC components) than PCI and AGP technologies. It is backwardly compatible... from the point of view of software. Operating systems won't choke if you happen to use PCI Express instead of PCI. However, the physical interface is different. PCI and AGP cards will not work in PCI Express slots, and vice versa. There are motherboards coming along which have PCI Express slots and newer graphics cards are being released in PCI Express format as well as AGP. It gets worse: as there are no motherboards that have AGP and PCI Express together, you have to decide whether you want an AGP system or a cutting-edge PCI Express system. AGP is going to be phased out. You have been warned.

PCI Express motherboards were really hard to come by when I built my PC and so the decision was made for me. I wanted a motherboard with an AGP slot and around three PCI slots. The motherboard decision cannot be made yet, because the rest of the peripherals have to be considered first.

Graphics

I remember when 3dfx invented the idea of a 3D graphics card and became king of visual power. With the advent of the combined 2D/3D graphics card, they slowly fell from grace, went out of business, and nVidia took the crown. The reign of nVidia came to an end when they became overly side-tracked with the contract to build the graphics engine for the Microsoft Xbox. This gave Canadian manufacturer ATI the chance to shine, who had been previously regarded as manufacturers of fairly ordinary cards with less than stable drivers. nVidia lost the lead and were even shamed in public by the highly-regarded makers of Half-Life, Valve Software.

Right now, we have healthy competition in the graphics arena. ATI and nVidia are both producing decent graphics cards and the top-of-the-range card changes every few months. At present, ATI's best are the Radeon X850 series while nVidia offers the GeForce 6800. The nVidia card generally does better than the Radeon at present, except in the case of Half-Life 2. There are also complicated questions over which one will show better longevity with respect to gaming performance and capabilities; this is a highly subjective area and I refrain from attempting any sort of answer.

Beware the cards right at the top end of the performance spectrum. Their availability is typically scarce and value for money extremely suspect. I am convinced these cards are on the market simply to define the price of the lower-end cards and also dazzle hardware reviewers; feast your eyes on my fat graphics pipeline. I would opt for cards just below the top for best value. Currently, with ATI, this means something like the Radeon X850 Pro rather than the X850 XT (especially not the Platinum version). In the nVidia camp, go for the GeForce 6800 GT and not the GeForce 6800 Ultra.

This leaves us with one question, should we choose ATI or nVidia? There's not much in it, truth be told. I have only one suggestion regarding a graphics card purchase. Regardless of which technology is chosen, try choosing a reliable graphics card manufacturer such as Sapphire or ASUS.

Note that this isn't necessarily all about 3D graphics; there can also be an impact on video processing as well. If you're a home video enthusiast, then I'd suggest doing some research on video capabilities and performance before making a final decision.

On the other hand, if you're only going to run Microsoft Office, a motherboard with onboard video will be just fine. Forget about the graphics card. If you change your mind then, provided you have an AGP slot on your motherboard, you can always buy one later.

Time Out

Okay, that’s it for the first round of the game. Part two covers the many other components that need to be considered when building a PC from scratch.

End