By an accident of both finances and previously hitting the technology sweet spot at just the right time, I have not built a computer in several years. In anticipation of doing some upgrades on my home PC, I started by buying a new case. Wow! This is absolutely the best case I have ever had. I am not sure this is so much the particular case I picked but the evolution of case design in the past few years. Either way, its awesome.
Just the small step of turning hard drives 90 degrees so their wiring does not conflict with the graphic cards (and they are much easier to slide in and out without removing the expansion cards) makes a huge difference. This is great, since I am constantly swapping drives in and out (for example I am trying to teach myself Linux/Ubuntu so I have added a dedicated drive and dual boot to the system for that purpose). In addition, this case, as does many new cases, has a wiring management system the puts all the wiring in a back compartment accessible by a separate panel. Look how neat everything is:
There is also a hole in the floor of the case, covered by the back door, that allows access to the back of the CPU. This allows changing the CPU fan without taking out the motherboard, which I took advantage of after I somehow damaged the old CPU fan cleaning it in the case swap. As you can see it has tons of space, including plenty of room for one of the mile-long graphics cards they are selling nowadays. Other nice features are a hard drive hot dock and big huge quiet fans with a three-position fan speed control. The only downside is that there are no front cutouts for 3-1/2 inch drives, but I don't have any so that was not a problem.
This case is expensive - $160 after rebate, but it's the first case I can say that this may be the last case I buy. It's a Corsair Obsidian Series 650D and I highly recommend it.
I have a horrible, awful, embarrassing confession. All my sites, including this blog, are run off of super-cheap shared hosting accounts at Godaddy (yes, the guys with the juvenile commercials). For years I think they did a decent job and my sites were not that busy, so it was no problem. But as with most large, cheap hosting companies, they seem to be cramming more and more domains on each shared server. Someone on this server is chewing up a lot of CPU cycles and it's time to move on.
I have switched to a virtual private server account at a new hosting company, as a sort of stepping stone potentially to a dedicated server (my business and I have over 30 web sites so it probably can be justified). The VPS account is cheaper and lets me start learning some new things about managing hosting (e.g. I have access to the root for the first time) but still shields me from some of the server management (e.g. OS updates). And it's cheaper than a dedicated server, so we will see how it goes.
At some point, not quite yet, the site will have some down time when I do the migration. Not sure yet when that will be -- the wordpress database for this site is over 50mb which exceeds the import file size allowed in my data base tools (phpmyadmin for mysql). I have read there is another way to do it, I just have to do some research and tests first. I probably will have to learn to work the data base from the command line.
For years I have used Adobe Premier Elements v. 3.0 to edit my videos because it worked OK and probably more importantly came in a package with Adobe Photoshop Elements (which is a very good tool, except for the organizer which I don't like). But I have a PC with a 64-bit operating system and a quad core CPU for which this older software is not optimized -- the old 3.0 was running painfully slowly even on my new computer. So I downloaded a trial edition of Premier Elements 7 and was horrified at how buggy and unstable it was, without adding any real functionality that I wanted over the old 3.0 edition. So I then downloaded the brand new v 8.0 and found it if anything even worse. In retrospect, I could have seen this in the reviews for both products on Amazon.
I have a general rule of thumb that one bad version generation happens, but two in a row means it is time for a change (the exception to this being Quickbooks, which has had about 4 versions in a row where each is worse than the last, but there is really not a good alternative for me right now).
For video editing, I eventually landed on the oddly named Sony Vegas Movie Studio, v9.0. I am extremely happy. It works a lot like Elements used to but is rock solid stable. I have been working with a 90-minute HD video for 2 days straight without a reboot and it has had no problems and is fast and has all the functionality I could want. Not for casual applications probably, but I really like it. I don't usually write posts like this, but this piece of software almost never makes it into the magazine reviews or comparisons at sites like PC Magazine or CNET. Not sure why, but its an excellent program. Thanks to the Amazon community, whose reviews again helped me make a good decision.
Postscript: I have never been wildly impressed with Adobe programming and their most recent iteration of Photoshop Elements really worries me as the organizer seems to be badly bugged. Their programs have always been pigs -- the only way they could get a tolerable load time for Elements was to break the program into four parts and start up with a menu that lets one choose one part or the other. I know they did this to fight the classic Adobe load time problem (used to have it in spades with Acrobat reader) but I think they have broken something in the process. You know Adobe programs are a pig when I get impatient for them to load from the new Intel SSD, which generally serves up programs lightening fast.
