November 24, 2010

Wherein I Consider Hardware

As a GUI software engineer I like to forget about there being hardware under there, but I'd be remiss if I didn't go into detail about building a new computer. I suppose it's only half new, since I'm reusing some components and all of the peripherals from my first home-build 3 summers ago, but it's going to be a whole new system from a functional perspective. Not to mention vastly more powerful. First, a bit of history.

I bought my laptop, a shiny HP HDX 16t, before starting grad school last summer, and put the faithful desktop into temporary storage. I had always assumed that I would pull it back out and give it a little upgrade, but after finding that my laptop's specs were superior in every way I knew it would take a full system overhaul to make it worthwhile.

There's nothing wrong with my laptop as far as laptops go (in fact, as a gaming/multimedia powerhouse it's far more than what I really needed), but while a laptop is great for student life it just doesn't cut it for sitting down to hours of serious work (read: gaming). It gets too hot under a heavy load, even with a cooling pad, and I need an awkwardly placed external monitor to get any serious screen acreage, which just adds to the heat problem. Plus it takes all kinds of rigging up to make it into a good workstation, which adds a lot of hassle when you want to just grab it and go. By the time I got settled in to my new place I was missing the classic desktop experience, but I had also gotten used to Windows 7 with 4Gb of memory. So I had plans for a major upgrade. Nothing serious yet, I was just scoping out the current technology and pricing some options.

But then the desktop had some problems. See, this "temporary storage" I mentioned wasn't ideal. When I moved off to grad school I left it in my parents' care. When they moved, they left it, along with most of their stuff, with my grandparents. My grandparents left it in their garage. I found it packed up just as I had left it, but perched precariously on the edge of a makeshift table in a hot, humid, dusty garage with some water stains on the bottom of the box. I don't know what, if anything, actually caused the problems. But the environment couldn't have helped.

At first I couldn't get output from the video card, and was miles and years from the nearest VGA cable. Then there was the issue of automatically booting into an expired Windows 7 beta, and not recognizing my wireless USB keyboard. After much mucking about with the CMOS and just about everything else I had it more or less up and running, and even online after some profane dealings with the most rage-inducing wifi dongle in human history (courtesy of Verizon). But then it started with the BSODs as I tried to clean it up, which were traced to potential hard drive corruption and/or damage*, meaning that a reinstall of the OS would probably be necessary. And you don't reinstall Windows now if you're going to be replacing a bunch of hardware soon.

I could have just stuck with the laptop for a while- and in fact I've been getting along just fine for over a year. But when you're a computer person, there's just something wrong with having a good but broken system laying around taking up space. Fortunately, by the time I got to this point it was almost (Black) November, and that means lots of sales at Newegg.

It took a lot of comparing, second-guessing, and betting against the volatile and unpredictable daily deals, but I finally settled on the following:

Asus M4A79XTD EVO AM3 ATX motherboard (replacing Gigabyte S3 AM2)
AMD Phenom II X6 1075T 3.0GHz 6-core CPU (replacing Athlon 64 X2 2.4GHz)
Kingston 6Gb DDR3-1600 SDRAM (replacing Crucial 2Gb DDR2-800)
Kingston 30Gb SATAII SSD (complementing Samsung 500Gb SATAII HDD)
Gigabyte GeForce GTX460 1Gb 715MHz video card (replacing GeForce 9500GT 1Gb)

That's in addition to my current case, power supply, hard drive (for primary storage; the SSD is for Windows and page file partitions only), DVD burner, and peripherals. A new (larger, HD) monitor, dual replacement hard drives*, and possibly a Blu-ray player will come later, unless I come across more deals that are too good to pass up- which is likely. I haven't counted up how much I theoretically saved by grabbing each item at the right time, but I'll get close to $100 back in promotional cards, credit card rewards, and rebates (assuming they're honored). I'm even getting a free H.A.W.X. 2 game coupon out of the deal. It's a good month to build a machine.

* Yes, I realize that I'm facing hard drive failure and yet replacing everything but the hard drive. The SSD will serve as the system partition, with the HDD holding application data. I can clone it to a new drive later, or if it crashes then no big deal. I'd rather not throw out the hard drive if I don't need to; unlike the other components it's in not inferior to what I'd be buying, except for remaining lifetime- which I'd actually be extending by putting off the replacement. If it does turn out that it's beyond saving then I can get by with my eSATA external drive until I get a new one(s). I'm thinking twin 320Gb, since I'm not a big file hoarder.

I'm still collecting all of the parts. I'm waiting on a promotional coupon code before I buy the video card, and the CPU is still en route. The rest are laying around my living room. Unfortunately I won't be able to put it together before I head home for Thanksgiving, so the moment of truth will have to wait until next week. I'll post again when it's up and running. Criticize my choices in the comments!

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