Mar 142013
 

Last week I looked at the many reasons why it is still worth building your own PC. Some readers asked for the specs of my own recent ‘power user’ PC build so I have written them up below with my comments, rationale behind the choices and alternatives for a cheaper build.

I have listed the Windows 7 WEI (Windows Experience Index) scores for each of the main components for comparison – the maximum possible is 7.9 [Note that I bought the components from different suppliers to save money but, for consistency, all the example prices below are from Newegg]

Sub $1,000 Power User PC Specifications

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (OEM) – $100. This was the same price as Windows 8 OEM – it’s just personal preference as I find that Windows 8 gets in the way of my workflow on a non-touch desktop PC.

CPU: Intel i5-3570K 3.4GHz – $220. One of the most popular Ivy Bridge processors – and for good reason. Not only is it a powerful quad core i5 with Intel HD4000 integrated graphics but the ‘K’ in the series name means that it has an unlocked multiplier so is very easy to overclock.

WEI score – 7.7 (with a basic overclock to 4.33GHz for maximum stability).

Cheaper Alternative – $130 for the dual core i3-3220 which has onboard HD2500 graphics but no overclocking capability. It’s still a decent performer though and runs cool.

CPU Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo – $35. Something of a monster at 18cm high, this needs a decent sized case to be sure of fitting it in – and see the constraints on RAM below. Good results without venturing in water cooling – my CPU temps under 100% load and running a 1GHz overclock hit a maximum of 59 degrees. The included instructions are pitifully inadequate – fortunately there are a few YouTube videos which show clearly how best to fit it.

Cheaper alternative – if not overclocking (or if buying an i3), save your money and just use the included stock Intel heatsink/fan.

RAM: 8GB (2x4GB) Corsair Vengeance 1600 Low Profile – $67. I chose Low Profile RAM to ensure it would fit under the Cooler Master heatsink which has a very large footprint – depending on the motherboard and CPU/RAM socket location, RAM sticks with large heat spreaders may not fit unless you turn the heatsink around so the fan blows up/down instead of towards the back of the case…

If using the stock Intel heatsink, then standard (and slightly cheaper) Vengeance RAM with huge heat spreaders should not be an issue. Note that most Z77 chipset motherboards default 1600 RAM to a 1333 speed – enabling XMP in the BIOS changes it to the recommended 1600.

WEI score – 7.9 (no overclock)

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H – $125. Full size ATX motherboard with Intel’s Z77 chipset. Crucially for me, this included SATA3 and USB3 ports and has a reputation as a fast board and decent overclocker for the price.

For those who don’t have the time or knowledge to safely tweak and overclock, Gigabytes’ EasyTune6 software (included) lets you choose from 3 pre-configured overclock settings – color coded Green, Amber and Red. The Amber setting produced a stable 4.33GHz speed – not particularly high as i5-3570s go but still 1GHz extra for free.

Cheaper alternative – if opting for an i3 or not overclocking, a cheaper $90 board like Asrock’s Z77 Pro3 should suffice, whilst keeping USB3 and SATA3 ports.

Hard drive/SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 128GB SATA3 – $150. The most important single performance feature of this PC, it revolutionizes the speed of boot up, shut down, sleep/wake and how long programs take to open.

WEI score – 7.9 The graph below is a benchmark test from my own drive which shows the remarkably high read speeds – far more important in a boot drive than write speeds. I ran this test on the same PC with a fast 1TB standard drive (Samsung F3)  and scored: Seq Read 127, Seq Write 34, Random Read 411 and Random Write 191 which shows just how badly a typical HDD compares…

samsung2

This ‘Pro’ version of the 840 series is one of the fastest 128GB drives on the market and requires SATA3 to gain the full benefit – it also comes with a 5 year warranty for added peace of mind. The drive included Samsung’s SSD Magician software which offers a series of handy shortcuts to optimize Windows and the SSD, benchmark performance and utilities such as online firmware update, secure erase and over partitioning:

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Samsung SSD Magician

It’s easy to use and automates many of the SSD-specific Windows tweaks that enhance performance and prolong the life of the drive. I have discussed using an SSD as a fast boot drive before and it is difficult to overstate the improvement in PC performance and general usability – I could never go back to using, by comparison, a snail-paced standard hard drive.