Short version: avoid Vista. Longer version: I wrote previously about Vista writing a new chapter in fair use:
Because, having killed fair use for multiple copies, believe it or
not, the media companies are attempting to kill fair use even for the
original media by the original buyer! I know this sounds crazy, but in
Windows Vista, media companies are given the opportunity to, in
software, study your system, and if they feel that your system is not
secure enough, they can downgrade the quality of the media you
purchased or simply refuse to have it play. In other words, you may
buy an HD DVD and find that the media refuses to play on your system,
not because you tried to copy it, but because it feels like your system
*might* be too open. The burden of proof is effect on the user to prove to the media companies that their system is piracy-proof before the media they paid for will play...
Back to the book
analogy, it's as if the book will not open and let itself be read unless
you can prove to the publisher that you are keeping the book in a
locked room so no one else will ever read it. And it is Microsoft who
has enabled this, by providing the the tools to do so in their
operating system. Remember the fallout from Sony putting spyware, err copy protection, in their CD's -- turns out that that event was just a dress rehearsal for Windows Vista.
Via Instapundit, Bruce Schneier concurs:
Windows Vista includes an array of "features" that you don't want.
These features will make your computer less reliable and less secure.
They'll make your computer less stable and run slower. They will cause
technical support problems. They may even require you to upgrade some
of your peripheral hardware and existing software. And these features
won't do anything useful. In fact, they're working against you. They're
digital rights management (DRM) features built into Vista at the behest
of the entertainment industry.
And you don't get to refuse them.
The details are pretty geeky, but basically
has reworked a lot of the core operating system to add copy protection
technology for new media formats like HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks. Certain
high-quality output paths--audio and video--are reserved for protected
peripheral devices. Sometimes output quality is artificially degraded;
sometimes output is prevented entirely. And Vista continuously spends
CPU time monitoring itself, trying to figure out if you're doing
something that it thinks you shouldn't. If it does, it limits
functionality and in extreme cases restarts just the video subsystem.
We still don't know the exact details of all this, and how far-reaching
it is, but it doesn't look good....
Unfortunately, we users are caught in the crossfire. We are not only
stuck with DRM systems that interfere with our legitimate fair-use
rights for the content we buy, we're stuck with DRM systems that
interfere with all of our computer use--even the uses that have nothing
to do with copyright....
In the meantime, the only advice I can offer you is to not upgrade
We have about 50 computers in the company and I have banned everyone from upgrading to Vista. I have studied Vista and there is nothing there that helps my business, and a lot that hurts it (e.g. higher initial price and much higher system requirements.) If we upgraded, we might have to replace half our old ink jet printers just because the manufacturers are really unlikely to write Vista drivers for them. We have 4 Dell's in the closet with XP loaded. After those are used up, I will build all the future computers myself. I have several OEM copies of XP on the shelf (less than 1/2 price of the Vista retail upgrade) and I will buy more if it looks like they are going to stop selling it. I would switch everyone to Linux, except most of my employees are not very computer savvy and its just too hard to get them all trained. I will probably only buy Vista for one box, which is my gaming machine at home, and even that is at least a year away before anyone has a killer DirectX 10 game I have to have.
Well, I had a number of emails asking for the specifics of my computer build, so all you non-geeks can move on. Hopefully I will get a post up on the USA Today putting for-gods-sakes ethanol on the front page of today's paper. Anyway, here is my computer build components:
- ASUS A8N-SLI Premium motherboard. This basic motherboard platform is rock-solid. The premium version mainly brings a quieter heat-pipe design to cool the mobo chipset and a software rather than hardware switch for single to dual SLI. It is one of the better overclocking platforms, with good BIOS options. It has a couple of quirks, probably the most important of which is that it tends not to like RAM in 4 sticks -- better to use two. I chose not to use the newer A8N32-SLI, which is supposed to increase the bandwidth when 2 SLI cards are used. However, I think the Nvidia chipset for this was rushed (to please Dell) and tests show its not necessarily faster, even with 2 SLI cards, than the one I bought. Also, I wanted to shy away from bleeding edge for my first build
- AMD 64 Athlon X2 (dual core) 4400+ microprocessor. This is the 2.2Ghz Toledo core with the larger cache. As I mentioned yesterday, its a notch or two less fast than the top of the line, which tends to be a better value. And the consensus opinion is that AMD is dusting Intel right now. I got the large cache because you can always overclock but you can't overcache. The dual core is clearly the wave of the future, and more games and programs will support it in the future. I was a bit worried that I would have some compatibility problems at first, but I have had none, even on Star Wars Battlefront 2, which was reported to have a compatibility issue with dual core
- 2 gigs of memory from Corsair, in 2 1GB sticks. Corsair is a top company in memory. I can't tell you how many people struggle to overclock their PC a few percent but have too little memory. Tests show even going from 1 to 2 gigs shows real results. I got the Twinx-2048-4000. I debated between lower speed (ddr 400), lower latency memory and higher speed (ddr 500) higher latency memory. I went with the latter, hoping that it was better for overclocking, but this is one issue not well addressed online. The answer is probably here, but I decided it would not matter that much for me. If you go with 512K sticks rather than 1 Gb sticks there are more options for memory that is both low latency and higher ddr.
