Building my first high-performance & gaming PC

 

The Need

If you have seen any of the movies in the “Fast and the Furious” series, then you aware of how street racers go to extreme and exotic techniques to trick-out their car to run faster and faster. Well it’s no different for building a performance PC. Everything is about performance parts that take you to the next level. Just like the fast street racing cars, there’s a whole industry that caters to gamers or multimedia techs wanting to build the next fastest system on the block. While I did not need or want the fastest system around, I wanted to ensure this system would be a capable for as long as possible.

My son gave me  a new game for the PC this Christmas titled Rainbow Six Vegas 2 from UBI. He knows I like first-person shooters, a genre of games where you basically run around and shoot bad guys. It’s the closest I will ever get to being Jack Bauer and saving the world from evil. These types of games allow you to play for short periods of time and stop anytime reality sets in. I also enjoy playing online where you play either cooperatively with other live players or adversarial where live players go after each other. Regardless, it really is amazing that 5 to 10 people all in various locations around the world can play together in real-time in a very detailed and realistic 3-D world.  

imageThe problem with games on the PC is that the vendors are constantly raising the bar on how much computing and graphics power is required to run them. While my older version of this game ran pretty well on my old PC, this new one was barely playable. Even on the lowest resolution and settings, the game play was very laggy making it nearly impossible to play. The low graphics setting was like fighting against foes who all have 20-20 vision while your own vision is blurred at anything beyond 10 feet…not a good thing. Translation: It’s time to upgrade the graphics card again.

So I set out to educate myself and my first surprise was that the current graphics cards were no longer compatible with my PC. Seems like just yesterday that the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) was the new thing for fast graphics cards. AGP was short-lived and has been replaced by faster PCI Express (PCIe) slots on the motherboard. These slots now come in 16x speeds needed in graphics-heavy processing such as games. Oops! Now I need a new computer or a new motherboard that will support the new cards. After pricing some new workstations capable of handling today’s graphics hungry games, I decided it time to roll up my sleeves and build a new system from the ground up. All the advise from my expert friends said this is way to go and I could build to my own specifications and save dollars at the same time.

I started by researching the latest components that would result in a cutting-edge system and would play current games while also serving as a video editing workstation. Video needs fast disk I/O and CPU power. If you have ever rendered an hour long DV file into MPEG, then you know what I mean. I purchased a magazine called Maximum PC which was excellent at detailing all of the latest hardware needed to build that graphic smashing dream-machine. My son and I also visited a local LAN party and received lots of expert advice from guys who have already built and play their own high-end systems.   

The Solution

Below is the list of components I chose for the new system.

  • Intel i7 CPU chip 940 2.67 Mhz (faster than the fastest quad-core)
  • ASUS P6T Deluxe motherboard
  • ATI Radeon 4870 X2 2GB graphics adapter
  • 6 GB Corsair 1333 Mhz DDR3 tri-channel memory
  • Corsair 1000 watt PSU
  • Cooler Master V8 CPU cooler with 120 mm fan
  • 1 Western Digital Veloci  Raptor 10000 RPM 300 GB primary drive for OS and programs
  • 2 Seagate 7200 RPM drives in RAID 1 (mirroring) for data
  • Vista Home Premium 64-bit
  • 2 additional 120 mm fans for a total of 4
  • Antec P182 case

The next section details my reasoning behind each choice.

