Friday, 15 January 2016

Building a PC: Mainstream and Upgradable - Part 2B - Building

Let continue where we left of in Part 2A of your system building project. In Part 2A we covered installing the CPU, CPU cooler, motherboard and SSD into our computer case, in this part we will finish assembling the rest of our system.

Installation Steps

Case Fan, PSU, PSU Cable Routing

The next component we have decided to install is an additional case fan at the front of our case. This Noctua fan is larger and more powerful than the fan that comes with the case and we have positioned this fan in a more direct line to the CPU and GPU on the motherboard to provide the required air to keep the system components running cooler than the stock case. This is especially worth considering since both the CPU and GPU in our system can be overclocked, which puts more stress on the overall system and the system components run hotter when overclocked.

We can now go ahead and install the Power Supply Unit (PSU), we simply slide the PSU from the back of the case into place and screw into place along the back of the case. We have made sure the PSU intake fan is facing down so that fresh cooler air is provide to the PSU not the hotter air generated inside the case by the other components. We can now also check the cables that will be required by the whole system and connect them to the PSU, feeding them to the back of the case via the cable slot at the bottom of the case in preparation to connect to the components later on.

In our example there is an additional component that should be installed next, this is the WiFi card which is connected to the Mini PCIe slot. Since this will be located underneath the GPU we will install this first by connecting the WiFi signal cables from the card to the back of the case where the antenna connections are located.

The GPU can now be installed relatively easily into the PCIe slot and orientation should not be an issue since the connections on the bottom of the card and the design at the back of the card which will align with the back of the case mean it will only fit onto the motherboard in one direction. We need to make sure that we have removed the back-cover on the case which aligns with the PCIe slot in which we will be connecting the GPU and when inserting the GPU into the slot to first release/hold open the PCIe plastic lock of the PCIe slot on the motherboard, otherwise the GPU will not sit in the slot and you may damage the card trying to force the matter. Once in place we can screw the card into place at the back of the case where we removed the back cover.

Case Input/Output,  Cabling Connecting, Post and Troubleshooting

Now that all the major components have been installed into their final positions on the motherboard/case we can finish all the cabling from the PSU. We can connect the two power cables required by the motherboard running from the PSU, the 8-pin and 6-pin power cables for the GPU can be connected (some graphics cards require only a single power cable), the power cable for the SSD from the PSU and the data cable from the SSD to the motherboard SATA slot can also be connected.
In all the cabling it is best to feed the cable from the bottom and back out the front via the closest cabling hole on the case for each component. This helps keep the cabling as clean as possible which helps when we need to remove any components in the future and as well as keeping the case internals aesthetically pleasing, this also helps when we tie up the cables at the end of the build and when we try to clean the system periodically.

A tip worth remembering is to clean the system from the inside of any dust buildup every 3-6 months to reduce any additional trapped heat, ensure the components are working optimally and to ensure maximum air flow throughout the case. A can of compressed air will provide enough force to help remove any stubborn dust as physically dusting the components with your hands may damage components and is not recommended. 

Next we can connect the case fan power cables to the motherboard. There are two types of case fans available on the market, PWM and voltage regulated fans. The type of fan on your case will determine which fan connector on the motherboard you will use to connect each fan. PWM fans work optimally and allow for more control via the motherboard bios/software when connected to 4-pin fan connections. In our example we have connected two fans from the front and one fan from the back of the case.

Lastly we can connect the case input and output connections that are generally included at the front of most cases, these include the power button, reset button and USB ports. Most of these connections are situated close to each other on our motherboard which makes it easier but referring to the motherboard manual is crucial to ensure that the connections are positioned in the right location and the right orientation. If your system does not power on via the case button, incorrectly connecting these connections may be a likely cause.

Once we have this final step completed we can go ahead and connect the computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, PSU to the wall socket for power, turn on the PSU from the back of the case and test the system starts correctly without any error messages /sounds from the motherboard. Successfully booting the system should take you into the motherboard bios screen.

If the system did not boot correctly you will need to troubleshoot the problem by determining what error sounds the motherboard generated and then cross referencing with the motherboard manual to determine the correlated problem associated with the sound. You can find more help with any problems on the websites highlighted in the next section.