- I wanted to try my hand at overclocking, so I wanted a good CPU fan. Zalman has a lot of great products, so I went with the CNPS9500, which looks cool too. Its quiet and keeps the cpu ice cold. It looks huge but it fit fine.
- I may have made a mistake on the case. I went with an Aspire X-Navigator, which is cool looking and keeps everything cool inside but is loud. I might next time research for a quieter case.
- I splurged and went with dual SLI, because I love games, and bought two evga 7800GT sli cards. I never really understood the variations in their 7800GT cards - some variations of memory speed, I think. The nvidia sli chipset right now blows anything else away - it is the ONLY choice for gaming. A pair of GTX's would have cost me $400 more. Again, I find the best price-value point a step or two below top-of-the-line. I didn't realize until later that DirectX 10 will be a pretty substantial upgrade, which will require new chips to support it. That means that if you are a gamer, you will probably want a new card in 12-18 months. Knowing this, I certainly wouldn't pay for GTX right now and might have only gone with one rather than 2 cards.
- I bought a couple of 250Gig Seagate SATA 3gb/s hard drives and put them in a raid 0 configuration. This makes a 500 gig hard drive that is fast as hell. This is cheaper than buying a single 500 gig and it is faster, but it will be less reliable since data is "striped" across the two drives, so that if either fails, you lose ALL the data. Because of this issue, I bought a smaller 160 gig drive that runs separately as a backup for my data. By the way, this was the one issue I had with my install. Basically I had to leave this 160 gig drive unplugged until I get windows installed on the raid 0 drives and make them bootable, or else the system would get confused. Once windows was installed on the raid drives and was bootable, then I plugged in the third drive and partitioned it and all was well.
- Power supplies seem to be a nightmare in terms of failure rates. I use a 650 watt Silverstone Zeus and it has been fine and it had all the cables I needed. Note you need at least 500 watt and probably 600 if you are going dual sli.
- Other components include a fast NEC DVD read-write drive (whichever one was highest rated on newegg), a floppy drive (you HAVE to have one to load the drivers for this self build if you are using a raid drive array) and a nifty little drive that accepts all kinds of memory cards on the front panel. And windows of course.
This article on the Corsair web site provides an outstanding walk-through of how to build and set up your PC, demonstrably sufficient for even the noob since it got me through it. I actually found this after I bought my components so I was happy to see that the component selection in the article for a high-performance gaming box was very similar to mine. I also have the logitech cordless keyboard and mouse shown and love those too.
Update: In response to the question in the comments, this build cost about $2000, which is expensive for a desktop, except that I expect to get much longer life out of this thing with performance that stays top notch for a while and many upgrade paths. It might have been more but several parts were on weekend sale at newegg and others had cross-promotions (i.e. if you buy the AMD procesor and the evga card you get an extra $30 off). Also note that this is a very competitive system to gaming rigs (e.g. Alienware) costing over $4000. You could take a few steps to bring this under $1500: One 6800 GT rather than two 7800GT graphic cards would save almost $400. One graphics card would let you save about $50 or more in the power supply, and you could easily get a good case for $50-$75 less. Making these subs would get you a very very good rig for under $1500. Dropping down a notch on the CPU could save another $200. Smaller hard drive capacity could save $100-150, though hard drives are so cheap, I think it is short-sighted not to overdo it a bit. I still remember my first hard drive card for my original IBM PC. It was 10 meg, and my thought was "I'll never be able to fill that much memory". LOL.
The build time was probably 8 hours, including windows installation and disk formatting. This includes three false starts: one, when I thought the power supply was bad but I had just forgotten to hook up the on/off signal wire; two, when the floppy drive actually was bad and I had to run to compUSA to get a new one; and three, when I struggled, as mentioned above, to get windows installed with the hard drive configuration I had chosen. If everything had gone smoothly, I could easily have done it in 4-5 hours.
Did I mention I love this rig? Its like the geek version of showing up to your high school reunion in a Ford GT.