PC Building Guide FAQ: Part 1


So you subscribe to Maximum PC, opened an account on the forum, and currently find yourself debating whether you feel confident enough to build your own dream machine, or have someone else do it for you. Having read guide after guide and post after post, you're fairly certain you could pull it off, but what about any tech support issues that pop up afterwards? Wouldn't it be easier to just configure a Dell and be done with it?

The answer is yes , it would, but it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying as building yourself. And tech support shouldn't be a compelling reason to go with an OEM boutique, unless you consider being told to check if the power cable is plugged in to be more useful than pinging an experienced forum base's collective experience to help you out of a pinch.

But hey, I understand that building that first rig comes with a fair share of jitters, but trust me, you CAN do it. And once you do, you get to become one of us . By us , I'm talking about old vets that, like myself, take as much satisfaction from building our own rigs as we do in helping others to do the same thing. Pay it forward, if you will. I've spent a lot of time on Maximum PC doing just that, having first registered back in 2000 when it was known as Commport . My tenure's consisted of answering troubleshooting issues and offering buying advice, while more recently contributing material to the magazine and maintaining this blog. And when I'm not bantering with fellow MPCers, I can be found over at HardwareLogic , a website I help run that's devoted to, you guessed it, helping new and upcoming enthusiasts.

In short (too late!), I, like many, have been doing this a long time, and while the components of yesteryear have dramatically changed (the race to 1GHz is but a distant memory), many of the common problems and pitfalls remain the same. It may be old hat to some of us today, but that doesn't mean we didn't have our own nagging butterflies when first starting out. But we buckled down and ignored an urge to go with a cookie-cutter OEM boutique, and with some help, you will too.

Today I'll start off with some pre-build inquiries and potential issues that plague first time builders. If there's enough interest, you can look forward to a Part 2 and beyond, where I'll go over post build problems and answer common user submitted questions. Enough with the intro, let's get started!

Intel or AMD?

That's the age old question, isn't it? The answer seems to change with each new generation of processors, as the two play a continual game of leap frog, and it's a query that's started many a forum flame war. A true enthusiast knows no such thing as brand loyalty, and if building today, you'll almost assuredly want an Intel foundation. Recent price cuts have made for some tempting AMD silicon, but you can pick up a Core 2 processor at just about any price point, and have a foundation capable of riding into the quad-core sunset. And speaking of quad-core, word on the web is that Intel's Q6600 processor will receive a price cut to $266 come July 22nd, making four cores accessible to the mainstream. Can you say, yummy!?

But is there really a difference between Intel and AMD? I REALLY want to stick with AMD.

AMD would have been the preferred route back in socket 939's heyday, and before Intel ditched their terribly inefficient Netburst architecture. With Intel's change in philosophy and the Core 2 refresh, AMD's been struggling to keep up, and not until Barcelona debuts will they have a potentially viable answer.

But if you're really intent on sticking with AMD, you can do so with the knowledge that you can still build a kick-ass rig. Truth is, outside of benchmarking, most users would be very hard pressed to tell a difference between an attractively priced top of the line AMD 6000+ system, and a slower clocked ( yet generally better performing ) mid-range Intel E6600 machine. So if you own AMD stock and want to support your investment, you can do so, you're just better off in nearly every area (performance, upgradeability, geek cred) by going Intel.

How much should I spend?

That's up to you! First thing you should do is identify a goal for this system. Are you a hardcore gamer, or are you looking for a casual web surfing machine? One of those will cost you a pretty penny, and the latter can be built without looting the kids' piggy banks. Other considerations include whether you're a benchmarking guru, or value real-world performance over quantitative measurements. In the end, there's no right or wrong budget to work with, and you can build just about any type of machine (gamer, office rig, overclocker, etc) on any budget, it just comes down to what concessions you're willing to make.

Should I overclock? Will it shorten the lifespan of my computer?

I'm an overclocker myself, but I don't do it to increase the length of my e-organ, rather I'm interested in maximizing the performance of my components. Many parts are sold at a particular speed to meet a demand, and not necessarily because they're incapable of running any faster. How fast a particular component is capable of running while remaining stable is up to you to find out, and while you shouldn't jump into it willy-nilly, when it comes to processors, OC'ing is easier today than it ever has been (you youngsters have it so good!). Overclocking is also a great way to learn the fundamentals of how your PC works, as it requires research and knowledge beyond that of a casual user.

