D-I-Y Computing

Do it yourself computing news, reviews and articles. Including buildups of computers, instructions and profiles of new equipment and tools.

Monday, November 21, 2005

DIY's new home

Our new home is located at www.diycomputing.net. We are just getting started over there and will likely continue working on the formatting of the pages, as well as moving the relevant content from here to there in the next few days. Drop in, say hello, and let us know what you think of the new digs!

Friday, November 18, 2005

DIY Moving

DIY Computing will be moving from its home here on blogger.com to its very own domain. Once the formatting of the site is completed and everything is set to go, we'll post a link here to the new location. We should be up and running by Monday, November 20. Thanks everyone who has visited and encouraged. We'll look forward to seeing you and more new friends at our sparkly new home next week!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

DIY Challenge: Alienware Aurora 7500 System

This is the first in our DIY Challenge series, where we look at some pre-configured machines from well-known and respected manufacturers and do our best to duplicate them using parts from one source, then compare the costs of both and point out any pitfalls inherent in doing it yourself.

Today's contestant is the Alienware Aurora 7500, in its stock configuration. Go ahead, follow the link and read about it. We'll wait. Salivate. Heck, go ahead and slobber. It's a sweet machine. . Now go ahead and click on the Reviews tab there. See what some of the big names in computer hardware have to say about it. You might also want to check out this review of the Alienware Aurora 7500. How 'bout those performance numbers? 78.2 fps on Doom 3, everything maxed at 1600 x 1200. Not too shabby. So you see, no need to take our word for it. Now head on back over to alienware.com and click on the friendly looking "Configure" button and take a gander at that price tag. Today, as I write this, it says $2018 for this machine. Now, if you've got $2018 and want to plunk it down for one of these cookie cutter machines, you go right on ahead. You'll probably not regret it. This is why we chose it as our first DIY Challenge participant.

However, if you have the hankering to build your own darned computer, or you're a little short on cash, we're here to help you. Below, you will find a list of parts. First, we'll list the part, as it is described on Alienware's rundown of the Aurora 7500. Then we'll show you the part that we selected for our machine, along with a link to where you can check out the stats and even purchase the part, if you so choose. These are not affilliate links, so I don't make anything from them if you do. I just want you to be able to verify that they are functionally similar to what you see from the Alienware machine. We've made every effort to find either the exact part, or a better one.

The Parts List
The Case:
Aurora 7500: Proprietary case

Ours:Thermaltake Soprano in Black Thermaltake Soprano ATX Black

We think this is a fair substitute for Alienware's lovely, if somewhat unusual case. Without purchasing the Alienware and opening up the case, we can't very well compare the case feature for feature, but this is a good, quality housing that we like very much and includes all the features that we demand in our cases.

Aurora 7500: Uncertain, but the specs and features seem to match exactly the one we've selected.
Ours: ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe ATX AMD Motherboard Onboard RAID, ready for SLI, 4 SATA 3.0Gb/second ports + 4 SATA 150 ports. This is practically a dead on match to the part used by Alienware. ASUS is a well respected, quality brand. Whenever I build a machine or recommend parts for friends, I usually go for an ASUS board because I've always had good results with them.

Aurora 7500: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
Ours: AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 1GHz FSB Socket 939 Dual Core Processor. You may ask: what the heck does "Dual Core" mean? Basically, the idea here is that the CPU is capable of functioning more or less as if there were two processors instead of just the one. That's not exactly true, but it is close enough to true that your ability to multitask is improved drastically and some functions, like audio processing or video editing may be improved as well. This is one place you could easily control your budget and performance. If we were not trying to exactly duplicate the specific Alienware machine, we would suggest instead purchasing the AMD 4000+ Clawhammer core processor, if you are planning mostly on gaming and multitasking isn't all that important to you. I believe you'd get somewhat stronger performance out of it for only $20 more. In fact, in some reviews I have seen, the dual core processors have not been as fast as their single core bretheren in straight performance tests and only shined where multitasking was involved.

Video Card:
Aurora 7500: GeForce 6800GT
Ours:eVGA Geforce 6800GT 256-P2-N376-AX Video Card Another place where you have wide lattitude to make changes affecting both performance and cost drastically. The 6800GT is last year's big thing, but is still a quality piece of hardware and will play most of today's games with excellent quality and speed. For an extra kick in the pants though, opt for the 7800GT or 7800GTX instead. It'll cost another $40 ish bucks to move up to the 7800GT or $170 for the 7800GTX. You'll still be under the cost of the Alienware machine with either and you'll have the comfort of knowing that you have newest generation nVidia card and all the bells and whistles necessary to ward of obsolescence for another month or two.

Audio Card:
Aurora 7500: Creative Soundblaster Audigy 2 ZS 7.1 Surround, Firewire
Ours: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS 7.1 Surround, Firewire


Aurora 7500: "1GB Low Latency DDR 400 RAM" with system timings of 2-3-2-5
Ours:OCZ Titanium Edition 1GB (2 x 512MB) 184-Pin DDR SDRAM Dual Channel Kit: This RAM has the same system timings and specs as the Alienware RAM, including the integrated heat sinks. Ours are prettier, however, with their nifty, very shiny titanium-look heat sinks instead of those boring black ones that Alienware uses.

Hard Drive:
Aurora 7500: 160 GB SATA 150 7200 RPM Hard Drive
Ours:Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 160GB 3.5" SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive This is actually a technically faster drive than the one used by Alienware. However, we don't believe that you'd notice any difference as the bus from the HDD to your processor is already the bottleneck in performance of hard drives. However, since the cost differential is negligible, we went with the technically better part.

CD Burner :
Aurora 7500: 16X DVD ROM
Ours:TOSHIBA Black IDE DVD-ROM Drive Nothing exciting here. I believe I would have chosen to go with a combo drive in this place and a DVD burner for the second optical drive (see below).

DVD Burner:
Aurora 7500: 52x32x52x CD-RW Drive
Ours:SAMSUNG Black IDE CD Burner

Floppy Drive:
Aurora 7500: 3.5" Black IDE Floppy
Ours:NEC Black Internal Floppy Drive As unecessary as a floppy drive is 99% of the time, you still gotta have one to install Windows XP on an SATA hard drive.