Support and Knowledgebase

I have tried to be as clear as possible in the steps outline above but if you are still unsure about a specific step or need any question answered about an aspect of your system build I would recommend checking out some of the more popular online resources for help and guidance. The first place I would recommend to get help would be the component manufacturer website/forum as they would have the most accurate information about the subject, but there are many knowledgeable and helpful users on technology forums such Linustechtips, Tomshardware and Reddit who can also provide the help you require. I would also recommend checking out some related videos on YouTube as it has also been a very helpful resource for me when selecting components and building the system, with people posting helpful videos reviewing PC components and guides on building computer systems.

That concludes Part 2 of our mainstream and upgradable computer system build guide and I hope it was helpful, stay tuned for the third part where we will cover some of the important software related aspects of building a computer system such as OS installation and setup.

Related Resources,review-asrock-z97-extreme6.aspx

Building a PC: Mainstream and Upgradable - Part 2A - Building

Welcome back to more adventures in building our own computer system. In Part 1 we discussed the components that we were going to select as part of our mainstream and upgradable computer system build as well as some of the popular places to purchase these components with the help of online services. In this part we will be covering some of the important considerations when actually assembling your computer on your own and the steps to take in doing so.


-Philips screwdriver /screwdriver kit
-Clean not static work-space
-Monitor, keyboard, mouse for testing

Unboxing and Preparation

The first thing we should do is unbox all the components and check that nothing is damaged and that everything stated is in the box with nothing missing. This will reduce the chances of having to stop the build mid-way to remove and replace any damaged components. When handling any components make sure you don't have any static built up on you that may damage the components and don't place them on anything where static transfer may occur. Also it is worth while reading the documentation provided with each component carefully to understand how best to install the component without making any mistakes. The figures below show all our example system components unboxed and undamaged ready to be installed.




Installation Steps

CPU, RAM, Back-Plate, Motherboard, Cooler Mount

The first component we will install is the CPU into the socket on the motherboard. We could have left this after we installed the motherboard into the case but it becomes darker and more cramped inside the case so it is generally best to do this step before installing the motherboard. Before installing the CPU it’s a good idea to visually inspect the pins on the underside of the CPU to insure none are bent out of place. The CPU will only fit one way and a notch on the corner of the CPU should align with a similar looking notch on the motherboard (Note: don't force the CPU into place, it should sit in gently).

The next component we can easily install at this moment is the ram. The ram only installs in one orientation due to the notch at the bottom of the ram modules, which are slightly offset of middle of the module. Opening the side locks of the ram sockets on the motherboard, placing the ram modules in the right direction and pushing down slightly until they click into place. The side locks may or may not lock automatically due to the force once the ram is in place, checking they are locked is recommended.

It is a good idea to install any CPU cooler mounting sockets now since the back of the motherboard may not be accessible once it is installed into the case. This socket will allow for proper seating of the CPU cooler onto the CPU and will ensure a firm connection to the motherboard. The style of mounting socket and the steps on how to install the socket will be different depending on the CPU socket and the CPU cooler. Therefor it is best to refer to the documentation provided by the cooler manufacturer to ensure the socket is installed correctly.

Let’s install the back-plate for the motherboard into the case now as well since it will be difficult if not almost impossible to install it after installing the motherboard. Simply make sure the plate aligns correctly to all the input and output connections with how the motherboard will be positioned in the case and push the plate into place.

The next step is to screw in the motherboard standoffs into the case which in which we will connect and screw in the motherboard. The position of the standoffs will be determined by the size/form factor of the motherboard being installed (ATX, Micro-ATX, Mini-ITX) and the case design. The exact positions should be outlined in the case manual/reference guide.

Some people connect the GPU and PSU cables at this point to test the system is working correctly and it is advised to do so if you are concerned about the system not starting up. It is easier to do this step now since any problems later in the build process may mean that we need to disassemble the system and remove the motherboard out of the case, which can be a hassle and time consuming process.

Once the standoffs are positioned correctly we can finally install the motherboard into the case. Being careful and gently handling the motherboard to avoid putting any unnecessary stress that may damage any components on the motherboard, we align the motherboard with the back-plate. We slowly place the motherboard on top of the standoffs making sure not to slide the motherboard around too much as this may scratch and damage the underside of the motherboard. Referring to the motherboard and case manuals we screw in the motherboard from above into the previously installed offsets. Ensure the screws are firmly in place but avoid tightening the screws too much as this may also damage the motherboard.


CPU Cooler and SSD

What’s next you ask, well good question, we will install the CPU cooler onto the CPU cooler mount that we installed previously, making sure the cooler is aligned the way we prefer/require. In the case of our Noctua cooler we also need to make sure to place the provided thermal paste on the CPU before placing the cooler in place, a pea sized drop in the center is often recommended as placing the cooler on top will force the paste to spread out into place evenly. Once the cooler is in place we have attached the accompanying fans making sure they are oriented in the right direction based on the marking on the fans, in our case pushing the air out through the back of the case.

