Quick and Dirty Hardware Buyer's Guide

Here at PCTechbytes we receive a lot of posts in the Forums and in the comments of articles about purchasing new hardware.  Each time it is a specific “how much RAM should I get for this”, “I need a new Hard Drive for my HP”, “I’m looking for a new Power Supply for my Dell”, and the like.  You have to treat each instance with its own unique approach when it comes to ordering new or used components for a system or brand new build.  You have to take into account what parts will play nice with all of the other parts.  Motherboards only like certain types and speeds of RAM and Processors, Power Supplies must be so big to cover all of the power requirements of the entire system and have some left over for addition USB and Firewire attached devices; Cases come in a variety of sizes of which can only house certain components, and video cards will only fit a certain slot type and speed.

Purpose Of This Hardware Guide

The goal of this article is to shed a little light on the subject of purchasing new or used parts for an existing system or new build.  It will only cover the basics and some subtle “rule of thumb” scenarios but should instill some insight into the who, whats, and whys of computer building.  I will try to tackle each component of high priority in its own section.

Power Supplies


If we are talking in terms of the human body, the power supply is the heart of it all.  As our heart supplies freshly oxygenated blood to all areas of the body, the PSU supplies “fresh” energy to all parts of the computer.  Without a fully functioning Power Supply, all sorts of hell can break loose.  Some times troubleshooting these can be a breeze when it simply wont power up or a nightmare when they fail and take multiple parts with them.  A tech’s best friend in these situations is the Power Supply Tester and/or a multimeter.

An old rule of thumb when it comes to buying a PSU is weight.  If you picked it up and it was extremely light, run in fright.  Smaller wattage PSUs wouldn’t need the heavier wattage Caps or Inductors and the lightness of it was likened to cheaper versions of internal components.  This was a decent way to go about avoiding the lower quality PSUs in favor of the better, named brand, power supplies.  But now days the majority of computer components are purchased online.  I doubt most places will ship you one to compare like melons at the grocery store so we need to be a little more wise to the whats, who’s, and hows of the power supply in question.

If you are going to buy a power supply for your system, you already have all of the other components figured out.  Our first step would be to calculate how much power we are going to need to provide to run our build.  Have a look at Thermaltake’s Power Requirements website and we can see a baseline for what we will need.  You can enter all different fields in here to sum up your build.  Try to be as close to what you will have as possible and always choose a PSU above the minimum required.  I usually shoot at least 50W over what they recommend because you never know what you’ll connect via Firewire or USB.  Seasonic, OCZ mid to high end supplies, Corsair Enthusiast Series and their high end units, and anything made by Antec above the Basiq series are what is generally considered as good to great power supplies.

There are a few other exceptions out there, but if we were going to go over each PSU one by one and compare, this article would take years to complete and never be finished.  So as I said, these brands mentioned are proven to myself and most of the community to be steadfast and reliable, but to each his own.

Cases


If you didn’t think you needed to be concerned about which case you bought, you couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Case design is what allows for airflow over all of the integral components as well as overall placement of said items.  You don’t want all of your hard drives smashed together with no fan in front pulling air in over them or your processor, video card and high end PSU to be all cooking in their own generated heat. You want airflow to keep your components cool.  Just like an engine in a car, electronics run better the cooler you can keep them.

So lets look at case design.

Check out this Corsair Case, this Cooler Master one, and this Antec 900 beauty.  Peek at the pictures and the details section of each of them.  Notice anything similar between these cases?  Multiple front intake fans between 90 and 120mm with a 120mm exhaust fan and optional venting or cooling from the side panel.  The Corsair has filtering as well but we can get into dust and dirt particles another time.  Also, look where the PSU is mounted in these cases–on the bottom.  These cases are engineered to have airflow in mind and designed to allow the maximum amount through to cool all your goodies.  The Obsidian has a total of 10 120 – 140 mm fan spots in case of extreme overclocking as well, and its beautiful!

All lightheartedness aside, we have all purchased a $30 case only to find it poorly designed, including no fans or filters, sharp edges, and flimsy chassis and panels.  These are good for a generic run-of-the-mill Internet use,  but not for hardcore PC enthusiasts.  If you are going to put $1000 worth of hardware in a $30 case, you must not like your hardware very much.  High-dollar equipment puts out a lot of heat under duress.  That heat has to dissipate, otherwise you are spelling disaster.