Power Supply:
Aurora 7500: Alienware approved 650Watt ATX 2.0 Power Supply
Ours:COOLMAX CW-650T 650W Aluminum ATX v2.01 APFC Power Supply Dual 12V rails, Over and under power protection, everything you could ask for in a power supply. A virtual match to the Alienware piece.

Operating System:
Aurora 7500: Windows XP Professional
Ours:Microsoft Windows XP Professional With Service Pack 2 This is one item that we upgraded when we configured the Aurora because we just really like XP Pro better.

Aurora 7500: Microsoft Basic Black keyboard
Ours:Microsoft Natural 4000 Black Keyboard We just couldn't go with the basic black keyboard. How drab. We love our ergonomics here at DIY Computing

Aurora 7500: Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse, Black
Ours:Microsoft Optical Mouse, Black We believe this is the identical piece to the Alienware hardware.

Aurora 7500: Alienware Mouse Pad (a $20.00 value) (!)
Ours:FLEXIGLOW CYBER SNIPA Mouse Pad So here at DIY Central, we debated this, since mouse pads are usually freebies and so few are actually $20 values. But we went out and got one anyway. And we even spent $21 on ours. In your face, Alienware!

Price Comparison:
Aurora 7500: $2042 + $99 Shipping = $2051
Ours: $1614 + $56 Shipping = $1670
Savings: $371

What could you do with that $371? If you're a guy take your significant other out for a really nice dinner, buy her some flowers and a card "just because you love her". If you're a woman, get your husband tickets to the football game and buy him some hot dogs and beer while you're there, "just because you love him". And you'll probably still have enough left over to pop for the upgrade to a 7800GT video card, and a DVD burner. That's worth the time it will take you to build your computer and get it all set up, isn't it? I think so.

Beginners Guide to installing Windows

Tweaktown has compiled a very nice Beginners Guide to installing Windows:

"So, you need to reinstall or install Windows on a new hard drive or computer?
Perhaps you've had an error you don't know how to fix, you just got a new
computer with no operating system or some sort of computer support person told
you it was a good idea.

Regardless of why you need to install, you do
need to install. Unfortunately, you haven't the slightest clue as to what you're
doing - or you do, but want to learn a bit more. You might not be sure what to
do just to install; you might not know what to do afterwards; you might even
think you know what to do, but you want to be sure. You've come to the right
place, it's our complete beginners guide to install Windows (XP and below).

In the next lot of pages, you'll learn to properly reformat a hard
drive, install Windows, install drivers, configure Windows and install programs
for maximum safety and finally, to tweak Windows settings to gain the maximum
achievable performance your computer can get."

If you find yourself in this position, and would like a little guidance on your upcoming task, check this out, print it, and keep it handy while you're doing your install. This article does a good job of walking through most of the process.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

DIY's Less than $500 Computing Machine

Purpose: Prove you that you can save money vs. buying a cookie cutter machine from one of the big guys, even on a budget machine. I have given myself the parameters that all parts should come from one site and be available in-stock at the time of this writing (since if you buy an out of the box machine, you can do that) and the price must come in under $500. I also did not include any rebate deals either from the manufacturers or the parts that I selected, since there's no telling when those will end or change. I can tell you that in the end, rebates from parts manufacturers could have resulted in a better budget machine for the same or less money as what we spent here and could have been roughly equivalent to those available from the manufacturers.

The Parts List
The Case: Broadway Com Corp 204-4H w/450W PSU
Important Features: Built-in Power Supply, Low Price
Notes: Is this the best computer case ever? No. Is it even a really good one? No. But if you want a basic computer, and you don't want to spend a bunch of money, and you don't care about looks, and are not going to move your computer around every week, it will do just fine, thank you very much. This is a case for those who don't care about cases.
Price: $25 + $15.99 Shipping

Motherboard: BIOSTAR GEFORCE 6100-M7 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard - Retail
Important Features: Onboard GeForce 6100 video; available PCI-Express x16 slot
Notes: The onboard video card is not going to impress your gaming geek buddies. But if you are building a computer for your grandma to get online with, or as a machine for the kids, it will do fine.
Price: $59.99 + $4.99 Shipping

CPU: AMD Sempron 64 2500+
Important Features: It's a processor. It processes.
Notes: This is the least expensive Sempron processor available currently. But it is fully capable of handling normal, non-hardcore gaming needs.
Price: $60 + Free Shipping

CPU Cooler: Included with CPU
Notes: Can't beat the price on this
Price: Free

Video Card: Included with motherboard
Notes: Or this one.
Price: Free

RAM: Rosewill 512MB DDR SDRAM
Notes: Value priced RAM from a company that specializes in value priced products. Like most parts suggested for this machine, it isn't the best at what it does, but ti will suffice.
Price: $34.49 + 3.83 Shipping

Hard Drive: Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 8 40GB 7200 RPM Ultra ATA 133 HDD
Notes: This has the 2MB cache instead of 8, which is why it is so inexpensive. If you do a little bit of bargain shopping, you can probably find a good 80GB hard drive with 8MB of onboard cache in this same price range (potentially inclusive of a rebate of some sort). However, since this machines focus is on simple, get the job done computing, this one is quite good.
Price: $46 + 3.49 Shipping

CD Burner / DVD Combo Drive: GIGABYTE White 16X DVD-ROM 52X CD-R 32X CD-RW 52X CD-ROM IDE Combo Drive
Important Features: CD R-RW plus DVD ROM capabilities all in one drive, and inexpensive, too. For a value solution, it doesn't get any better than that.
Price: $28.99 + $4 Shipping

Floppy Drive: SAMSUNG White 1.44MB 3.5" Internal Floppy Drive
Notes: It's a floppy drive. Rapidly becoming unecessary, but not quite there, yet.
Price: $7.99 + 2.50 Shipping

Power Supply: Included with case
Price: Free

Mouse: Logitech Value Optical Mouse
Price: $6 + $0.99 Shipping

Keyboard: Logitech White Wired Keyboard
Price: $7.99 + $5.99 Shipping

Speakers: Logitech S-100 2.0 Speakers
Price: $7 + $5.99 Shipping

Total cost: $283.45 + $47.77 Shipping = $331.22
And if you don't have a copy of Windows lying around, you can purchase WIndows XP Home Edition with SP 2 for another $91.95 + $0.99 Shipping for a grand total cost of $424.16

How much would a comparable machine from one of the major manufacturers cost you? Let's take a look:

Comparisons to The Big Guys

Gateway.com: Similarly configured Gateway DX100S: $488.99 + $89 Shipping = $577.99.
Savings: $153.83
Notes: With Gateway (as with all manufacturers') you get a standard warranty. Gateway's standard warranty is 90 days, parts and labor with technical support available via a toll phone call. When you build your own machine, you are tech support (even for the first 3 months!).

