New parts for new PC (need help - little knowledge of hardware)

Dan Strick strick at
Tue Nov 18 17:58:36 PST 2003

On Mon, 17 Nov 2003, Bryan Cassidy wrote:
> I suck when it comes to hardware. I know so little about hardware. My
> dad said he is gonna get me about $400.00 worth of computer parts for
> Christmas/Birthday sence they are so close so I can start building a new
> custom PC.  I have already picked out the case I want. I found a Antec
> ...
> sure I can get a case that's $80.00, a mother board around $100 or so, a
> power supply, *maybe* a video card and a hard drive for around $400.
> What else can you tell me to help out? I appreciate any responses I get.
> He wants me to hurry up and tell him what I want so he can go on and
> order it for me.

On Mon, 17 Nov 2003, judmarc at responded:
> You can probably give yourself a bit of a crash course by looking at <URL:
>; and <URL:, then
> take a look through <URL:; to see what you can get
> for your money.  Don't forget memory, for which you may want to look at
> <URL:; as well as NewEgg.  PC Power and Cooling has
> high quality stuff, but they may be a bit over your budget.

> Regarding motherboards and CPUs, AMDs are cheaper than Pentiums for
> equivalent performance, but AMDs run hotter, meaning the CPU fan must move
> more air, meaning more noise.

AMD Athlon cpus seem to be more cost effective at the low end, but just
below the high end the new Intel P4s may offer a bigger bang per buck.
Tom's Hardware did a bunch of articles on this and on recent motherboards
earlier this year.  There is also a Tom's Hardware article on rolling your
own PC from component parts.

Tom's Hardware and Anand Tech are excellent sources of reviews of new
hardware components.  I used them extensively when recently building my
new custom PC.  Some of the components I chose were:
	component						price ($)
	----------------------------------------------------	-----------
	Lian-Li PC-60 aluminum case				105
	ProSilence-420 (~420 watt) PS from Silent Maxx		100
	Pentium-4 2.8 GHz cpu					275
	Gigabyte GA-8KNXP motherboard				220
	two Kingston 512MB DDR400 dimms (with parity/ECC)	230
	ATi Radeon 9500 PRO video card				205
	two Seagate 120GB serial ATA disk drives		250
	Samsung combo 52x CD-writer / DVD-reader		 70
	Zalman CNPS700 AlCu cpu cooler				 40
	Enermax fan controller / temperature monitor / i/o panel 40
	Microsoft Windows XP Professional			135

I am generally pleased with the result, but I did have (and still have)
some serious problems, mainly with the motherboard.

The Lian-Li case is solid and has lots of room inside without being too
tall for the space in which it is installed.  It has a motherboard
mounting tray that slides out the back.  This can be really convenient
but given the complexity of cabling that connects the motherboard to the
power supply, fans, peripheral devices and case connectors, you won't
slide the mother board out very often.  The power supply seems to be
rather quiet and more than adequate for its load.  I still have a lot of
capacity for expansion: 5 empty 3.5" bays and 2 empty 5.25" bays.

The 2.8 GHz cpu with dual channel DDR400 memory on the so called "800 MHz"
front side bus) is rather fast, about 10 times as fast as my old machine.
I have already become addicted to it and feel considerable impatience
when I use my old machine.  A 2.6 GHz or even 2.4 GHz cpu would probably
run only imperceptibly slower and would have saved a little pocket change,
but what the heck: "you only live once."  I didn't really need a whole GB
of main memory, but the 512 MB dimms were not terribly expensive and dual
channel memory systems need dimms installed in pairs and there are memory
configuration restrictions that would discourage buying small capacity
dimms now and larger dimms later.  So I splurged.