And never use a PSU that comes free with a case, there is a reason it was free.

Hard Drive


Since the hurricane and tsunami seasons of 2011 tormented most of the hard drive manufacturing plants overseas, hard drives have risen a lot in price.  We are starting to see a little dip in pricing and should be back to where we were by fall, but now more than ever you need to understand what you are buying when it comes to the HDD.  This will not cover Solid State Drives although most of the same principles apply to them as well.  Whether you are going to use these in a RAID or solo, you need to know what it is you are buying.  The easiest part for all to understand is the size aspect.  The majority of hard drives on sale now are 250 and 500GB(gigabytes) or 1 to 2TB(terabytes).  As we are all aware, that just tells us how much information we can store on them.  What about the other fun numbers that accompany a hard drive’s specs?  Lets look at the WD Caviar Black for example.  The most important thing to look at is the interface listing.  This particular model is a SATA type and rated for 6.0.  SATA 6.0 is the third revision of the SATA architecture, also commonly referred to as SATA III.  The majority of lower mid-range to cheapest hard drives will be SATA 3.0(revision 2).  The 6.0 runs about 600MB/s which is twice as fast as the 3.0.  You need to double check which type of ports your motherboard has before buying.  If your motherboard only has 3.0 ports, it makes no sense to spend the extra money on a 6.0 when it will still run at the slower port speed.

RPM(revolutions per minute) of the drive is the next big deal.  The above drive is rated at 7200RPM and is considered a good speed for a desktop PC.  The four main speeds are 5400, 7200, 10000, and 15000RPM with the 10000 and 15000 being used mainly for server hard drives and the 5400 as of late for Green Drives.  The RPM is the rotational speed of the platter which affects Read times and rotational latency.  Basically if you want a quicker drive, regardless of power consumption and heat dissipated, go with 7200RPM and above.

Finally, Cache size is the last and least important aspect of the PC.  While many think that the high cache is the reason why a HDD performs well, they are mistaken.  Realistically, a cache of 16MB is going to perform minimally worse than a 32 or 64MB drive in the eyes of a PC user.  This is a very cheap area for a drive manufacturer to add very minimal performance gain but sounds good and looks good on the box.  Seek time is more important than your cache size.  Check out most WD Raptors and you will see generally smaller cache sizes, around 16-32, even though they are considered one of the fastest drives.

There are basically 2 major HDD manufacturer’s left, Western Digital and Seagate.  Toshiba only makes laptop style drives and the rest of the companies were bought out by these two main players as Seagate bought Samsung at the end of last year and WD bought Hitachi earlier.  Some will still argue that WD has better quality than Hitachi (both the same company now), but the money is all going the same way.  My personal preference is WD Black series drives, but being in this business I have seen each of them fail and succeed in different scenarios.

RAM


Let’s take a look at this example:  You have a motherboard with 4 open slots for RAM.  This motherboard can handle up to 8GB of RAM.  You plan on putting 4GB in it now so you have room to upgrade latter.  What configuration of RAM is the best for this situation regardless of Brand or speeds? Do you go with 2 sticks of 2GB RAM @ $45, 1 stick of 4GB RAM at $42, or 4 sticks of 1GB RAM @ $40?  Some people would say whatever is the cheapest although they may be missing out on a little tidbit.

Look at it physically first.

If you go with the 4 x 1GB sticks, you have no room for upgrading and would either have to replace all the sticks on upgrade time or be left with 2 x 1GB of old, possibly slower RAM and then add 6GB of newer, faster RAM which could have compatibility issues with the older memory.  Checking out the electrical side of the equation, your motherboard has to supply power to all 4 slots with the 4 x 1GB scenario which exerts way more power than the 1 or 2 slots needed for the other pairings.  With the 1 x 4GB stick, you miss out on the dual channel capacity of most newer RAM which some experts claim to be between a 4% and 8% loss of possible efficiency and speed.  So the best overall choice in this instance would be the 2 x 2GB because it allows you to only use 2 slots, can be dual channeled for max efficiency, and can be paired with another dual channel set.  If we were maxing out the memory on the motherboard the first go around, this would be a little different ending.