It is a good idea to check if any power connections that we require such as for the motherboard are situated underneath the CPU cooler and to connect them to the motherboard at this time before installing the CPU cooler to avoid issues with not having easy access to the connections after the cooler is installed. This is not as much of an issue when installing a water/liquid cooling solution due to the smaller CPU attachment.

The case we purchased allows us to remove the drive bays at the front of the case, we have removed all of these bays since we will not be installing a hard disk drive or DVD drive in the system. The main reason to remove these bays is to allow the intake fans to push air through the system more optimally, thereby keeping the system cooler. They can also be removed if you intend to install a radiator for a water based CPU cooler.

Also worth noting is the small space left between the CPU cooler/fans and the low profile memory modules, this highlights the importance of doing your research and making sure the components you purchase are compatible, as some taller modules may not have allowed proper installation of the fan in question.

Next we can go ahead and install any storage devices which in our case is the single Solid State Drive (SSD), which simply involves screwing the drive onto the SSD bay at the back of the case. Since we will be feeding the power cable for the drive from the bottom of the case we have made sure that the SSD ports are aligned facing down so we can avoid any unnecessarily complicated cable management later on.

Stay tuned for Part 2B where we will continue the discussion of our computer system build.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Building a PC: Mainstream and Upgradable - Part 1 - Components

When building a  system that you intend to upgrade in the future you need to consider the components that are easily upgradable and those that are not. The CPU/motherboard architecture are the basic framework on which you will build a system and  therefor will be the least likely components that you will generally want to be upgrading in the future. It is there for a good idea to choose the most flexible and performance focused CPU/motherboard combination when starting on planning a PC build like ours. Preferably planning on not changing these components in the whole upgradable lifetime of the system.

It is often possible to upgrade to a faster CPU in the future if it is compatible with your motherboard, but I feel it is often better in the current market to simply build a new PC with the latest CPU/motherboard architecture to take advantage of the newer feature that these systems provide. Since the upgraded CPU will likely not last as long if you demand high performance compared to the newer platform, and may not provide the desired performance even after upgrading.

In the following sections we highlight an example system build and some of the major decisions and reasons that each component was selected.

System Specifications

  • CPU - Intel Haswell i7 4790k
  • Motherboard - Asrock z97 Extreme6
  • GPU -  MSI GTX 970
  • RAM -  G.Skill Ares DDR3 1833 8Gb
  • Hard Drive/SSD -  Samsung evo 840 500gb
  • CPU cooler - Noctua NH-D15
  • Case -  Fractal Design R5
  • PSU - EVGA 750W G2 



Selecting Components


We have selected the i7 4790k (4.0Ghz) which at the time of writing is the fastest processor available with the LGA 1150 architecture. The decision to choose this top tier CPU is primarily because we would like the CPU/motherboard combination to provide the performance we require and last as long as possible before needing to be upgraded or replaced by another system all together. This CPU can also be overclocked if the need arises for additional performance output. Keep in mind that your requirements for CPU performance can dictate your decision as someone looking for less CPU performance in multi-threaded workloads may be happy with the i5 4690(3.5Ghz) as an alternative, which is considered ideal for general work and gaming but does not support hyper-threading (which can offer up to 30% faster performance in curtain workloads such as video editing).



The motherboard we selected for this build is the Asrock z97 Exteme6 motherboard. This was chosen to primarily be compatible with the CPU architecture and to provide upgrade options with current and future mainstream technologies such as SATA Express and M.2 support. It supports overclocking supported CPU's like the 4790k for additional performance when required. It has a PCI Express 16x slot for graphical adapters that will likely continue to take advantage of this technology in the next few years and also supports technologies such as M.2 and NVM Express for SSD's that are planned to be popularised mainstream in the next few years. This allows the system to take advantage of faster SSD's in the future if we plan to replace the current drive or to integrate additional secondary drives. The motherboard also provides SLI support so that in the future additional graphics adapters could be added to improve graphical performance.

 Note: Other CPU chipset architectures such as x99 and Skylane are not acceptable for this build as x99 is not a mainstream architecture compared to z97 and a premium is added on the price of the system. Also the possibility of upgrading due to component availability is reduced due to it being less mainstream. Skylane introduces new technologies such as ddr4 ram that currently is overpriced when compared to ddr3 ram as well as other components such as CPU and motherboard, without providing large performance advantages for the average system user at the time of writing. 