Cheaper alternative – a standard 120GB SSD at around $100 (usually with 3 year warranty) would still be a substantial upgrade compared to a standard hard drive, even if only using a SATA2 port.

Graphics: The Intel i5-3570K CPU includes integrated Intel HD4000 graphics which I am using to keep costs down i.e. no separate gaming graphics card. Whilst the HD4000 is not up to playing most modern games, it is a decent performer for older games and is easily powerful enough for browser games and HD video etc.

WEI score – 6.7 Graphics
WEI score – 6.7 Gaming Graphics

If adding a separate gaming graphics card you would likely need to upgrade the PSU below to a more powerful model.

PSU: Similar to Cooler Master eXtreme Power Plus 500W – $50. I was lucky enough to find a special Cooler Master bundle (no longer on offer) offering one of their 500W PSUs pre-installed in the case below for about $50 in total 🙂

Cooler Master provide an online calculator to help determine the correct power supply wattage as a minimum – select all your components from their menu to find the right spec. 500W was ample for this overclocked i5 and a few hard drives without a separate graphics card.

Case: Cooler Master Elite 430 – $50. As noted above, I got this case in a PSU bundle (it has since been superseded by the Elite 431). It’s a relatively large case and well built at a fair price – no sharp edges inside, tool-free drive installation, very good cooling options and bottom-mounted PSU.

One negative point common in cheap cases is that the rear PCI bay covers are break away (rather than screwed in) so you would be left with a big hole if you later removed a PCI card. Another issue is that there are very few cable management possibilities so it is difficult to achieve a tidy look inside – a modular PSU would help. My bundled deal case came with a solid side panel, not Perspex, so interior looks weren’t an issue and the cooling is good enough to far outweigh any restrictions on airflow caused by messy cables.

DVDRW: Samsung SH-224BB SATA OEM – $18. I’ve been using these in many builds in the last year and they’re solid performers – using Verbatim discs I’ve never had a coaster yet.

Case fans: 2 x Arctic F12 PWM Fluid Dynamic 120mm case fans – $19 total. Great value for money, quiet and efficient with PWM fan control to further reduce noise. The cables aren’t the longest so extensions may be necessary if you have a big case or awkward to reach fan headers.

Cheaper alternative: i3 buyers using the integrated graphics could probably get away with just 1 case fan.

Mouse: I actually reused my existing (now obsolete) Logitech MX400 USB laser mouse but its current replacement is the Logitech M500 – $30

Keyboard: Logitech K120 USB keyboard – $20. Decent quality full sized business keyboard, no frills.

Total Build Cost without extra storage: $884

Choosing all of the cheaper alternatives would bring the price down to $665 – a fair price for an SSD equipped i3 PC, bearing in mind that almost every component listed is likely to be much better quality than found in a cheap (non-SSD) PC bought off the shelf…

Additional Storage – I reused a newish 1TB Samsung F3 hard drive but, if building from scratch and the 128GB SSD is not sufficient storage, budget an extra $80 for a 1TB drive.

Total Build Cost with extra 1TB storage: $964 – still under the magic $1000 figure.

PC Performance

I used BootRacer (which I reviewed here) as a simple way to accurately test start up times. A week after build, with all programs installed (home and IT business, including KIS 2013 security) and the PC in heavy use, boot times are less than 20 seconds, primarily due to the fast SSD. Less software running at startup would reduce that time to sub-15 seconds but that would be cheating and I’m happy with the real life speed.

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18.5 seconds to fully boot, desktop ready

Programs like Firefox, Chrome, Outlook and Word open up instantly whilst Photoshop opens in less than 2 seconds, compared to 5-10 seconds using a traditional hard drive as a boot drive. Sleep and Wake are pretty much instant – I run off an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) so have no qualms about leaving the PC in Sleep mode for extended periods.

Conclusion

This PC build perfectly suits my needs as a fast PC for home and work use. It wouldn’t be good for everyone (especially serious gamers) and is undoubtedly overkill for basic use (internet/email/Facebook etc) but it’s quick, stable, high quality and fairly future proof – without spending a fortune.

In the end I saved money because the only off the shelf alternatives that covered all the bases were far more expensive (and power hungry) gaming PCs.

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