Posts tagged with pc

Build a great Windows 8 developer & gaming desktop for $900-$1500

Prices last updated 13 June 2013

Parts for my PC buildWith Windows 8 right around the corner it’s time to build a new desktop PC that will scream for both development and gaming.

Having set a personal budget of around $1500 I started the arduous process that every DIY PC builder has gone through… researching parts and playing with specifications until it feels just right.

These are the parts I finally landed on and a second choice if my budget was lower that would deliver almost as much for a lot less.

Please note that Amazon prices go up and down all the time so keep an eye on your basket! :)

My list doesn’t include a keyboard, mouse or monitor as I already have ones I love. You probably do too.

Processor

Intel Core i7-3770K 3.5GHz Quad-Core $320

I went with Intel’s fastest i7 non-Extreme desktop chip that allows over-clocking in case I felt like going that way (I haven’t yet).

If running virtual machines are an important part of your life – and for many developers that’s true – then check out the Intel Core i7-3770S which has Intel Virtualization for Directed IO (vt-D) but gives up the over-clocking and runs at a more modest 3.1GHz.

Cheaper: Intel Core i5-3570K Quad Core comes in at $110 less and provides very similar performance for games as the main difference is the reduced cache and lack of hyper-threading. If you’re not running heavily-multi-threaded applications you’re unlikely to notice much difference in performance.

Mainboard

MSI Z77A-GD65 $176

This “military-grade” Intel Z77 chipset based motherboard from MSI works great with the 3770K chip and provides 4 USB 3.0 sockets and 4 SATA 6Gbps ports instead of the usual 2 giving up PCI slots entirely for 3 PCIe instead. It can support three graphics cards in either SLI or CrossFire in x8/x4/x4 configurations and has Intel networking.

Cooling has been carefully thought out and includes head-pipes and a low-profile heat-sink. With a two-digit debug display, dual BIOS, UEFI support and one-button over-clocking it’s hard to mess this up.

BIOS flash update was painless.I didn’t have much luck with MSI’s Live Update as it doesn’t actually install things so just head to the driver download page and pick the drivers you’ll be using. In my case I skipped a number of the Intel ones such as the graphics, etc. You might be tempted to head to Intel’s site instead but I found newer versions were actually available from MSI instead.

Cheaper: Gigabyte GA-Z77-DS3H $110 has good reviews and includes the dual UEFI BIOS too but looses the x8/x4/x4 mode for 3 graphics cards, Atheros networking and is not as over-clocking friendly.

RAM

Corsair Vengeance LP 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 $116

Corsair are a well known brand with a solid reputation. This RAM is fast at 10-10-10-27 timings, low-profile (don’t get in the way of large CPU coolers) and is provided as two 8GB modules not four 4GB which leaves you room to upgrade nicely in the future.

That is the RAM I meant to buy – alas I picked up the older XMS3 which is slower (11-11-11-30 at 1600MHz) and not recommended.

Cheaper: Corsair 8GB for $70 offering the same performance at half the capacity should be good enough for most games and development projects.

Storage

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB 2.5″ SSD $219

I’ve been maintaining my MacBook SSD article over the last few years and originally picked the Crucial C300 series that was superseded by the M4 and now I think the sweet spot in price, performance and reliability was the Samsung 830. That has since been replaced by the 840 Pro. Link & price updated!

Cheaper: At $98 the 120GB model of the Samsung 840 (non-pro) is hard to pass up.

If you need a lot more storage pair it with a 2.5TB Western Digital Caviar Green for $129 more to hold files that aren’t performance critical like video, music, photos etc.

Video card

EVGA GeForce GTX 680 2GB OC2 $420

Nvidia and ATI still battle it our going back and forth as leaders in a market that seems rather stale.  I couldn’t resist aiming high-end card (the GTX 690 is just insane in both perf and price) and so settled on the GTX 680.

With most manufacturers basing their cards on the reference designs the only real choice is the bundle and RAM and clock speed tweaks. The EVGA comes in at a good price and the over-clocked version nudges up the perf for no extra cost.

Cheaper: The cheapest option would be to use the Intel HD 4000 graphics built into the CPU but gaming performance will suffer. I’d go for the EVGA GTX 660Ti 2GB at $295 instead.

Case

Antec One Hundred ATX Mid Tower $65

I had a hard time choosing a case. My last PC was in the deliciously simple black Lian-Li PC60 all-aluminum and today’s market felt limited once you discount the spiky, alien or nightclub themed offerings.

