Build Your Own PC - Part 2

Now that you’ve chosen the best processor, motherboard and cooling solution for your PC, it's time to select the best memory (RAM), graphics card, sound card, and of course the case to put it all in.

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By  Chris Fernando Published  June 1, 2005

|~|Building-a-PC---2-1.jpg|~||~|Now that you’ve chosen the best processor, motherboard and cooling solution for your PC, it's time to select the best memory (RAM), graphics card, sound card, and of course the case to put it all in. Remember me RAM (Random Access Memory), is used by a PC to hold the temporary instructions and data needed to complete tasks. This enables your computer’s CPU (Central Processing Unit), to access instructions and data stored in memory very quickly. So, as soon as you enter a command from your keyboard, the processor interprets the command and instructs the hard drive to load the command or application into the memory. Once the data is loaded into memory, the processor is able to access it much more quickly than if it had to retrieve it from the hard drive. If there isn’t enough room in memory for all the information the processor needs, the computer has to set-up what’s known as a virtual memory file or swap file. This is essentially space on the machine’s hard drive that is reserved to simulate RAM. This process, referred to as ’swapping’, slows the system down, as a hard drive is nowhere near as fast as even the slowest speed memory around. Therefore, more memory on your PC allows applications to respond quicker, while also allowing you to multi-task more easily There’s a basic rule of thumb here then: the more RAM the merrier. The amount of memory a PC can accommodate depends on the number of memory slots your motherboard contains. Usually there are four or five slots and most boards can only accept up to 512MB modules in each. Check the number of memory slots then when buying your motherboard. You should also check to see if your motherboard offers a single channel or dual-channel memory controller. Two of a pair Dual-channel memory describes a matching pair of memory modules installed on a compatible motherboard. The term can be a little misleading however, because the memory modules themselves are no different than the memory used in any other computer. Rather, it’s the motherboard that’s different. In a dual-channel system, the mainboard is designed to work with two memory channels instead of one. This allows the system to handle memory processing more efficiently by using the theoretical bandwidth of two memory modules at a time, reducing system latency time and improving performance. The key to taking full advantage of dual-channel memory operation is installing a pair of matching memory modules (in other words two that are the same capacity and bus speed, though not necessarily from the exact same vendor). Doing this will reduce the chance of crashes or loss of memory performance due to module compatibility issues. Transcend, Kingmax, Hynix and Corsair are some of the major memory players, and DDR RAM is currently the most common type of memory in PCs today (though DDRII will take over in the not too distant future). 256MB memory is the standard amount supplied on most pre-assembled PCs, though you can opt for more depending on your needs. The pricing of memory modules depends on their capacity - a 128MB memory module costs from $25 onwards - and the higher the capacity per module, the more you’ll pay. If you’re a hardcore gamer or into heavy application work (such as image editing), you’ll need at least 512MB of memory. However, if you are into 3D CAD, animation, real-time video and solid modelling, then opt for 1GB or more. If you want to build a PC with the sole purpose of using it for applications such as Word and Excel along with browsing the net, 128MB of RAM should be your bare minimum. Picture perfect Now that you’ve chosen the memory for your PC, it’s time to concentrate on the graphics. There are two options available - onboard or discreet (a.k.a. external). Integrated or onboard graphic chipsets are essentially a graphics chip built onto the motherboard (in most cases on the Northbridge chip). However, most of these graphics chips don’t have their own memory and so use system RAM for texture storage. They can be set to share anywhere from a megabyte to over 128MB of RAM for this purpose. Onboard graphics should be avoided if you fancy playing the latest games such as Doom 3, Half Life 2 and Splinter Cell. This is simply because of the steep demands such games place on hardware. Moreover, even the software libraries required to run these games, such as DirectX and OpenGL, have many features that aren’t supported by these basic chips. So, if you’re a gamer, buying a discreet 3D-graphics card is