Tuesday, January 29, 2013

PC Build Debrief

Serious work, serious fashion sense.
A few weeks ago, I announced my intentions to build a new PC. I'm happy to report that I finally followed through and that I am typing this post on the new machine. I hadn't really messed around with PC hardware to this extent since the 1990s, so I thought I'd collect some of my thoughts on the process.

1. Building a PC is still a pain in the ass…

More more precisely, it's a pain in the back. Spending an afternoon hunched over and staring at tiny pins doesn't get any easier as the years go on. Furthermore, delicate parts, vague instructions, and cramped spaces means there is a high potential for disaster when trying to piece everything together. And even when you've assembled everything, there's no guarantee that it will work.

I learned this first hand when I first booted up and was greeted by the sickening absence of a POST beep. I began the painstaking process of trying to isolate the problem; checking all the connections, unplugging components and then trying to boot again, cursing and pleading with whatever deities rule over consumer electronics. Finally, I solved the problem when I plugged the USB keyboard I was using into a different port on the back panel. Why this worked remains a mystery. Maybe it was just a coincidence. I was just happy to get to the tedious process of installing the OS and updating all the various motherboard and video card drivers.

2. …but it's less of a pain in the ass than it has been historically.

Modular power supplies, SATA cables with 90 degree connectors, and cases with built in cable management systems make piecing everything together relatively straightforward. Furthermore, the advent of YouTube and other video sites are great resources for advice and guidance. A simple Google search of a particular part or process usually yields a detailed tutorial of how to properly install, configure, and troubleshoot anything.

3. Most people don't really need to build a high-end, customized PC…

This is more of an observation I kept making throughout the process, but it was hammered home by what I did when I finally got everything up and running. Sure, I messed around with some games, but most of them were things I could have easily played on a computer half as powerful (and half as expensive). As someone who will occasionally want to boot up Crysis just for funsies, I'm an outlier. Even so, thanks (I believe) in large part to the economy and the protracted console cycle, we're living in an age of moderate system requirements. The AAA space still wants to make sure everything runs on a wide variety of hardware and the independent space tends to favor interesting dynamics over photorealistic visuals.

4. …which is why the "Steam Box" is so interesting.

The strongest aspect of the PC platform is its variety, both in terms of distribution and content. Steam has shown us a way to handle DRM and to conduct online commerce. In terms of games, we get everything from Far Cry 3 to Kentucky Route Zero. When it comes to actually buying games, promotional sales, flexible pricing, and gift-giving offer the versatility that should naturally come with digital distribution.

Consoles still have an edge in terms of usability and standardization (although this is becoming less of the case in this brave new world of multiple SKUs and constant software updates). For people that just want to play games and not worry about the litany of hardware and software tasks related to building and maintaining a PC, trading versatility for convenience seems like a good deal. If Valve, or other third party manufacturers, are able to meld the console's ease of use with the PC's diverse content and economic set up, the next five years will be very interesting.

5. Finally, despite all the hassle, it's fun to see this...

6. …turn into this:


  1. That is one slick box.

    I'm sure this has been considered, but... If it's not too late, considered making a small partition or something for an alternate OS to play with like Ubuntu?

  2. So what game do you plan to load up to experience your new baby's full graphical power?

  3. Might I suggest Borderlands 2. It was on my Top 3 games of the year list after all!

  4. Case buddy! Out of curiosity, are you leaving the foam panels in, or pulling them out for better cooling?

  5. Thanks!

    Your Linux suggestion is a good one. I've been thinking of buying an old machine from my work for this purpose. It's a pretty big blindspot in terms of my knowledge of computers.

  6. Good suggestion, but let me throw this one at you: Solitaire.

    Seriously though, I'll probably get Far Cry 3 or Sleeping Dogs. I hear those are pretty impressive on a good PC.

  7. Hah, that's funny. I spent a lot of time researching cases, so I'm glad I'm in good company.

    For now, I've left the foam panels in. Noise was a big consideration for me and was one of the main reasons I bought this case in particular. I'm not overclocking or anything (yet) and my understanding is that the ivy bridge processors run cool, so I'll probably leave the dampening in for the time being. Who knows what the future holds though?

    What did you end up doing?

  8. I've left the panels in, and have had no heat issues thus far. I've got a 2500K Sandy Bridge, so I'm probably at more heat risk than you are. Knowing they're in there lets me assure myself that if I ever go mad and actually do SLI I should be fine.

    Funnily enough, I got the case in large part because I *really* wanted one with upward-facing ports, which was a lot harder to find than I had expected. The quietness is a bonus, though.

  9. Mmm, mine too actually. And at this point, it's easier than ever to install a linux distro given you can do it without creating a partition. Issue I'm still facing with it is no matter what features it has... Windows just has more stuff.

  10. So how's everything running so far Scott?

  11. Everything is quite smooth so far! I installed Far Cry 3 and it looks pretty great.

    Amusingly enough, one of the most interesting parts has been seeing all the changes in Windows 8. Microsoft is really trying to get their ecosystem going by funneling you through their app store, making it easy to turn your Live/SkyDrive/Outlook, etc. into your global Microsoft Account (similar to the way Google has done).

    I had to go the app store to download Minesweeper and Solitaire. How the world has changed!