The Antec One Hundred has a lot of positive reviews and has a nice black mesh look and painted interior for a very low price. The power supply lives in the bottom to provide better cooling and a lower center of balance. Cooling is via two two-speed fans at the rear either side of the CPU – a 120mm on the back and a 140mm at the top with air coming through the front of the case which appears as 9 mesh sections although only the top 3 are actually removable 5.25″ bays and the fourth segment holding a removable 3.5″ one.

Cheaper: For $35 you can grab the NZXT Technologies Source 210 which still has a nice interior and look. Or you could all the pieces in a pile separated with pieces of cardboard.

Power supply

Corsair AX750W ATX12V / EPS12V $150

I’ve had a fair amount of bad experience with poor power supplies. Some have blown out, rattled, tripped or turned out to be responsible for instabilities.

This time I decided to pay off the power gremlins with a very high quality, quiet, efficient and powerful-but-not-crazy power supply and I also wanted modular.

The cables came in a smart little sturdy bag and so assembly was a case of finding the right cable then routing it down to the power supply and finding the right offset in one of the two long banks of almost identical looking connectors. This was a little tricky but the connectors won’t let you put them in the wrong place.

Cheaper: Corsair’s CX600W $67 is half the price but gives up the modularity, some power and efficiency and quite likely produces more noise.

Build notes & noise

Front of my new PCMy machine is now fully assembled and running Windows 8 RTM and Visual Studio 2012 and Steam connected to my existing favorite Dell 2408WFP display, IBM Model M Keyboard and Logitech G500 mouse.

Self builds are never completely smooth and I was under the impression the 3770K did not come with a fan. It does but at that point I already purchased and unwrapped a CoolerMaster HyperN 520 seduced by the promise of a quiet 19dBA.

Noise is an important issue for me and running six fans (120mm back case, 140mm top case, 2x80mm CPU, power supply, graphics) was never going to be an acceptable option.Thankfully the power-supply fan is rarely even on and the 680 fan is very quiet.

The first step was to remove the CPU fans as they were the loudest and surprisingly the CPU did not get too hot – quite likely due to the sheer size of the heat-sink of the 520. Experimenting with the case fans revealed that the just the 120mm fan on low provided the least noise and still kept things reasonably quiet and plenty cool enough.

I wasn’t done yet while I could still hear it so tried a couple of replacement fans before settling on a Cooler Master Excalibur 120mm. This fan can be speed-controlled by the motherboard as it supports the 4-pin PWM system and given it’s close proximity to the CPU head-sink I plugged it into the CPU fan socket and configured the BIOS to control it to keep the CPU under 70 degrees C.

It runs whisper-quiet at 800 RPM when under normal workloads.

A peek inside... I call her Alice.

I couldn’t help but try the magic one-press over-clock button on the motherboard and watch the machine hit 4.2GHz which ran just fine for hours. If anything is holding that back it’s the fact I ordered slower Corsair memory by mistake :(

Still to come

Now that cooling is done (see above) my main areas of focus are:

  1. Try getting Intel 4000HD graphics switching via Virtu working on Windows 8 so that power usage drops under light loads
  2. Keeping an eye on disk space to see whether I should get a large mechanical drive or a second 256GB SSD… or perhaps a third in RAID-5.

In case you want to see the whole thing on Amazon I created a Listmania list Great Windows 8 gaming & developer PC self-build.

Performance

As promised here are some performance figures for my machine (with slower Corsair than above but 32GB of it) using Nvidia’s 306.23 WHQL drivers on Windows 8 64-bit RTM.

Component Details Subscore Base score
Processor Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-3770K CPU @ 3.50GHz 8.2
8.1
Determined by lowest subscore
Memory (RAM) 32.0 GB 8.2
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 8.1
Gaming graphics 4095 MB Total available graphics memory 8.1
Primary hard disk 72GB Free (238GB Total) 8.1

[)amien

PS I can’t believe it’s been 7 years since I last built a PC!

Typography in 16-bits: System fonts

With the 8-bit system fonts post being so popular I just had to jump right in and look at the system fonts available on the 16-bit machines!

IBM CGA Adapter (1981)

IBM CGA system font in low resolution IBM CGA system font in medium resolution

The IBM PC’s first color graphics card was known as the Color Graphics Adapter.