a necessity for a better frame rates and quality. Besides featuring a stronger GPU, these cards also feature much faster dedicated memory, which serves to boost performance further. Most of the discreet solutions also come with their own cooling solutions, so you don’t need to worry about this unless your PC already resembles an active volcano. Another advantage that discreet cards enjoy over their onboard counterparts is extra outputs such as DVI and TV-out. Many cards also have the capability of displaying their output on two monitors simultaneously, and with the advent of PCI Express the number of monitors supported can climb past four. Depending on the type of motherboard in your system, you’ll either need an AGP, PCI or PCI Express graphics card. AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) 8x is the current standard and you can get all of today’s graphics cards with this interface. While most AGP slots are brown in colour, manufacturers do use different colours for the AGP slot for a better looking motherboard layout. With AGP, a dedicated and point-to-point interface transmits the data from the graphics card to the system. However, PCI Express (PCI-E) is the newest interface on the market today. There are four versions of PCI-E available (x16, x8, x4 and x1). Most PCI-E motherboards feature one x16 slot - offering double the bandwidth of an AGP 8x slot - and two short x1 slots, which are used by low bandwidth components such as modems. The PCI-E approach to data transfer involves a collection of two-way, serial connection that carries data in packets, similar to the way a network connection usually operates. Most PCI-E slots are either black or white in colour, and are thinner than most of the other expansion slots on a motherboard. AGP cards will be phased out eventually with PCI-E cards becoming the de-facto interface for graphics cards. PCI Express graphics cards are quite similar to AGP cards, except for the connector configuration. The physical size and layout are comparable, and even the prices are not that different. All graphics cards have a maximum resolution - or limit - to the number of pixels they can render at once. The maximum resolution is listed in the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical pixels (such as 1,280 x 1,024). If you have a 17” monitor, it’s easy to find an inexpensive graphics card that will give you maximum performance, as you will be limited by resolution. But, if you have a 19” or 20” monitor, you may need to spend more money for a graphics card that best complements your large LCD display. That said, beware of graphics cards that specify a high possible maximum resolution at low refresh rates, because while they can hit high resolutions, there will be perceptible flicker on-screen. This could ultimately result in a headache. When buying your card, make certain it supports a refresh rate of 75Hz or higher at the resolutions and colour depth you plan to work with. ATi and nVidia are the major GPU manufacturers for discreet solutions, while Asus, Gigabyte, XFX, HIS, MSI and Gainward are some of the graphics card manufacturers that use their chipsets. The price of graphics cards varies from $50 to $600 and above, giving you a range of options to choose from (see pg 26). Be sure to check out next month’s graphics card grouptest for a low-down on the latest market entrants. Music to your ears Gone are the days when a basic sound card and a couple of cheap speakers were all your PC needed to give you an immersive experience. With DVD movies and modern games packing in support for multi-channel, high-definition audio, a high-quality surround-sound card is more of a necessity than ever. Most motherboards today come with decent-quality multi-channel sound hardware built-in, but if you want to experience the 'bumps' and 'thumps' in your games, you’ll need to opt for a separate sound card. Most add-on internal sound cards connect to your PC via a PCI slot and are what you should get to enjoy modern games, music, TV and DVDs in full quality. If you plan to piece together an entertainment centre, go for sound cards that can handle 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround sound as this will provide a truly immersive (and impressive) experience. There are two main types of sound card-to-speaker connections for surround sound. The easiest to deal with is an optical S/PDIF port, which involves one glass or plastic fibre cable being connected from your card to the speakers. Conversely, sound cards with connectors for each separate channel require matching several colour-coded cables. The latter method is more common with cheaper sound cards and speakers, while the former offers better quality, albeit at a higher price. If you’re keen on being immersed in the worlds created by the latest 3D