Exclusive In Depth News Feature: How to build the ultimate gaming PC from scratch

The Feedster

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Jun 26, 2007
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Lately in the course of my professional life as a videogames reviewer, I've been experiencing some pangs of guilt. My ancient PC, cobbled together inadvisably from a Shuttle kit, has become so creaky and antediluvian that it's not worth even trying to get modern games to run on it.

The solution? In the absence of enough cash to buy a PC with any level of future-proofing, I decided to build what I hoped would be pretty much the ultimate gaming PC from scratch.

An utterly foolhardy plan.

Burgeoning Dabs addiction

The idea was in part generated by my burgeoning addiction to dabs.com, which is like the whole of Tottenham Court Road rolled into one website. I would make a wish-list, circulate it to friends and family, and see who bought which components for Christmas or my birthday, then buy any missing bits myself. Dabs didn't exactly assist me in this aim: its Wishlist function is far too rudimentary (it doesn't cross out items when someone buys them). Dabs should basically scrap it and copy Amazon's one.

Cutting to the chase, I gradually assembled the components. At least as far as getting what you want is concerned, dabs.com can't be faulted. I settled on a hulking Antec P182 case (the small size of the Shuttle, and therefore absence of room for expansion cards or ability to accommodate a normal-sized motherboard, undoubtedly shortened its effective life) and a fairly beefy 520W power-supply - a Corsair Memory 520W, to be precise. Although there are plenty of higher-power ones on sale - but power supplies are surprisingly expensive, despite their unglamorous status.

Power is surprisingly important when you're looking to build a fire-breathing monster of a PC, especially if overclocking and multi-GPU graphics are on the agenda. Not to mention the fans - the Antec case has three built in, plus an optional one. Like the power supply, the importance of cooling in a fast PC cannot be understated. Although I could feel my green credentials going up in a puff of dirty black smoke.

Rip-snorting Intel processor

The motherboard is obviously the heart of any PC and the single most important component, so I made my selection carefully. I knew I could get hold of the latest rip-snorting Intel processor from the chip-giant's inestimable press office, so it would have to be a Socket 775-based motherboard - Socket 775 was designed to accommodate microprocessors that Intel hasn't yet invented. And I wanted the option of installing more than one graphics card, operating in tandem.

Trawling dabs.com, I found Asus' Maximus Extreme Republic Of Gamers, which came with a high-end, proprietary sound card that wouldn't take up an expansion slot as well as two high-speed LAN sockets. It would tie me into using ATI, rather than nVidia-based graphics cards, as it supports the former's Crossfire standard rather than the latter's SLI, but I decided that would be no great hardship. Although SLI boards are more common.

Components began arriving (although it must be said that dabs.com's delivery is a bit erratic, and components sometimes go out of stock unexpectedly, leading to delays and a welter of database-generated automatic emails).

First the case: grey, ugly and stupendously practical: just the ticket - if you want to pay extra for something that looks like a wide-boy's souped-up Vauxhall, you're an idiot. Then the brick-like power supply, which was easy enough to screw in securely, but annoyingly hard to access when screwed in.

Like playing with Meccano

And I discovered that I had to think about what power connections were required - the power supply (thankfully, as it turned out) came with a fistful of different ones. SATA-style connectors for hard disk and CD-rewriter, two hardwired connectors for the motherboard, and a chained connector for the fans (for the sake of ease and lack of spaghetti-wiring, I decided to eschew connecting the fans to the motherboard for fine control, and just use the switches on the case to put them on the Low setting). Then there was the PCI Express-16 connector for the graphics card. The processor fan would draw power from the motherboard.

Right: time to install the motherboard - a simple task involving a number of screws. Then: ensure the input/output bank and sound card were properly attached to the case, followed by trawling through the motherboard manual, connecting myriad things like the case's LEDs (for which Asus makes a handy adaptor, rendering this task less fiddly). All elementary stuff, not unlike playing with Meccano.

Processor installation was dead easy, too: open the lid over the slot, push out the plastic flap, drop the processor in (it will only fit in one orientation), close and lock the lid. The processor Intel supplied, incidentally, is a Quad Core 2 Extreme QX9650 - although, currently, games can't adequately take advantage of quad- core processors, hopefully DirectX 11 will address that.

At just over £600, the processor was way the most expensive component - but it is the latest addition to Intel's desktop processor line-up, and you might be better advised to opt for a cheaper Core 2 Quad or even Duo. It came with no cooler, so I bought one (with a fan) from Tottenham Court Road for twenty quid. The four fragile plastic feet were a bit fiddly to fit. Two 4Gb OCS DDR2 RAM boards were easy to fit, although they had to be put in the correct two slots (of four) in order to operate as dual- channel memory.