The GPU selected for our build is the Nvidia GTX 970. The graphics industry sees fast performance improvements annually but for the price point the performance of this video card still cannot be beat even after being on the market for over one year. Currently offering the best value for money/performance. In the future it would be easy to either setup and additional 970 card in SLI when the price of the GPU drops or preferably replace the original card with a brand new equally impressive (in terms of performance per dollar) card in the future.

Of course you can choose a more powerful GPU if such as the GTX 980/980Ti if required or a less powerful GPU depending on your need such as a GTX 960 and if you are not interested in any gaming or 3d work then the you can save money and use the integrated graphics that come with the i7 4790k CPU.



8Gb of quality DDR3 ram from a company like Corsair or G.Skill is selected for our build. When comparing DDR3 ram there is a slight performance increase with increased clock speed in modern systems. Whether this is enough to pay extra is up to the buyer and his needs. 8Gb/ dual stick is fast becoming the standard and is the reason it was chosen for this system. If your system has free slots for ram it is easy to install additional ram in a future upgrade, for example to add an additional 8Gb for a total of 16Gb to our system, although it is preferred to install the same manufacturer and model as the ram previously installed, to reduce any performance and compatibility issue that may arise.


CPU cooler

The CPU cooler selected for our system is the Noctua NH-D15 cooler. When selecting the CPU cooler it is generally personal preference over the traditional fan coolers and the newer style water coolers. Generally the original CPU cooler or separately purchased fan coolers provide adequate performance for those not planning to overclock their system and also are less likely to cause serious damage to the system if they fail. Water coolers are preferred for keeping the system cooler for situations such as overclocking but are generally more expensive than fan coolers. The cooler was chosen for this system to provide the lowest noise possible while also providing excellent cooling even compared to more expensive water coolers.


Hard Drive

Really there is no reason not to purchase an SSD as your primary drive over a traditional platter based HDD as the price difference is shrinking at a fast rate and the performance difference of an SSD over a HDD is very noticable especially in modern operating sytems and motherboards, which provide excellent SSD support. Also it saves you having a headache in the future when you want to replace your HDD for an SSD, where transferring of data is required between the two drives.


The easiest way to select the max wattage power supply for your system is to use a service like PcPartPicker. You can simply input all your system components and the max wattage that the system will draw is calculated for you. This gives you a guide to search for a PSU that is within the range of your system. for our system a 600w PSU would be adequate but for future upgrading options such as adding additional graphic cards  for SLI and additional hard drives that will draw more power, a 750w PSU (which is the most common next tier higher PSU) would be preferred, hence the 750W PSU unit selected for our system. This PSU was also chosen for it's high quality and relatively quite noise under normal operating conditions.



When selecting the case for your system it is important to insure that the case supports the size/type of motherboard that you intent to install. In our case the ATX motherboard is compatible with the case we have chosen. Also worth considering is to make sure that other major components such as the CPU cooler and PSU have enough clearance inside the case. Cases are chosen for may reasons such as aesthetics, flexibility, cooling and noise reduction, it is up to the buyer to decide which features they require more and to select a case that best fits their need. The case chosen in our system was the Fractal Design R5 and it was selected primarily for noise reduction and flexibility for future upgrades such as additional SSD drive bays and ability to remove/reposition unused bays inside the case to creating space for additional components . 

If you are considering overclocking your system in the future or are living in an area where the temperature can get high it is also worth considering installing additional fans for the case/system to help keep the system running as cool as possible, this should help with the longevity of all the components.

Purchasing Components

It is really handy to be able to search for PC components online and compare prices and purchase from sellers that you are comfortable.  Luckily it is becoming easier to find many websites that allow you to compare prices of components. These websites can really speed up your researching of components and comparing of prices between different sellers. Some of these websites worth considering include PcPartPicker, StaticICE, eBay and Newegg.

Note: It maybe worth importing some components from overseas if they are not available anywhere else or if the price is considerably cheaper, but it is important to consider whether or not the warranty of the component is valid in your region and if the delivery costs end up not saving you any money in the long run. For these reasons it is advised to do your research carefully before purchasing from overseas.

Alright guys and girls in this post we have covered some of the major issues to consider when selecting system components when building a system, which we would like to have the flexibility of upgrading in the future. In Part 2 we will discuss issues to consider when installing/building your own computer system.

Related Resources

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