Dell.com: Similarly configured Dell Dimension 3000 Celeron: $419 + $99 Shipping = $518
Savings: $93.84
Notes: No 512MB RAM option is available on this machine. This would likely add another $20 to the cost of the computer. There is also no DVD ROM option available for this computer. You could add one yourself for $34. With Dell (as with all manufacturers), you get a standard warranty. Dell's standard warranty is 90 days, parts and labor, though on this machine, it looks like they give you 1yr version of the same plan unless I am reading it wrong.

hp.com: Similarly configured HP Pavilion a1100e : $384 + $99 Shipping = $484
Savings: $58.84
Notes: HP uses a slightly faster processor (3000+) which would cost an extra $28 as an upgrade on our machine. With HP (as with all manufacturers), you get a standard warranty. HP's standard warranty is 1 year parts and labor.

eMachines: Similarly configured eMachines T3104: $389 +$16 Shipping from Best Buy. Alternatively, you can go to your local Best Buy and pick one up and save that $16.
Savings: None. The eMachine is actually about $35 less expensive ($20 if you have it shipped to you).
Notes: eMachines includes a 100GB Hard Drive, but includes only 256MB of RAM. Upgrading our machine to a 120GB Hard drive would cost about $21. Adding another 256MB of RAM to the eMachine would cost about the same. The eMachine adds an AMD Sempron 3100+, an upgrade which would cost $42 for our machine.

Conclusions: It is possible to beat out most of the big guys on price, even when comparing their bargain basement machine to what you could build inexpensively. Gateway, Dell, and HP can't touch the price of our budget built machine, and in all three of those cases, I think you'd have a better computer if you built our budget machine.

The eMachine throws a bit of a monkey wrench in, by being $35 cheaper, and including a few extra features that we do not have, in the 100GB hard drive and a (slightly) faster processor. For our stated purpose, the faster processor is probably unimportant, since the user of this machine will not generally be performing greatly processor intensive activities. The bigger hard drive would increase the differential by $21. Other differences that might be of interest, the eMachines does not have a PCI-Express slot for an upgraded video card, so it's upgrade path is severely limited. But again, against our stated goal of a basic, non-enthusiast machine, that's probably an unimportant consideration. If I had done a bit more bargain shopping, I could have got the price down another $35 or more, but I wanted to keep this comparison simple so that a person going to one site could purchase everything they needed and build themselves a competitive computer.

Originally when I started to do the research for this post, I really didn't think I could come close to the obscenely cheap prices that appeared on the big guys' sites. I found in looking closer at those deals though, that the machines offered were not ones that most people would purchase (even the big guys' own sites recommend many, many upgrades). I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong and that you can, in fact, compete on price.

All individual component prices are as found at www.newegg.com on Oct. 30th, 2005. All complete system prices are correct as of the same date and were found on each manufacturer's web site.

Monday, October 10, 2005

DIY's $1500 Gaming Rig

Purpose: Kick some ass, while not mortgaging the farm to do so

The Parts List
The Case: Thermaltake Tsunami VA3000BWA Black Computer Case With Side Panel Window. A solid case with some nice features and a lean, mean appearance.
Price: $102.99

Motherboard: Asus A8N-SLI nForce4 SLI Audio/GB MB. A good SLI board (in case you decide to go SLI later, with all the features you could need.
Price: $139

CPU: AMD Athlon 64 3800+ CPU. This is one place you could easily control your budget and performance. Spend more, get a faster processor. Spend less, get slower. The good thing about the socket 939 boards like the one we selected is that you can go anywhere from an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ up to the newest FX processors and even the new Athlon X2 dual core processors. The sky's the limit and there is lots of room to expand from here.
Price: $299

CPU Cooler: Zalman CNPS7000BAlCu Cooler with Arctic Silver thermal grease. If you live in a warm part of the country or plan on doing some overclocking, this cooler will keep your processor from melting down.
Price: $43 + a tube of the grease, about $8

Video Card: eVGA Geforce 7800GTX 256-P2-N538-AX With Battlefield 2. Currently, the 7800 GTX is the fastest there is. New ATi X1800 XT will be faster in some applications and not in others when it is available. But it's price may be even higher than this. We selected this card because it will go the longest before you need to upgrade, and you can always add a second one and go SLI later (or now) if you just need a slight kick.
Price: $509

RAM: OCZ Performance Series 1GB (2 x 512MB) 184-Pin DDR SDRAM Dual Channel Kit System Memory. Most games will run just fine with 1GB of RAM. BF2 can benefit from larger RAM, however. So if that's your pleasure, get 2GB. OCS makes a quality product and this RAM fits neatly into our budget, being their mid-performance offering.
Price: $114.94 / MB

Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 SATA NCQ 3.5" Serial ATA150 160GB Hard Drive. SATA for quiet and speed. The Barracuda drives from Seagate have long been recognized as quality parts and this one is no exception.
Price: $91.00

CD Burner / DVD Combo Drive: SONY Black IDE Combo Drive Model CRX320EE/B2S.
Price: $29.99

DVD Burner: Pioneer Black IDE DVD Burner Model DVR-610B
Price: $69.00

Floppy Drive: MITSUMI Black Internal Floppy Drive Model D359M3D/D359M3B. You still gotta have one when you're installing Windows XP to an SATA HDD.
Price: $8.99

Power Supply: Rosewill RP500-2 500W Power Supply. Black to match our case. Mid range in price to match our budget. Good, solid performance and 500W of power to ensure that our many energy-hungry bits have all the consistent, clean power they need.

Total cost: $1489

This is the computer that I would build today with a $1500 budget. It provides excellent gaming power with the fastest video card available. It also offers an excellent upgrade path with room to add a second SLI video card and upgrade the processor to the latest and greatest. It should also handle ATi's Crossfire cards, which are just now becoming available. This combination means that it can be around your gaming den for a long time before you feel like you need to start over again.