With regards to shortening the lifespan of your computer, that's a debatable topic. Increasing a component's frequency can add additional stress, but unless you're planning on keeping a component until the end of time, the difference is most likely negligible. Also consider that a part may have been downlocked at the factory simply to meet a pricing demand, and could have just as easily been sold at the faster spec. That doesn't mean OC'ing isn't without risks (don't go cranking up those volts!), but when done intelligently and with a close eye on temps, you can significantly reduce the chances of an undesirable outcome. We'll save this topic for another guide...

Help me choose a PSU!

The power supply is probably one of the most misunderstood components out there, and marketing does little to educate the end user. Choosing an appropriate PSU comes down to a few key factors, so let's look at them one by one.

First, choose a brand. And yes, brand does matter, as generic companies are notorious for skimping on quality parts and misrepresenting the specifications (more on that later). While not an all-inclusive list, I generally limit searches to (in alphabetical order): Antec, Enermax, Fortron, Corsair, OCZ, PC Power & Cooling, Seasonic, Silverstone, and Tagan.

Second, decide if you want modular (detachable) cables or wired. The idea behind modular cables is that you would hook up only the ones you intend to use, and leave the rest unattached. This results in a less cluttered interior and potentially better airflow. Critics of the technology will point to power loss and less reliable power from having detachable connections, but these effects tend to get exaggerated, and a quality modular unit is more than capable of running a high end machine. They do cost more than their wired brethren, and if you intend to use all the cables anyway, a modular power supply loses its benefit

And finally, pay attention to the amps on the +12V rail(s). Wattage is important too, but equally so is how the wattage gets distributed. Today's systems feed heavily on +12V amps, and generic companies often overload a less crucial +5V or +3.3V rail, which allows them to technically claim a high wattage rating, but it's all for naught if the +12V line lacks sufficient amperage. As a general rule of thumb, look for at least a mid 30 amperage rating for a modestly powerful rig, and 40 and above for a high end machine.

How many +12V rails do I need? I see some with as many as six!

Another hot debate in computer circles, Senior Editor Gordon Mah Ung covered this topic in a previous blog , so I won't rehash it here. The only thing I'll add is that when looking at multiple +12V rail power supplies, you don't get the total amperage rating by adding up the specs on each +12V rail. For example, many power supplies will list four +12V rails at 20A each, which when added together equals 80A. But what they're telling you is that each rail is capable of supplying up to 20A at any given time. The total +12V amperage depends on how the wattage gets distributed. Looking at the OCZ 780W ModXStream , 720 watts are allocated to the +12V rails, and since Watts = Volts * Amps , we would divide 720 (watts) by 12 (+12V), which gives us 60A (amps), a typical amount for a high end 750-800W PSU.

So I picked up a good power supply, hooked up all the parts, and my PC won't turn on. What did I do wrong?

Do'h, you should have gotten a Dell...I jest, I jest! It could be a number of things. First, check ALL cable connections and make sure you've plugged in both the main ATX connector (20 or 24pin) along with a secondary motherboard connector, which will be either 4 or 8 pins. Next, double check that your PSU's switch is turned on. If everything's hooked up correctly and your motherboard's receiving power, there should be an LED that lights up.

Next, verify your case's power and reset switch are plugged into the correct headers on your motherboard. Consult your manual (download it from your mobo maker's website if you no longer have it), and don't feel bad if you've doofed up the pins, as even long time vets are prone to hooking these up incorrectly.

Finally, check for a grounding issue. You should have installed standoffs in your case's motherboard tray before dropping in your mobo, and you'll want to verify they're lined up with your motherboard's holes. If a stray standoff comes in contact with your motherboard's PCB (Printed Circuit Board), it will cause the system to short and either not boot, or worse yet, damage your mobo. Check for any loose screws or other pieces of metal that may have fallen onto the motherboard.

My motherboard's LED lights up and I checked for a grounding issue, but my system still won't stay on. When I hit the power switch, the heatsink's fan spins for 1-2 seconds, then turns off. What gives?

If there's no grounding issue going on, this symptom almost always means that your heatsink is not making sufficient contact with your processor. As a safeguard, your system will turn off if your processor rapidly heats up (in the days of old, you could fry a processor by turning it on without a heatsink attached ). Remove the heatsink, and if necessary, clean and reapply any thermal goop (don't overdo it, you just need enough to fill in the microscopic grooves and pits). Reattach the sink so that it doesn't wiggle around, and don't forget to plug the fan's 3 or 4 pin power connector into your motherboard.

And that's it for this week. Comments are always welcome, and if you have any post build questions you'd like to appear in a Part 2, send an email to One4yu2c@gmail.com

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