Unusual characteristics

  • Mix of serifs and non-serifs depending on space
  • Off center ‘ +:’
  • Squished ‘Q’ to avoid using descender
  • Wide ‘0’
  • Bubbly ‘!’
  • Inconsistent ‘t’ point and lack of serif on ‘j’

Rationale

The large bold letters work well on the low-resolution displays at the time and many of the quirky were unlikely particularly noticeable there.

Influences

Unknown.

Apple Macintosh (1984)

Apple Macintosh 'Chicago' system font

Apple’s second attempt at a GUI (after the Lisa) was the Macintosh. The system font was called Chicago initially as a bitmap font which was replaced with a scalable TrueType version. With Mac OS 8 it was replaced with the similar Charcoal typeface and then dropped entirely in Mac OS X which uses Lucida Grande for the UI.

This font was dusted off again in 2001 and with a few minor tweaks became the system font of the iPod (classic & mini) until the higher resolution color display model.

Unusual characteristics

  • Proportional letters not fixed-width
  • Some symbols are not bold at all ‘#%”/\*@^`’
  • Lovely flourish on ‘&’
  • Curve on ‘a’ actually touches the lower bowl
  • Designed specifically to avoid diagonal strokes (jaggies) on the Mac’s low-res screen

Rationale

The high-resolution display let the designers really pay attention to detail and even though it was a 1-bit monochrome display it really looks beautiful for the time. It was little wonder that when Jobs went to NeXT they went with incredibly high-resolution monochrome displays again (at least initially and with 2-bit gray-scale).

Influences

It’s unlikely they were digital.

Commodore Amiga 1.x (1985)

Commodore Amiga 1.x 'Topaz' system font in low & high resolutions Commodore Amiga 1.x 'Topaz' system font in medium-resolution

The Amiga started with ex-Atari engineers desperate to design a 16-bit machine. It would eventually be purchased by Commodore and offer incredible graphics and sound that put Macs and PCs of the time to shame. Despite shipping with many fonts and supporting proportional text the default system font was a traditional fixed-width font called Topaz/8.

Unusual characteristics

  • As well as some letters touching some symbols such as ‘\/’ touched horizontally allowing nice ASCII art
  • Unusual lower-case ‘g’ somewhere between double and single story
  • Unusual almost comic-like ‘!’
  • Some non-bold pixels for flourishes on ‘t&’
  • Pixels missing on some curves ‘aS’ especially obvious in low resolution
  • Over-extended ‘r’ looks odd in any resolution
  • Alternate Topaz/9e – 10×9 (2 for descender) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60

Rationale

The Workbench booted in white-on-blue (shown) and was intended for use either with their own Commodore monitors or home TVs. Despite the choice of a serif font it worked quite well on these displays although interlace was quite unusable without specialized displays.

Influences

Very similar to the IBM CGA system font, very likely to be derived from there.

Technical

The Amiga shipped with it’s own font editor called ‘Fed’ found on the Workbench Extras disk in the Tools folder.

Commodore Amiga 2.x (1991)

Commodore Amiga 2.x 'Topaz' system font in low & resolutions Commodore Amiga 2.x 'Topaz' system font in medium resolution

Commodore’s update to the Amiga saw all sorts of changes in the ROM and Workbench for the GUI including some revisions to the font and the ability to change what font the workbench used.

Unusual characteristics

  • Over-extended top of ‘1’
  • Open elements on ‘%@’
  • Messy ‘Q’ is hard to distinguish
  • Alternate Topaz/9e – 10×9 (2 for descender) – modified some glyphs like ‘g’ and available from Preferences as Text 60

Rationale

The Workbench booted in black-on-grey (shown) and the new font looked a lot more friendly as well as being a more legible choice for home TVs.

Influences

Obvious modification of the prior 1.x font to remove serifs and improve legibility.

Technical

WBScreen allowed you to choose which font to display in Workbench including some of the proportional fonts included.

Atari ST Low/Medium Res (1985)

Atari ST system font in low resolution Atari ST system font in medium resolution

The Atari ST was Atari’s answer to the Commodore Amiga after they failed to purchase back the talent and technology. The machine’s GUI was based on GEM from Digital Research.

Unusual characteristics

  • Descenders are cut very short on ‘pq’ despite ‘gy’ not following this style
  • Inconsistent positioning between ‘,’ and ‘;’
  • Ugly braces ‘()’ from the 8-bit font retained

Rationale

The font was very clear and worked well in both square pixel (low resolution) and rectangular pixel (medium resolution) modes.