Keep in mind that this list assumes that you have all those pesky peripheral things like a mouse and keyboard, monitor and speakers and want to re-use them with your new machine.

What if you don't quite have $1500 you can spend? How could you adjust this to fit YOUR budget? You could move to a less powerful video card. The 7800 GTX is the fastest available today, but you might be happy with an nVidia 6800 series card, or one of ATi's offerings. Currently, X850 series video cards are about $50 - $100 less than this card. You could even go down to an X800 level card and still play quite happily on most current game titles. ATi's newest X1600 or X1300 cards may also appeal to you. At the time I'm writing this, there aren't a whole lot of reviews out there about them, but check over at www.videocardreview.blogspot.com for more news as it becomes available.

Another corner you could cut would be to step down to a slower processor. At approximately $300 today, the 3800+ is a good bargain. Going much faster would get expensive quickly. But going down could save you another $100 or so. You could go all the way down to an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ which is currently available for less than $140. And again, I think with most current generation games, that would be sufficient. You might feel the pinch to upgrade a bit sooner, but you would not be unhappy with your purchase today.

And what if you had MORE money? Obviously, there are LOTS of things you could do. The most obvious are the opposite of ways you could save money.

Get that second 7800 GTX video card and go SLI right now. That would make you the envy of most of your friends.

Spring for the faster processor. The sky's the limit. An AMD Athlon FX-57 will currently set you back around $1,000 and will allow you to do...well, ANYTHING, pretty much. You could also go to one of the new X2 dual core processors which are monsters when it comes to multitasking and video/audio editing.

You could also add that second GB of RAM for a little added kick in BF2 and future games.

The motherboard we selected comes ready for RAID with built in RAID controllers. Take advantage of it. Purchase more and/or larger hard drives for greater speed, flexibility and/or safety of your data (depending on how you set up your RAID arrays). If you don't know what RAID is, well... it's a way of linking hard drives together and using them both in a way that makes your computer better. There are different kinds of RAID setups which can emphasize the above mentioned attributes.

Add a dedicated sound card for better quality sound. This is not a terribly expensive addition (a decent sound card can be had for less than $150) and will enhance your gaming experience tremendously. The onboard sound of our motherboad will not totally disappoint, but the dedicated card will impress.

Last Updated: 10/10/05

Thursday, August 04, 2005

How to Build Your Computer

PCMech.com has a good series on how to build your own PC. PCMech.com goes into some further detail about selecting your components, all the way through finishing up and tweaking your completed PC for greater performance! They even have a discussion similar to the first several posts here at DIY:

Should you tackle the project of building your own computer? Well, there is
no reason not to. Even if you know nothing about computers, if you have a desire
to learn them, then you can. And once you know the basics, you can build! You
can learn as you go. In my opinion, it is best to do this at least once.

That about covers it!

Check back on our Basic Parts List for some other minor players in the computer building universe. Tomorrow, we'll start looking at how to put your computer together!

The Power Supply

This is the most important part of your computer. Really. It supplies the power to EVERY other component. This is not a piece that you want to skimp on. Buy the best that you can afford. There are three components that I say this about. Power Supplies, Video Cards and... Okay, only two.

Power supplies are rated by their power generating capabilities in Watts. Bigger is better. But do some comparison shopping on your purchase and make sure you get a good brand. The cheap ones are just that. Cheap. And there is a real danger that a cheap power supply can fail and take your motherboard and CPU with it. So I'll say it one more time in case you weren't paying attention earlier. Buy the best one that you can afford.

Some interesting features you might look for in a power supply:
Lights. Some PSU's now come with lighted fans to make they inside and outside of your computer look as good as it will work.

Modular connections. Some now come with wiring that you can remove if you don't need it and configure however you like. This is nice for helping to keep the inside of your computer free of clutter.

Silence. Power supplies have fans. Fans are sometimes noisy. Some are less so than others. And some power supplies rely on other passive cooling systems and eliminate fans altogether.

So what's the rule about Power Supplies? I didn't hear you. Yes, that's right... buy the best one that you can afford.

Very little to say here. But more than you might think. Floppy drives... 3.5 inch. 1.44MB. You'd think that was all, wouldn't you? But no. It's not. There are a lot of new ones now that have built in card readers. If you have a digital camera or an mp3 player that uses a card to store data, you can purchase a floppy drive that will read the card so you don't have to bother with hooking the device itself up to the computer. Most of them handle multiple formats as well. Nifty! And still very cheap.

In reality, floppies are rarely used anymore. EXCEPT, if you have purchased a SATA hard drive and want to install Windows XP on your computer. If you've done this, you are going to need a floppy to complete the installation. Trust me on this, and save yourself a headache. :)

Optical Drives

Optical drives come in several basic types.

CD ROM drives are becoming fairly rare these days, but they are the computer equivalent of a CD player. They range in speed from the ancient 2X versions (which you absolutely should not be putting in any modern computer) up to the current speed demon 52X models.

CD-RW drives are the same as CD ROMS, except that they can also record onto blank CD media. They also range in speeds. Usually you'll see their speeds listed with three listings (i.e., 24X/20X/52X). CD RW drives actually can perform two types of writing functions. CD-R and CD-RW. CD-R's are one use only media. CD-RW can be ReWritten (that's where the RW comes from). The drives are usually a little slower to rewrite than they are to write. That's two of the three speeds listed. And the third speed is the CD ROM play speed.

There are also DVD ROM and DVD-R drives now as well. They are capable of holding a great deal more data than a CD, but work similarly. They are also capable of playing and/or writing movies in DVD format. Super cool!

Other variations include what is called a combo drive, which is a CDRW drive that is capable of playing, but not burning DVD's.

And last, there are now SATA optical drives as well as IDE drives. These are two methods of attaching the drive to your motherboard. If you are going to purchase an SATA drive, make sure that your motherboard supports SATA optical drives first.

Some things to look for in a good burner:

Higher cache. Cache is sort of like memory for your CD/DVD burner and helps it to make better discs with less chance of errors. The better ones have 8MB of cache.

Higher speeds. Faster is better.