Now that we know what pairing we will use, lets get into the RAM specifics for when the purchasing occurs.  Every motherboard will have its tolerances of what RAM it can take.  It will list how many slots it has, max memory supported, and memory speeds it can handle.  Always consult this before buying to make sure your memory will pair with your motherboard.  Take a look at this Crucial RAM.  Since most PCs use DDR3 RAM now we will focus just on that although these same topics should cover the basis for the older RAM as well.  DDR3 is said to run about 30% less power than DDR2 in that the majority run at 1.5V, as this stick does.  The speed of the memory is listed as DDR3 1866/PC 14900.  What this means is the maximum memory clock speed is 1866MHz(half of this number is the real time max speed), with a max data rate of 14900MB/s.  So basically the higher those numbers, the faster your RAM as long as your motherboard supports running at these higher speeds.  For this simple walkthrough, we will just say that the lower the CAS latency, the faster the unit will be in general.  The Timing is listed at 9-9-9-27 which is just a combination of the CAS latency and Row cycle times of the physical memory chips on the RAM.  These settings can usually be tweaked in the BIOS when attempting to get greater performance or greater stability.  This is a 240 pin configuration which basically just means its for a DDR3 motherboard.

The biggest thing I look for in RAM is the warranty.  Most of the good brands serve up a lifetime warranty such as Crucial, Kingston, and Patriot.  I can specifically speak for Crucial and Kingston as having decent customer support in this area.  Mainly pay attention to what specs your motherboard can handle and go from there.

Video Card


There are basically two schools of Graphics Cards, ones powered by the nVidia chipset and those with the ATI (now owned by AMD) chip.  This is the one area that it is almost impossible to give a generic comb-over because this is truly a situational part.  Most people could probably do with the simple onboard graphics that come with most motherboards and see no real advantage to a video card.  Those that do need one have to be aware of what overall specs they need.  If your going to play Minecraft, you don’t need a $600 video card as you well could with The Old Republic on the highest settings.

We are going to hit a couple of light points that you will need to consider when buying a card for use.

Maximum resolution is a decent place to start.  If you went out and bought 90″ LED PLASMA LCD VOLCANO ROCK DIAMOND ENCRUSTED TV (got carried away) which has great resolution, you don’t want to pick up a cheap video card that isn’t capable of achieving that resolution.  Give this a quick glance just to be sure but most mid range to upper cards should do anything you need.  The 3D API(3-Dimensional Application Programming Interface) section is important to gander at as well if you are playing the latest and greatest games.  If your card is stuck with DirectX 10 and your game requires 11, oops you bough the wrong card.  Also a side note, the OpenGL((Open Graphics Library) is used in programs such as Solidworks and MasterCam for rendering their drawings as well as some games.  For the mentioned programs, you are supposed to use a Workstation card which is designed for that but they are ridiculously expensive.  I’ve gotten away with using a standard desktop card with a high OpenGL version without much tinkering.  If you are planning on running SLI or Crossfire, you would need to make sure your card could handle it.  Finally, deciding how you want to interface it to your monitor, via HDMI, DVI, or VGA connections which depends on how clear you want your video to be.  The rest of the terminology is based on the type of graphics processor, its speed, how much onboard memory it has, and how it is powered up.  If you buy a high end card that requires additional power, make sure your power supply can handle it and has the connections to do so.

The top of the line performers consist of EVGA, Asus, and Gigabyte with some mid range performers of MSI and Sapphire.  It all depends on what application you are using it for and what needs you have of your video card.  Just buying the biggest and baddest might not be the most cost effective strategy.

Processor/Heatsink


AMD or Intel?  The debate rages on till this day.  Since I gave the Intel the pic for the section, I will use an AMD as my example.  The FX-8120 Zambei is a monster of a CPU.  But what makes it so special.  Let’s dive into the numbers and see why.  Starting off at 3.1GHz is good ground work.  Having 8 cores is way more than the average person could ever need or tax under a minor workload.   Hell even an extreme PC gamer would have trouble maxing this bad boy out.  8MB cache on the L2 and L3, that is some decent cache memory.