Influences

Almost identical to the Atari 8-bit font but with the capital letters, symbols and numbers extended a pixel higher (inverse symmetry was no longer a concern) and more consistent/cleaner lowercase letters ‘sj’.

Technical

It is possible to change the system fonts used by the GEM desktop using the ST Font Loader.

Atari ST High Res (1985)

Atari ST high-res system font

Unusual characteristics

  • Very tall letters – some glyphs 14 pixels high but still only 6-7 pixels wide
  • Avoids every trace of a serif except usual ‘Iil’ monospace hack
  • Short descenders on ‘pq’ still
  • Inconsistent choices for ‘c’ and ‘R’ and ‘w’

Rationale

Given that this screen mode was only available on high-resolution monitors it is very rectangular and failed to really take advantage of the unique situation in which it would be used.

Influences

Very likely based on the medium resolution font with some redrawing.

IBM PC VGA (1985)

VGA DOS system font

Unusual characteristics

  • Very tall letters – some glyphs 14 pixels high but still only 6-7 pixels wide
  • Top bar of ‘T’ is two pixels thick
  • Too-high double quotes ‘”‘ also styled inconsistently
  • Another bubbly ‘!’ like the Amiga’s Topaz 1
  • Inconsistent sizing between ‘,’ and ‘;’
  • Very large ‘$’ even bigger than the capital ‘S’

Rationale

A reasonably nice serif font that gave a serious look if somewhat inconsistent in places.

Influences

Almost certainly based on the original CGA font.

Technical

Can be overridden by tools like fontedit.com.

[)amien

Damo Awards 2006*

Hardware: Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 enjoyed its second year and titles continue to impress although the count is still a little on the weak side. The addition of 1080p output was a great bonus but one many people (myself included) can’t take advantage of without a HDMI cable and nobody seems entirely sure if the 360 can pump out a digital video signal (I doubt it).

On-line support is blooming although can get very expensive if you want all the extras for games you’ve already paid for – come on guys we put £40 down gives a few freebies!

The PlayStation 3 on the other hand is vapor ware here still in Europe and was notably absent from Japan’s premier Sony Building in Tokyo. Online the only people raving about it are those that were raving about it before it came out…

Nintendo’s Wii has been getting a lot of press for being fun (if tiring and occasionally dangerous to your environment) but with the console itself is effectively a re-boxed GameCube which didn’t impress 5 years ago and the graphics look very dated on the couple of titles I’ve been able to see. With rumors of a more powerful unit doing the rounds and nothing stopping anyone producing a similar controller for the 360 or PS3 can Nintendo stay a contender or will they go the way of Sega?

With consoles traditionally being loss-leaders for the first few years perhaps Nintendo would have been better off producing controllers and software for the 360 and PS3.

Game: Oblivion

People often rave about how open-ended Grand Theft Auto is but lets be honest here – it isn’t a patch on Oblivion.

Like the aforementioned title you can follow the story or run off and do what you like. The difference here is that Oblivion is truly massive and is filled with interesting people, their stories and ultimately their sub-quests.

The graphics look absolutely gorgeous and show off the Xbox 360 very well – demands on the PC side are beyond what my desktop can deliver.

Surprise: Microsoft Office 2007

Microsoft took a brave step in reinventing the menu/tool bar that has been established for the last 10 years. Sure, the result isn’t a giant leap in terms of innovation but it is a joy to use and a big improvement over the older technology.

Importantly it shows a beacon of hope that there are people at Microsoft prepared to fundamentally change how people use their software for the better and not just deliver to developers (.NET, XML-HTTP).

Web site: YouTube

We were told repeatedly that this would be the year of high-definition yet despite large sales of HD ready equipment the content is still a bit thin on the ground (Sky HD, Xbox 360 and a smattering of HD titles). Sony hit another strike this year as another of their proprietary formats bombed – UMD video for the PSP – although sales of TV shows on Apple’s iTunes seem to indicate there is a market for tiny distinctly non-HD video.

The real winner on the video front has to be YouTube which goes on to show that whilst content is king there’s no reason you need to pay for it to be successful. Grainy, out of focus and copyright infringement seem the orders of the day but nobody cared – at least until a company worth suing brought them out (Google).