Modems and LAN cards

I'm going to skip the format on these two. Modems and LAN cards are two of the ways that your computer connects with the outside world. If you're hooking your computer up to a broadband connection, you'll need a LAN card.

LAN cards (sometimes called Network Interface Cards, or NIC for short) come in three basic flavors these days. 10MB, 100MB, and 1000MB (or Gigabit). Most of the cable and dsl modems that you get from the various providers of that service are of the 10/100 variety, meaning you can use either a 10MB or 100 MB card. Many cards are capable of switching their speeds based on the connection so you will find 10/100/1000 cards that do all three. Also, many motherboards come with a LAN connection built in. There is no real downside to that. If your motherboard comes with the connection, use it.

Modems are the little beasties in your computer that connect to your phone lines and allow you to either use a dial up connection to the internet (God save us), or to send faxes, or use your computer as a super advanced answering machine. If you plan on using a broadband connection to the internet, you don't even need to have one of these anymore. If you decide you do need one, they're inexpensive, even for the decent ones.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Audio Cards

  • Audio cards relay sound from your computer to external speakers. Many motherboards these days come equipped with decent audio capabilities built into them. However, if you want really excellent sound, a good audio card can make a world of difference in sound quality.


  • Optical in/out connections (for digital sources input and out to external amplifiers)
  • Signal to Noise Ratio (Just like home equipment, higher numbers are better)
  • MIDI/Joystick connections (some have this some don't)
  • User accessible control panel (allow you to control volume, plug in temporary aux devices, and sometimes provide tonal / EQ controls. Often these are mountable in one of your machines 5 1/4" drive bays, but some are external)
  • Interface with computer: There are USB and PCI card based audio cards available.


  • None really that I can think of.

Other Comments:

  • Worth purchasing if you've got or want great speakers. If your computer is meant for any multimedia activities (watching movies, listening to music) as one of its primary uses, a good sound card is a necessity. Also make a big difference in the sound quality of many games.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Video Card

  • The video card is what actually generates the images you see on your screen.


  • Video RAM
  • RAM Speed
  • Video Processor Speed
  • GPU model
  • AGP or PCI-Express
  • Maximum Resolution
  • Output formats (VGA, DVI (for flat panel monitors), SVGA. Many cards feature multiple format outputs. Make sure that your monitor's method of connection is supported)
  • Multiple monitor support (Some cards are capable of running more than one monitor at a time)

Effects / Factors:

  • Your motherboard selection will determine whether you need to purchase an AGP or PCI-Express video card. This is simply the connection type from the card to your motherboard. PCI-Express is the newer, faster, somewhat more expensive option.
  • Several of the newest video cards require an additional seperate supply of power from your power supply unit. Almost all of the newer, higher end cars draw a lot more power than their predecessors. Be sure your PSU can handle it.

Other Comments:

  • There are two major manufacturers of the chips that make up 99% of the video cards in use in most home PC's: nVidia and ATi. It used to be that nVidia was the only choice for serious performance. This is not really the case anymore. Both are excellent cards and both have their devotees. Buy the best one that you can afford. Along with the CPU and memory, your video card will affect the performance of your computer more than almost any other component, especially if you intent to play any games at all. I highly recommend checking out Tom's Hardware for their Guide to Graphics Cards Even if you don't understand all the technical mumbo-jumbo, there is some great advice and information there. Do your research well here and you will be rewarded with a better computer.

Saturday, July 30, 2005



  • RAM is the memory that your computer uses to hold information that it is working on or will be working on.


  • CAS Latency: This is a number that will most likely be published in the specs of any RAM you are considering. A value of 3 is normal. Lower is better. I will not try to explain this right now. Google the term if you're interested. :)
  • Pin Count: This is the important one. If you get this wrong, the RAM won't fit in your motherboard. The current, most popularly used configuration is a 184 pin setup (usually listed as 184 pin DDR SDRAM). There are other configurations, as well. Double check your motherboard to be positive which memory configuration it supports.
  • Registered / Unbuffered: Most current household PC's use unbuffered RAM
  • Speed: Usually listed like this; 'DDR 400 (PC3200)' or something like that. Check your motherboard to determine which speeds it supports. Higher numbers are faster/better. There is also RDRAM and DDR2, both of which are will be listed with higher speeds than DDR.
  • ECC / Non ECC: Most current household PC's use non-ECC RAM
  • Heat Spreaders: These help to spread out and dissipate the heat generated by your RAM. If you're building an all-out performance beast, it could make a minor difference. Mostly, it's unnecessary. On the other hand, it makes your RAM prettier, so if you've got a case with a window, it might be worth spending the extra couple bucks. Copper heatspreaders work best.
  • LED lights, etc.: Well, if you've got a window and want to put on a lightshow, these can be fun.

Effects / Factors:

  • The type and speed of RAM that your system needs will be determined by your motherboard. Read the specifications of the motherboard to determine what you'll need to purchase.

Other Comments:

  • Don't buy off-brand RAM. RAM is one of the parts that is most likely to fail on you early on in its life. It also has a huge effect on the performance of your machine, so it is worth it to do a little research and buy the best that you can afford. We here at DIY Central recommend Corsair RAM and/or Mushkin. Corsair is the best by most accounts. A little more pricey, but worth it. Mushkin is a good value for the money brand.

Friday, July 29, 2005

No Title Available

Wow, it's been a busy week! I will get back to posting my series on the various parts tomorrow morning. Been too busy to do much of anything useful the last couple of days! Tomorrow, I'll try to blow through 3 or 4 of the various part blogs. Thanks everyone for your patience!

Oh, and some random thoughts, before bed:


Umm.... Yeah, that was the only random thought. Perhaps some more random thoughts tomorrow, as well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


  • The CPU is the "computer" part of your computer. It is one of the two or three parts that will most drastically affect the speed and power of your computer. It is also one of the two that has the potential to affect the cost of putting your own computer together.

A word about the features of processors is necessary. It is next to impossible to compare an AMD processor to an Intel processor on feature sets. They're different animals. Since we've talked about motherboards already, it is likely that you have researched and determined which you want to go with. That leaves two important things to be aware of. If you've already picked your motherboard, then the first thing is to ensure that the processor that you select will be supported by your motherboard. The second is to determine your budget and choose the one that fits within it. It's really as simple as that. Buy the motherboard with the latest advances for whichever your brand preference is for CPU's, and then buy the best processor you can afford from that brand's line.