games, your needs will be almost the same as those of a movie buff. The main exception is that you'll need a sound card capable of reproducing 3D surround sound such as DTS and Dolby Digital. If you’re into music editing, look for a sound card that comes with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) port. These allow you to plug in musical instruments to record and edit your own music. Creative, M-Audio, AOpen and Yamaha manufacture a range of cards and pricing starts from $25. Creative has also just launched its new technology called Xtreme Fidelity, which promises to enhance the recording and playback of MP3 music, improve PC gaming, and enhance sound in DVD movies. It also boasts it can help improve the quality of your audio creations. On the case The PC case (chassis or cabinet) is the most visible portion of any system and where all the internal components are housed. There are two main types of PC case: desktop or tower, which in turn determine the orientation of the system - horizontal or vertical. A tower-based cabinet works best when you want to save desk space, as most of these go below the desk and so don’t add to the clutter on your work space. The type of material used to make a cabinet, such as steel, alluminium and fiber glass, counts. Aluminium cases are the best bet, due to their lower weight and their better conduction of internal heat to the outside than cabinets made from other materials. Most systems today are tower based. Towers themselves come in three different sizes: mini, mid (medium) or full size. Larger cases provide more component space and easier access, while smaller cases save on desk space but sacrifice expansion space. The number of drive bays in a cabinet is also an important factor to consider if you plan to add extra optical drives or hard disks in the future. A power supply is included with most cabinets today and so you need to first assess whether the power supply unit can provide you with sufficient wattage for all your devices. Small systems with few drives only need 250 to 300 watts, while larger server style PCs or gaming systems will munch up between 400 and 500. Power supplies can also be had with variable speed fans, which are quieter. There are many different cases available on the market such as the Super LANboy from Antec, which comes with an aluminium finish, one rear cooling fan, one front LED-enhanced cooling fan, nine drive bays and a carrying case strap; perfectly suited for a gaming PC. If you want to build a PC for use as a home theatre, you should opt for a small form factor (SFF) case such as the MicroATX cube cases. These are neat-looking boxes that take up very little space and pack in features such as a remote control, front-mounted ports for easy connectivity, and quiet cooling fans. If lifestyle is all that matters, check out see-through acrylic cases such as All Clear’s Acrylic Casing. This chassis comes with acrylic panels and bright blue LEDs that add glamour to your machine. You may also want to personalise your PC by adding components such as multi-coloured LEDs, neon strings, cold cathode lights, temperature monitors, fan filters and extra coolers. Before you jump right in and chalk out the details, check whether the case you fancy supports all of this by providing enough ports, drive bays, power supply and PCI brackets. As for the actual form factor (the physical size), you have two options - ATX and BTX (see box bottom left). ATX (Advanced Technology Extended) is the most common form factor for cabinets today, while BTX (Balanced Technology Extended) is a standard set by Intel, which provides more efficient internal cooling - though this is still not under large-scale production. No matter what the size and the dimensions of your choice, you will ultimately have to choose between an ATX or BTX chassis. For now, your best bet is a tower-based ATX cabinet for your PC. Aopen, Antec, Lian Li, Xaser and Thermaltake are good brands to consider, with prices from $50 to $200+. WINDOWS MIDDLE EAST RECOMMENDS MEMORY MODULE Corsair Twin 2X1024-4300C3PRO Price: $380 Contact: www.corsairmemory.com Reviewed: April 2005 Winner of the Windows Middle East ‘Editor’s Choice’ award GRAPHICS CARDS ATi X800XL Price: $299 Contact: www.ati.com Reviewed: May 2005 Winner of the Windows Middle East ‘Editor’s Choice’ award Gigabyte GV-NX66128DP Price: $177 Contact: +9714 355 5520 Reviewed: April 2005 Winner of the Windows Middle East ‘Editor’s Choice’ award Asus Extreme AX600AT HDTV Price: $231 Contact: +9714 351 1168 Reviewed: April 2005 Gecube X600XT Xtreme Edition Price: $350 Contact: +8862 265 50166 Reviewed: April 2005 SOUND CARD Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 4 PRO Price: $299 Contact: +9714 397 7611 Reviewed: May 2005 ||**||

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