  • Intel i7 CPU chip 940 at 2.67 Mhz – This new CPU represents the most recent, significant leap in architecture and performance. Intel got rid of the Front Side Bus (FSB) by moving the memory controller onto the CPU itself. It also uses new DDR3 tri-channel memory. This the lowest of the 3 current models and still out performs the fastest quad-core chip from Intel that costs hundreds more. The chip now as 1366 pins and thus requires a new socket so it requires a new motherboard designed for it.
  • ASUS P6T Motherboard – ASUS is one of most respected motherboard manufacturers around and very well like by the high-performance users due to its inherent support for over-clocking. This is ASUS’s newest board to support the relatively new Intel i7 CPU and supports the new LGA 1366 socket. It also provides 6 SATA and 2 SAS ports, RAID support, 7.1 sound, USB and firewire, dual GB Ethernet ports and much much more. This board can support an amazing 24 GB of RAM memory!
  • ATI Radeon 4870 X2 2GB graphics adapter – this monster has two 4870 graphics engines mounted on a single PCIe card and carries 2 GB of DDR5 memory. This card requires a significant amount of power and thus let to the large PSU.
  • 6 GB Corsair 1333 Mhz DDR3 tri-channel memory – Corsair is know for excellent RAM memory and is a favorite of gamers due to the stability when over-clocking.
  • Corsair 1000 watt Power Supply Unit (PSU) – many PC only have about 250 to 300 watt PSU but this is far from sufficient when you add high-end graphics cards, multiple fans (cooling) and hot running CPUs. This unit is also modular meaning that most of the power cables to run peripherals are separate so you only add the minimum cables needed. Fewer power cables mean better air-flow through your system.
  • Cooler Master V8 CPU cooler with 120 mm fan – New, high-end CPUs (Central Processing Unit) come with their own cooling fan used to dissipate the heat they create. This unit replaces the Intel cooler with a much larger device that will typically reduce the CPU temperature by 3 to 6 degrees. This is also a must when you start over-clocking which generates even more heat.
  • Hard Drives – I chose the 10000 RPM 300 GB WD Veloci Raptor for the OS and programs for fast loading. Then added two Seagate 7200 RPM 1.5 TB (Terabyte) drives in RAID 1 for secure storage of large multimedia data files as well as  image backup storage of the primary drive. The RAID 1 (mirroring) provides redundancy so that if one drive fails, I can replace it without losing any data. Adding 2 more Seagate drives for a RAID 1+0 would be the ultimate providing both speed and redundancy. One more drive of equal capacity could provide a hot spare. This drive would automatically get mirrored should any of the other RAID drives fail.
  • Vista Home Premium 64-bit – Most of the current games are compatible with Vista 64-bit and this offers memory addressing beyond the 3 GB limit offered by XP.
  • 2 additional 120 mm fans – Performance components generate much heat and additional fans are needed to keep the system cool. Many system use water cooling but opted for simpler fans instead.
  • Antec P182 case – Many gamer cases sport many fans with colored LEDs and clear side panels so you can see inside (ever seen the hood raised at a car show?) and lots of room. For us older guys, that type of case might not pass the wife factor. Fortunately there is a large selection of cases available. Shopping at a local Frys here in Atlanta allowed me to inspect the cases up close and personal. The P182 was suggested by the sales guy and after comparing them all I agreed he was right. This case is professional looking, quiet due to padded panels, roomy enough for lots of drives and very well ventilated. It offers a back-plane so most of the power cables are hidden creating more room for air-flow.

The Outcome and Lessons Learned

There is nothing like turning on the power for the first time. Had I hooked everything up correctly? Was it going to turn on or start smoking? Well all went well and it performed even better than I had expected. I am able to play the new game at an amazing 1920 x 1200 resolution on my Dell 24 inch flat-panel with full anti-aliasing (AA) and other graphics settings on high with absolutely no lag. The graphics are so clear that for the first time I could see those tiny little bad guys way off in the distant and shoot them long before they get too close. Or if close, I can see their blood-shot eyes and harrowed expression as I unload my clip on them.

Rendering large and complex graphics files now occurs as lighting speed thanks to the fast CPU and drives. Maybe I will start shooting that new four hour epic I have in mind…or maybe not. I do still have a full-time career.

Here are some points to share and lessons learned that may help you on your first high-performance gaming system.

  • Choose your case carefully. Many have side fans but this can get in the way if you want to use an after market CPU cooler because they tend to be very tall and use the entire width of the case. Things to look for are a mid-tower or larger size, removable air filters for easy cleaning, lots of fans or places to add them, removable drive bays, back-plane for running cables behind the motherboard, front panel USB, firewire, sound and eSATA connections and room for a large PSU at the bottom.
  • Make sure you mount the drive in the same orientation so that a single power cable with multiple connectors can supply power to multiple drives.
  • Apply the thermal grease to both the CPU and the CPU cooler surface. Have a friend available to help hold the motherboard as you will likely need to add hardware on the bottom surface that helps hold the cooler mounts.
  • Avoid older style IDE drives as they are slower than SATA and required the large ribbon style cables that are difficult to route and tend to block air-flow.
  • Avoid Crossfire or SLI techniques (dual or more PCI slot installs) unless a dual-GPU on single card is not enough. You can always add them later if you get a Crossfire or SLI motherboard (such as the one listed above). 

Photos tell a thousand words image

The Cooler Master V8 is an replacement cooler for the one that Intel supplies with the CPU. It has a fan in the center and lots of tubes and fans all for the purpose of dissipating heat away from the CPU. These are considered a must and really do provide additional cooling.  

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Only the motherboard is installed in the Antec P182 case. You can see there is lots of room for drives. The lower drive bay is pulled out (not visible). Also notice how the entire bottom section of the case if separated from the rest. The fan in the center helps pull cool air across any drives in the lower bay and then over PSU while keeping the PSU heat away from the motherboard.

 

 

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The Corsair 1000 watt power supply is modular meaning you can add only as many cables needed to power your system. A nice bag is included to store the unused cables.

 

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Here you can see the the cables routed behind the back-plane.

 

 

 

 

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All completed with everything install. Both the lower and middle drive bays pull out using the visible rings. There is even a small plastic compartment on the middle bay to store screws…very nice Antec!

 

 

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The panels of the case are insulated which results in a very quite system even when the fans are running full speed. Even then the front door closed, the front panel controls remain accessible. Air is pulled in though vents on either side of the front door.

 

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The door held closed with magnet. When open, you can access the upper drive bays to gain access to your CD-ROM. Also front panels that cover the fans are easily removed and reveal removable and washable air filters. Antec did a great job in making the case both attractive and functional.

Well I hope that helps someone. Leave your comments or questions and good luck.

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