  • The only things that are affected by your selection of CPU are your motherboard and the CPU fan. If you purchase a retail box CPU (which most people do) a CPU fan will come with it. If you buy an OEM CPU (these are available from many online merchants and generally are shipped in a plain box or case without much documentation) you'll need to buy a CPU fan seperately.

Other Comments:

  • I will state my personal opinions and preferences here which you may take for whatever they are worth. For the longest time, I was an Intel person. Until the last maybe 2 years, AMD simply could not hold a candle to Intel's processors for performance or compatibility. This has changed. AMD's are now the equal or better of Intel in every respect. The real kicker is that they have managed this while maintaining price points well under comparable Intel chips. My newest machine has an AMD Athlon 64 in it, and I am quite pleased with it. It's given me no problems since I put it together a couple months ago and performs incredibly well.
  • Based on many reviews and articles I have read, as well as my own experiences, for most household computers, AMD's are the better choice. Notice that period. No "for the money" qualifier. They really are just better at what most people use their computers for. There are things that an Intel machine is better at, but those things are not things you do for hours at a time. Anyway, suffice it to say that for now, I am firmly in the AMD camp. I suggest that you do your own research on this though. Take a look at the hardware links on the right side of this page. These are excellent sources for information on this topic.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Motherboard


  • The motherboard is the backbone of your machine. It is the core piece that everything else plugs into, one way or another. As such, it is important not to skimp on it.


  • AMD or Intel. One of the great debates. One that I won't delve to deeply into right now. Right now, July 26, 2005, AMD will give you better bang for the buck for gaming applications and most normal household apps. Intel does some other things better. Neither of them suck. You'll have to make this decision before you can choose a motherboard.
  • Socket: There are several socket types for both Intel and AMD. Go with the most recent, whichever way you go. This will generally give you the longest upgrade path, allowing you to keep your computer around longer.
  • Video Card Interface: There are now two mainstream types of video cards. AGP and PCI-Express (often abbreviated PCI-E). With PCI-E cards, you may also choose SLI, which is a method for linking two video cards together in the same machine, for greater performance. If you purchase a motherboard that is SLI ready, you'll pay a little more for the motherboard, but you don't have to buy two video cards right off. You can wait until you're ready to give your machine's performance a kick in the pants. Oh, and I guess there's also the boards with video included. Just say no to that.
  • Hard Drive interface: There are now three ways for HDD's to connect to your computer, EIDE (sometimes referred to as PATA now), SCSI (scuzzy), and the new SATA. SCSI is fast, but expensive. SATA is also fast, and is the erstwhile replacement for EIDE. EIDE drives are still plentiful and likely to be around for several more years. Most newer motherboards will support both SATA and EIDE, but SCSI generally requires an expansion card to be purchased seperately. If you are new to building computers, don't worry about SCSI. Generally, I'd suggest buying SATA drives, since they cost the same as EIDE and are theoretically, faster. At the very least, they are the future. Welcome to the future, kids.
  • Onboard LAN: Most newer boards have some sort of LAN built in. Saves you a few bucks
  • Form Factor: This must be one that your case supports. Most mainstream boards are ATX right now
  • Integrated Audio: If you want audiophile sound, this might not be the way to go. There are audio cards that do a phenomenal job of providing cutting edge sound for your machine. But for your standard computer sounds, occassional game playing, etc., etc., this is probably okay.

Effects / Factors:

  • As stated above, this choice has ramifications for your CPU choice, video card choice, Hard drives, and whether it will be necessary to purchase a LAN card (often called a NIC, or Network Interface Card), or a sound card. Feel free to drop a comment here if you have questions about compatability, or if you're in a hurry, most reputable dealers (see Shopping Links to the right) will be more than happy to help you determine whether you've made appropriate decisions. If you're not sure, ask someone before you order parts either online or at a local store. Nothing worse than having all your parts arrive only to find that you have to return some before you can really get started.

Other Comments:

  • If this is all new to you, and you want to save yourself a little bit of work and worry, you can choose to purchase what is often referred to as a 'motherboard combo' from your chosen vendor of motherboards, which will include the motherboard, CPU, CPU fan, and can also include RAM, pre-installed on the motherboard and tested. I've found that this is a worthwhile package for first time do it yourselfers who are not 100% confident that they are up to this whole thing. Mounting the CPU is probably the one place where it is easiest to damage your new hardware. Not that it is particularly difficult... it's just the least foolproof stage in the process, in my opinion. And having the hardware tested before you get it eliminates one potential break in the chain.
  • Be choosy about the brand and model of motherboard that you select. Personally, I use only ASUS brand motherboards because I have had several of them and they have always been good to me. I've also done much research on the topic and they are well regarded in the industry. There are other great brands out there, though. Take your time and make this selection well. Look at the Hardware Links section on the right side of this page. Those sites offer reviews of all kinds of hardware, including motherboards. Chances are, one of them has reviewed the model you're considering. Those two sites are both very respectable and trustworthy.

Purchase Motherboards and CPU's from Tiger Direct

Purchase Motherboards from ComputerGeeks.com
Purchase Motherboard Combos at MonarchComputer.com