Communications: HTC

HTC phones and their branded variants have been popping up all over the web and in techies hands everywhere. Reviews are generally positive although I’m finding my TyTn sluggish in a couple of areas – something I hope the latest firmware will address.

Motorola meantime has been getting bad press over it’s Rokr variants.

Apple’s vaporware mobile phone continues to get insane coverage despite nobody having anything but speculation and rumors to go on. Cisco/LinkSys released an iPhone to which they own the trademark so I guess iChat Mobile is an option.

Web application: Google Reader

Google finally put it’s arse in gear and upgraded Google Reader to something not only usable but actually enjoyable to use. Now if only they could stream out the next 20 articles BEFORE I hit them so I don’t have to wait…

Rojo on the other hand deployed a screwed update and continually failed to pick up feeds complaining they were invalid or couldn’t be contacted despite other on-line tools were working just great. Bye.

With RSS becoming increasingly more popular something has to give and it’s news aggregation sites such as Slashdot and Digg which often reveal to you news you read several days ago and have already commented about at the original source.

[)amien

* Yeah okay, not a proper award ceremony but a useful ploy to group otherwise unrelated content into a single post.

Reinstalling Windows XP on a 750GB monster

My first ever hard-disk was a whopping 2GB when 340MB was considered high-end.  £800 meant it was a steal – an end-of-line trade-only offer…

A massive double-height 5.25″ SCSI behemoth from DEC that sounded like a turbine powering up. It had a gyroscopic effect that could whip your hand off and a seek noise that resonated through the house in the early hours of the morning as another caller trawled Black Ice BBS’s file library.

But it did take a while to fill up.

The 300GB that was in my home desktop shared no characteristics other than the fact it too has outlived it’s usefulness.

Loaded with the majority of Windows games I’ve ever owned, comprehensive libraries of emulator images, checked-out source trees, MP3 library or humorous nuggets from the like of YouTube I think I might possibly miss.

Installation of the 750GB Seagate wasn’t without the odd snag.  The BIOS and Windows recognized it fine but the season changed while waiting for it to format. Copying was slow too until I discovered it running in PIO mode which flooded the P4 CPU with interrupts.  Sticking it on a different SATA connector brought UDMA and speed to the table.

The data was transferred and re-organized over the course of an evening or two.  Dewey would have been proud but then came the horror.

Reinstalling Windows XP.

Windows itself actually installed just fine until Windows Activation reared it’s ugly head and decided I’d been through this enough times and would have to convince Microsoft India over the phone that I’m not a software-stealing pirate.

A little sweet-talking, with a slight diversion into honesty and how yes I have multiple copies on the same physical machine, it’s called VirtualPC, and I’m back on track installing the usual array of tools, options and preferences as fast as the MX1000 will whip around the screen.

I decided to break with tradition and switch Watercolor Visual Style for a QNX one and give Miranda a go instead of Trillian.

I’m such a dare-devil.

Then came the task of installing all those games and applications again… except I’ve been through this before many many times and I’ve got a trick or two up my sleeve.

My games should live in c:\Games and applications in c:\Apps but they only get there once I’m sure they are independent from my Windows installation.  Until they graduate they live in c:\Program Files with the rest of the mess.

The procedure is quite simple.  If it’s worth keeping:

  1. Move correct folder from c:\Program Files to new home
  2. Create shortcut on desktop to the executable
  3. Try and launch via shortcut
  4. Copy any missing files it complains about from old Windows directories to new home
  5. Copy missing config/settings from c:\Documents and Settings to new home
  6. If settings still missing reboot into old HD
  7. Fire up Regedit, find the registry keys and export to a .reg file
  8. Reboot into new HD
  9. Open .reg file in Notepad and adjust paths to new home
  10. Run registry file and save to new home for next time

If that fails then you’ve got to dig out the original media again but you might be able to avoid downloading and reinstalling those hefty patches all over again. 

Reinstall into c:\Program Files and once done try running the patched version from it’s new home instead.  If that one now works then just delete (not uninstall) the version from c:\Program Files :)

You can end up with a Windows machine just loaded will all your favorite games and apps without hardly any window cruft accumulating :)

It’s basically the same principle behind portable applications but instead of making it totally portable on a memory stick you just make it portable between installations of Windows.

The next step is to use some of the 400GB left to store CD images the games I still play that annoying always want the CD to launch despite taking up so much space on the hard disk.  I get bored of digging out the CD from my library every time.

I can’t imagine CD copy protection will make my life very easy.

[)amien