But what does that all mean?  Being an 8 core processor means it has essentially 8 tiny processors in one.  Old processors were only single core and would have to result to multi-processor pairing to do the increased workload.  This can do that all in one chip.  Basically the more cores, the better data processing of software designed to use the multi-core design.  The 3.1GHz number is the clock speed of the processor created by a crystal inside it.  This speed allows it a little over three billion cycles/second.  That’s pretty fast.  Same thinking here that higher clock speed equals faster processor.  L2 and L3 cache function similar to the cache in the HDD listed above.  It stores some data there allowing for quicker retrieval and faster overall computing.  Also need to peek at the Socket type to make sure it will fit in your motherboard.  This being a AM3+ allows it to fit in most newer AMD style motherboards.  Finally, the wattage shows how much power the processor is going to use.  This stat is important for two reasons.  One, it will help us in determining how big a power supply we will need.  Two, it will give us a light on how warm the CPU will run.  Generally, the higher the wattage, the more heat dissipated.  You can always use a large cooling heatsink to counteract a warmer processor.  Two other things I pay close attention to would be does it have 64 bit support for 64 bit OS and does it support Virtualization Technology.  Most wont have to worry about the latter unless you use Virtual Machines on any kind of basis.

Motherboard


The glue that holds the PC together and allows everything to talk to each other.  If you want an information overload, look at the specs on one of these.  The Asus p8P67 Deluxe is a Cadillac of a motherboard equipped with it all.  But what things should we all check in depth?  Well for starters, do you plan on using any new USB 3.0 devices.  If so, you want to make sure that the board has some USB 3.0 compatible slots, otherwise you will be running your new expensive device at the slower 2.0 speeds.  Also, how many USB ports will you need?  Next, what type of HDD are you going to use?  If a new SATA 6.0, better make sure you have SATA III ports or see the USB issue for details on how that will go.  Most video cards are PCI Express x 16, just notice if the video card you are buying can suBopport the newer 2.0 or 3.0 and you will gain a little extra in video performance.  The CPU socket type is for what style Processor can fit into the motherboard.  The CPU type is for what model processors in the socket type family it can use.  Do you need onboard HD audio or do you plan on getting a sound card?  Do you need eSATA, firewire, LAN, or PS/2 ports?  All that can be found in the spec sheet as well.  Time to see what RAM your board can support.  This one states 2200 down to 1066MHz of DDR3 with a max of 32GB and 4 total slots to install it into.  You can use the above memory info to choose how and what size you will install.  Finally, the Form Factor designates what size the board is physically and what cases it can fit into.  ATX, micro ATX, or form factor.  This is important so you don’t get too big of a motherboard for your case.

When purchasing a quality motherboard, once again the main name brands usually come out on top.  Asus and Gigabyte are the front runners when it comes to overall quality while if Im building a cheap PC, I am also fond of Biostar but they do have less quality control then the other two.

One thing I’ll never understand is why you would drop a lot of money on an expensive video card, RAM and processor if you are going to stick it in a $45 motherboard.  You wont be able to use the others to their full potential if the board is holding them back.

Hardware Buyer’s Guide Summary

The examples given in this article are just for viewing and comparison only.  I didn’t pick out parts that are made to be used in a single build which is evident by the AMD processor and the Intel socketed motherboard.  Just to make sure no one takes the example pieces and tries to make a PC out of them collectively.  Each of the parts to your new or used build needs to be analyzed deeply to check for compatibility and to make sure you are getting the most performance out of your parts.  Anyone can throw parts together and hope it works as we have seen but it takes some diligence on the builders part to know it all will function together happily for many years.  Try staying away from the cheapest parts available as they are cheap for a reason.  Always do some background searching on the parts you are looking to buy to make sure there isn’t an outstanding issue with it.  Look deeper than the Newegg reviews as most of them are posted by people with little actual tech experience.  Check on the manufacturer’s site and Google or Bing your way around to see if there is a common issue.

If you have learned anything from this lengthy article, let it be that preparation goes a long way into keeping out hassles and limiting the amount of troubleshooting you will need to do on a new build.  Now go out there and build you a beast!