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Computer Case

  • The computer case is the hard exoskeleton of your computer. It is what holds everything inside together and provides the stylish exterior as well
  • Strength - cheaper cases tend to be flimsier, made of inferior materials, thinner metals, etc.
  • Aluminum, steel, or plastic exterior
  • Form Factor: This refers to the sizes of motherboard that the case will hold. Most will hold ATX, micro ATX, and/or AT size motherboards.
  • Number of internal and external drive bays available: This is the number of places that are open for installation of optical drives, floppy drives, card readers, and accessory controllers, and hard drives (internal).
  • Size: Make sure that the case will fit where you plan on putting it once your computer is inside of it. Some of the taller full tower cases will not fit in many enclosed desks
  • Expansion slots: This is the number of places in the back of the computer that are open for placement of PCI, AGP, or PCI Express expansion cards. Ensure that there are enough for each slot available on your motherboard (You may be beginning to see that motherboard selection and case selection are rather closely tied to each other)
  • Power Supply: Some cases come with a power supply included. Some do not. It is a general rule of thumb that you're better off selecting your own power supply, since the one that is included with most cases is often not of the highest quality.
  • Cooling: The case should come with at least a couple of cooling fans. These fans are part of what keep your machine from overheating and cooking itself. Read reviews about the cases that you like and see how their cooling is rated. A case that does not come with great stock cooling might be salvagable if it has additional fan locations that are not filled. Books could be written about how to best cool your machine, and we'll discuss some alternative methods to cool a computer at a later date, but for simplicity's sake, look for at least two fans.
  • Tool-less features: Many cases are designed in such a way that they can be opened and many parts (expansion slots, drives, etc.) can be removed and installed without the need for any tools whatsoever. This tends to add a small amount to the price of a case that includes these features, but is well worth it in my experience.
  • Removeable motherboard tray: This is basically the piece that holds the motherboard into the case. If you can remove this as one larger unit to work on installing the motherboard and other parts (CPU, RAM, etc.), it makes things quite a bit simpler. Also a feature of somewhat more expensive cases.
  • Motherboard selection is determined in part by your case. You cannot install a motherboard that a case is not designed to fit. When browsing online for a case, you'll note that the case will generally have a feature listing called "motherboard compatibility" or something similar, and it's value will include AT, ATX, micro ATX, and maybe a couple others. When you're searching for your motherboard, you'll find the same collection of letters. Make sure one of the values your case can handle matches your motherboard.
Other comments:
  • Your case not only holds all of your computer's innards and provides support for them, it also provides an opportunity to express yourself. There are literally thousands of cases available, from simple, plain Jane beige cases, to flashy, neon numbers with lighting and windows so you can see inside. They come in every imaginable color combination and style. So find one that you will enjoy looking at in whatever room you put it in.

ATX cases

Get great deals on Cases @ Computer Geeks!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Computer Parts in Detail

Over the next several days, we'll start to take a look at all of the various parts that you'll need in order to build your very own, super special, amazingly powerful computer. Or, at least the one that you can afford.

There are a mind-numbing array of variations of each kind of the parts listed on our basic parts list. I won't even try to cover everything. What we'll do is take a look at each of the parts seperately and try to break down a few simple things:

Function: What does this part do in your computer?

Features: What features differentiate one of this part from another, and how should they affect your decision?

Effects/Factors: Other part selections that will be affected by or will affect your selection of this part. Often, when you've made one decision, you've actually limited or expanded other options. Now don't go getting scared. It's not as difficult as all that. Building a computer is a little like putting together a small puzzle. By examining colors or shapes of the pieces in the puzzle box, you eliminate a lot of the pieces from fitting together in the place you're trying to fill next without actually trying them in that space. And your computer is a lot more like a simple 200 piece puzzle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon scene than it is a 1000 piece mega-master puzzle of a stack of hay (man, I hated that puzzle).

Other comments: Random thoughts from the home of DIY Computing in sunny Charlotte, NC.

We'll also try to give you an idea how each of those other things affect your cost for the whole machine, without necessarily quoting exact prices, as these will obviously change. Hopefully, what we'll end up with here shortly is a good guide to building your own machine that can be referred to any time, from topics about how to select your parts, through how to put it all together.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Tools? Do I need sophisticated tools for this?

So you've decided to build after thinking about whether to build or buy , your next computer. You've read over the parts list, and perhaps checked out a few sources. But it has struck you that you might need a tool or two that you don't have. Well, fret not. Here is a relatively complete list of all the tools that you will absolutely need to have. Are you ready?

A screwdriver (Phillips)

Yeah, that's about it. There are a few nice to have's, but that is about the only one that you absolutely will need. Okay, I'll give you a list of those niceties too, just because... well, because I'm a nice guy, that's why. Here they are:

An antistatic wrist strap. These cost between $5 and $8 at Best Buy. You don't really need one, but if you want to feel a little safer about the evil static electricity that you've heard about, it's a worthwhile investment. Later, we'll discuss the evils of static electricity in more detail and you'll see what I mean, but for now, just know these exist if you want to use them.

Needle nose pliers. You may find that they will help you with one or two tasks, if you have particularly big fingers.

Plastic wire ties to help keep your wires from looking like a rat's nest.

That's it. Really.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Basic Parts List

Okay, so... you want to get yourself a computer built. But ya don't really know what all you need? Below, is a basic list of all the parts you'll have to account for, one way or another. We'll go into greater detail about the individual parts and how to select them, but this should get you started:

The Basics
Case (To hold all your delicate innards) )
The CPU(that's the processor itself)
CPU fan (usually included with CPU, but better ones are available)
The Video Card(sometimes included on motherboard, thought I don't recommend that path)
Audio Cards (sometimes included on motherboard)
Modem (sometimes included on motherboard)
LAN card (sometimes included on motherboard)
Hard Drive(s)
Optical Drive(s) (CD, CDRW, DVD, DVDRW)
Floppy Drive (Yeah... you should still get one. They're cheap, and when you need 'em you need 'em)
Power Supply (sometimes included with case)
Case cooling fans (often included with case)

Operating System (Windows, Linux, etc.)

External Peripherals


Build or Buy?

Should you build your next computer or buy one? Tough question. COULD you build your next computer? Absolutely! But let's stick to that first question. Under what circumstances is it worth your while to spend the time reading reviews and comparing prices and all of that sort of thing, then to spend a couple hours putting it together? Well, there's one really EASY answer: If you want to, then do it. You won't regret the experience.

So you want to... but you're still not sure. You still have questions. I can tell from that look on your face. Will it save me money? Will what I might build be as good as what I can buy already made? What else do I gain from building my computer besides a computer and that nerd-cool ability to say "yeah, I built it myself"? Will I electrocute myself on all those electric things in there? How likely am I to break something? Do I have the time in my busy life to build a computer? Let's take a look at some of these factors:

You can't compete with the big guys on the lowest end computer they sell. Their combination of speed, clout and normal economies of scale mean that they get super discounts. But on an average, run of the mill computer... you can approach their prices and occassionally beat them. If what you want is a top-of-the-line screaming multi-media powerhouse, not only can you beat their prices, but you can build a better machine as well. Why? Because those machines are low volume for most of the big manufacturers and the economies of scale shrink. You also have the flexibility to purchase the parts that YOU want so you can allocate costs where it's important to you, instead of letting the manufacturer dictate that. So cost COULD be a factor, but probably shouldn't be the main factor in your decision.

