It's OK, we can admit it. Many of us use Dell computers at work. As an IT administrator, it is the easiest way to buy pre-configured systems in bulk. Still, using low-end, pre-built PCs can be unpleasant at times. For example, when a Dell power supply goes bad, as they often do, the sound is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Dell’s proprietary BIOS can likewise be frustrating, as well as locking you out from performing any overclocking experiments. Mass-produced PCs don’t always use the highest-end components, or they wouldn’t make a profit.
At work, it may make sense to surrender to Dell. But those cookie-cutter boxes don't have to make it into your inner sanctum. At home, where most of us do a lot of work, why not use a hand-built system? Hopefully, this article will encourage you to consider it, if you haven't already done so.
This guide is aimed at the intermediate-level tech audience. You’ve hopefully built a system or two, or at least swapped out a hard drive, replaced your RAM, or something to that effect. If you have never built a system before, you should spend some time googling to learn basics of computer components, power, and safety.
This has become an annual guide for people wanting to build a fast gaming, processing, and multimedia machine without spending a fortune. Compatibility is a big problem: As speeds and features increase, compatibility seems to decrease. You could waste a lot of money, for example, if you find your RAM doesn’t work with your mainboard and CPU. This guide is intended to show you at least one good combination of components that is known to work. You’ll know at least one good configuration from which to start, and from there you can experiment.
Before building a system, you should have an idea of how you plan to use it. Our system will be designed for intensive gaming, for occasional home video editing, and for the usual business software. We will be doing some mild overclocking, but nothing too heavy. Overall, we want a true performance system that can handle most tasks without breaking a sweat. By spending a little more to get the top-end components, our system will be "overbuilt" for quality. That means we won’t have to stress our system too much during demanding tasks. The result is a cooler, quieter system that never lags or leaves your frustrated. Like a race car, a true performance system has an ineffable "feel" about it that makes it a sheer joy to use.
This kind of "responsiveness" of the custom-built system will be very noticeable in your day-to-day use. Windows will open a little bit faster. Your first-person shooter gaming will take on a new edge. And you'll perform process-intensive tasks in much less time.
Also, very important to our design goal is to have a quiet system. Throughout this series of articles, one of our main themes—and a driving force behind the entire project—is to make this computer as quiet as possible. Audible noise has a detrimental effect on your stress levels, and as a result it can harm both your mental and your physical health. We want a system that is built to run as quietly as possible.
Choosing the CPU: Intel's Core2 Duo Takes the Lead
This year, Intel has taken the lead in the CPU race. If you remember the 2006 review, AMD had taken the lead in terms of speed and efficiency, especially against Intel’s bulky Pentium 4 CPUs. However, Intel has now stepped up to the plate and has beaten AMD once again. For the price, the Core 2 Duo Series is unbeatable in terms of speed and efficiency. Among performance system builders, virtually no one is using AMD at the time of this writing (May 2007). Core2 Duo is currently the only way to go.
The only question is, which Core 2 Duo should you choose? The E6300 is a very good value, particularly because it is very overclockable. In other words, you can relatively easily overclock an E6300 to match the speed of much more expensive processors in the same line. For this reason, we don’t recommend purchasing an E6400. In fact, with some reasonable overclocking, you can bring a cheaper E6300 up to match the speed of a more expensive E6600 and beyond (at their stock speeds).
However, for this build we want to have a little extra overhead built into our performance machine. The E6600 attracts us because of its 4MB cache, compared to the 2MB in the E6300 and E6400. We thus chose the Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 Conroe 2.4GHz 4MB shared L2 Cache LGA 775 processor.