My video card choice was a compromise.  I wanted something new enough to
have hardware support for recent DirectX features, old enough to be well
supported by XFree86 and cheap enough to be justifiable.  The Radeon
9500/9700 families of cards are the newest for which XFree86 claims
substantial support and yet are long out of production and the ATi web
site even categorizes the 9500 as "discontinued".  The 9000/9500/9700
seem to have been replaced with the 9200/9600/9800.  The need for reliable
XFree86 support trumped other considerations because I spend virtually all
of my time running XFree86 on FreeBSD and very little time running
feature hungry whizbang graphics applications.

Microsoft OS is almost an unavoidable occupational hazard.  I pretty much
have to have one because I have peripheral devices for which there are no
FreeBSD drivers (a scanner and a label writer) and I like being able to
launch a whizbang graphics application (i.e. game) on occasion.  I first
attempted to use Windows-98SE since I had no use for modern MS OS
features, but vendor claims to the contrary notwithstanding the video and
motherboard device drivers just didn't work reliably with the old MS OS.
I wanted to get Win2K but a friend convinced me to buy WinXP Professional.
He said it supported more devices and that the "Professional Edition" was
much better than the "Home Edition".  I wasn't too sure about that, but
I decided that MS and the Windows marketplace manufacturers would drop
support (such as it is) for Win2K before WinXP.  The WinXP Pro list price
is about $300 (a rip-off).  The "street price" is about $200.  The
"upgrade" version is available for about $170, but installation can be a
real mess.  The "OEM" version, consisting basically of a CD-ROM and a
software-license/product-key, is available under $140 but there is no
Microsoft user's manual (nearly useless anyway) and you may have to buy
it with some hardware.  WPA (Windows Product Activation) is a monumental
pain.  My installation is tied up in knots because I won't activate it
until I resolve my bootstrap disk problems (which might force me to
change my main disk controller and disk drives, possibly triggering a
reactivation).  Some people say you only have to call an 800 number to
arrange a reactivation.  Most people say you have to call an expensive
900 number and that MS puts you on hold for a long time.  I would prefer
not to find out the hard way.

My only unexpected disappointment was the Gigabyte motherboard.  It was
highly rated in a Tom's Hardware review.  They did not mention that he
optional 8KNXP secondary cpu voltage regulator would not fit if you also
used the Zalman CNPS7000 cpu cooler (which they also praised in the same
article).  The workaround is to not install the secondary voltage
regulator which the review article said was very nice to have but not
necessary with current cpus.  (Side issue: the Zalman CNPS7000 cpu cooler
comes in two models, Aluminum/Copper and pure Copper.  The Cu model cools
a little better than the AlCu model but is much heavier than permitted by
Intel cpu specifications.)

I anticipated some difficulty getting FreeBSD to support all the nice
motherboard devices, but I was prepared to do without the more exotic
ones.  It turns out that FreeBSD 4.9 supports all the essential devices.
I did not expect massive BIOS brain damage.  The BIOS passes a wrong
disk number to the master bootstrap program.  This can have some really
nasty consequences and there is no complete workaround.  The BIOS does
not support booting through one of the primary motherboard disk
controllers (the SATA controller in native mode).  FreeBSD 5.1 sometimes
has problems reading from the PS2 mouse port, allegedly caused by some
BIOS ACPI confusion.  Gigabyte technical support is almost totally
unresponsive.  If I could do it over again, I would very seriously
consider alternative motherboard brands.

One final comment: if you want to limit system noise, be careful of fans
on motherboard devices.  You can replace case fans or slow them down with
various fan controllers but fans mounted on motherboards and controller
cards are not easily managed.  If you do reduce fan speeds, get something
to monitor internal case temperatures.  You don't want to deal with the
consequnces of overheating.  I don't know of any video cards for which
decibel levels are specified.  Disk drive and case fan manufacturers do
typically specify noise levels.  Modern medium speed ATA disk drives with
"fluid dynamic bearings" may be very quiet.  Slower cpu/memory/motherboard
devices tend to consume less power, require less fan and are cheaper.
You can't avoid tradeoffs.

Dan Strick
strick at

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