Consider a Blu-ray reader

In went the peripherals: Pioneer 20X DVD +/-RW rewriter (almost indecently cheap at £16.53; Blu-ray readers are now around £100, so you might want to consider them) and Seagate Barracuda 7200.1500Mb 7200rpm hard disk.

The former required spacers (supplied with the case); the latter didn't. Incidentally, you can now get 10,000rpm hard disks, which will be faster to access, but they are vastly more expensive and as far as hard disks are concerned, tried and tested technology is surely the way to go - you don't want the heartache of a head-crash.

And finally, it was time to install the graphics card. ATI, bless them, had sent me a monster - a Radeon 3870X2 with a built-in fan and a red plastic which is so fat it takes up two slots. It was easily the trickiest thing to fit, requiring much jiggling around of wires (even after tidying up various SATA connectors and removing two unused cages for floppy disk drives or the like). There was far too much cableage around the lower PCI Express-16 slot, so I used the upper one, but even that, in such a massive case, was a tight squeeze given the enormousness of the card.

The Radeon dream card

Not that one should complain, as the Radeon 3870X2 is every games PC-builder's dream: it's pretty much the first graphics card with two graphics processing units (GPUs), so it's effectively two cards in one, and from an initial price of £300 (several OEMs make them), it has already come down to under £250. On installation, I had cause to thank the modular nature of the power supply: the Radeon 3870X2 requires either two six-pin power connectors or one eight-pin.

Indeed, if you have a motherboard that supports ATI's Crossfire standard - designed to get multi-GPU setups operating properly - and two PCI Express-16 expansion slots, you could install two of the cards, making a four-GPU setup. Theoretically. I couldn't do that in my PC because of the lack of clearance around the bottom slot. Unless I substituted a case with a lot of clearance below the expansion slots or the hole for the power supply in a different place.

The moral? Look very carefully at the layout of the case you buy, and try to visualise it with a motherboard inside it. Look for photos of it containing all its gubbins, if possible.

And the PC was complete - except, obviously, for a screen and a keyboard/mouse combo. Dabs.com proved to be very good at selling slightly obsolete, frill-free Microsoft wireless keyboard/mouse combos at stupidly cheap prices (I selected a Wireless Optical Desktop 700 at £24.66), and it must be the cheapest place in the country for TFT screens: £105.26 will get you a HannsG 19-inch wide-screen, and the site's TFT prices come down all the time (often in the form of special offers).

One thing to look out for on a flat-panel is the presence of a DVI socket: the Radeon 3870X2 came with two DVI-outs, although it did come with a DVI-to-normal-monitor-cable adaptor. Infinitely preferable to make use of the DVI, though.

Fire her up!

First firing up of your new PC is anxious to say the least - if it's going erupt in smoke, that's when it will do it. But when you enter that BIOS for the first time, it's deeply satisfying - indeed, a tad emotional when you've built your beast from scratch. I felt smug on two counts - because the PC worked, and also because I had opted for a motherboard designed with overclocking in mind.

Not that I've turned anything up in the BIOS yet - much more sensible to install the software you want, use the PC for a while to establish its solidity, and then gradually start cranking up clock-speeds.

If you make one incremental change at a time, and your PC starts hanging, it's easy to go back to the previous setting to achieve stability. Resist the temptation to turn everything up like an Essex boy with an after-market turbocharger kit.

What, then did I learn building a PC from scratch?

1. Choose your motherboard very carefully - think ahead about what you'll be using the PC for in the future as well as the present. Pay particular attention to graphics card setups, processor upgradability and openness to overclocking.

2. Get a big case - and pay particular attention to clearance around PCI Express-16 slots.

3. Screw being green: get a beefy power-supply, and make sure it's modular, so you can plug in whatever connectors you need.

4. Don't necessarily blow half your budget on the fastest processor available - processor prices come down, and they are physically easy to upgrade. Far beter to max your budget on the motherboard.

Good luck!

Steve's PC

Case: Antec P182 Advanced Super Mid Tower: £91.63

Motherboard: Asus Maximus Extreme Republic Of Gamers: £183.30

Power supply: Corsair Memory 520W: £63.09

Processor: Intel Quad Core 2 Extreme QX9650: £602.26

Hard disk: Seagate Barracuda 7200.1 500GB: £46.98

DVD-rewriter: Pioneer 20X DVD+/-RW: £16.53

Graphics card: Asustek Radeon 3870X2 1Gb: £245.00

Input: Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop 700: £24.66

Monitor: HannsG 19-inch Wide-screen: £105.26

Total cost: £1378.71

Cost without processor or graphics card: £531.45