Here is where building your own machine makes the most sense to me. All those big manufacturers are about making money. They have all kinds of things to balance. They've got shareholders to think of. They have vendors, assembly lines, time crunches, capacity issues, staffing; all the normal business pressures. They measure quality by percentages. If xx% of their customers respond that they are "happy" or "very happy" with their purchases in the independent studies that the company pays for, they know that they can remain profitable. But what if you fall outside that magical percentage? Well, unless something is broken, you're pretty much out of luck.

Whereas, if you build your own computer you just have you to be worried about. And who is a better customer than you? You know what your budget is. You know what your needs are. You know what your desires are. So all that's left to do then is build the machine that strikes the balance that YOU would like to strike between budget, performance and quality.

Nerd Coolness
Yeah, you'll have that in spades! When your friends come over and see your oh, so sexy machine sitting on its pedestal on your desk and say "Heyyy... that's really nice looking. What kind is it?", you'll respond and tell them it's an original that you built yourself. And this will of course lead to hours of discussion wherein your friends will tell you how they so wish that they could be as adventurous and tech savvy as you are, and how you are their new hero. Okay, that probably won't happen. But they'll give you that "I'm impressed" raised eyebrow. And that will be enough. Everyone can use a little pat on the back now and then, right?

Are you going to electrocute yourself building your beast of a machine? No. The worst you could expect is maybe a minor finger cut from a sharp edge, if you buy a low quality case. But even that is unlikely. And the odds of damaging any of those sensitive parts are pretty slim, too, if you can follow some very basic instructions. And when I say very basic, I mean VERY basic. i.e., don't stick your finger in a light socket. THAT basic

Putting together your ultra high-tech computing powerhouse will take you about an hour. Two if you take a break for lunch or to do some exercises to build up your mouse-arm strength for those marathon, all night computing sessions. Researching your purchases and comparison shopping will take up the rest of the time necessary. You can devote as much or as little time to these efforts as you like. I wouldn't recommend this path, but if you wanted to, you could take a look at our basic parts list, pop on over to newegg or monarch computers , whip out the credit card and have all of the shopping done in less than an hour. This approach would sort of negate a lot of the fun in building your own computer, but it really could be done. Generally though, I'd say expect to spend a week or two researching your needs (maybe for half an hour or so a day) using this blog and other sources (maybe even some over there in the hardware links section), and maybe a day or two finding the parts that you decide on.

So there you have it. Well, most of it. Feel free to drop your ideas or concerns or further questions here for discussion. I'll be here to try to answer any concerns to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps others will pop in as well to offer their two cents.

Custom Systems. Superior Service. Systemax Reliability.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The first post

D-I-Y Computing will be all about building your own computers, for whatever reason you find to do so. I will have some articles about selection of the various components, operating systems, software, security, external items like routers, wireless networking, etc., etc. We'll talk about where to get parts. We'll probably venture off into discussions about other computing issues, as well. Everything and anything you may want to know about computing is fair game here.

Computers have reached a level of maturity and simplicity that no longer requires you be a pimple-faced nerd who spends his/her Friday nights with nose firmly planted in technical manuals to understand, use, upgrade, or even build your own computer. It's just not all that difficult, and with a few simple instructions, you can dazzle and amaze your friends with your own nerd-like abilities.

I would be willing to venture that there are a million sites and blogs out in the universe about building computers or talking about the latest hardware or games. I'm not sure there are so many that focus on helping non-techies do things themselves that they might be concerned about doingsince they have no experience in this area. I am sure that if you're reading this and thinking that you couldn't build a computer, you're probably wrong. Unless you were born with all thumbs and no opposable fingers. Then, it might be an issue for you. You do have to have some opposable digits. But really, it's easier than than learning to drive, and you can't kill anyone doing it. Okay, maybe if you were REALLY mentally challenged MAYBE you could find a way to shock yourself to death, but it would require a level of stupidity that would eliminate anyone who actually possesses the ability to read from doing so. So if you're reading this, you're probably safe. If you're having it read to you by your Aunt Skeeter while you're ogglin' one of them thar new fangled compooters at the Wal Mart cuz ye cain't make no sense no how of all them electercal whatchamagagglies a'tall... well, you may be in trouble.

(humblest apologies to anyone who has an Aunt Skeeter that is actually a fine, intelligent woman... or who IS an Aunt Skeeter. I love everyone equally, but my ex-wife has an Aunt Skeeter... and well, she's my ex-wife for a reason and her Aunt Skeeter fits quite nicely into the stereotypical image above. Remind me to tell you all sometime about her Aunt Skeeter and Uncle Dude. Yeah, that's his name. Uncle Dude. Really. Anyway, what good is your own place on the web if you can't pick on your ex-wife and her screwed up relatives?!)

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Weez Machine

The Case: Thermaltake Tsunami VA3000BWA Black Computer Case With Side Panel Window $102.99

Motherboard Combo: Asus A8N-SLI nForce4 SLI Audio/GB MB, AMD Athlon 64 3800+ CPU, Zalman CNPS7000BAlCu Cooler, Thermal Grease, Half Life 2, Bet On Soldier:Bloodsport, 1 year warranty on installation. Purchase here:
MonarchComputer.com: Pre-Tested and Setup AMD Athlon 64/FX/X2 (939) Combo $507.99

Video Card:
eVGA Geforce 7800GTX 256-P2-N538-AX With Battlefield 2 Bundle Video Card $509

OCZ Performance Series 1GB (2 x 512MB) 184-Pin DDR SDRAM Dual Channel Kit System Memory $114.94 / MB

Hard Drive:
Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 SATA NCQ 3.5" Serial ATA150 Hard Drive $91.00

CD Burner / DVD Combo Drive: SONY Black IDE Combo Drive Model CRX320EE/B2S $29.99

DVD Burner: Pioneer Black IDE DVD Burner Model DVR-610B $69.00

Floppy Drive:
MITSUMI Black Internal Floppy Drive Model D359M3D/D359M3B $8.99

Power Supply:
Rosewill RP500-2 500W Power Supply $49.99

Total Cost: $1483.89
Total Effect: KICK ASS!