Neither can we assemble a smartphone, nor can we configure the components of our tablet. But you still can custom build and configure your own desktop PC. This post is to celebrate the joy of configuring a new PC, written for non-technical users.
Since I started using PCs in the late 1980s with DOS, I have used custom built PCs. I have never purchased branded PCs, nor used a Mac Pro. I get a deep fulfillment from configuring my own PC.
I am not a hardware expert who can assemble PC components himself, so I get a hardware engineer to do that. I love the flexibility of being able to selectively upgrade a specific component, and get the hardware engineer to ‘buy back’ the older component for him to sell in the local market. This enables one to always have the latest and best PC components without having to wait several years to get a new PC. Running low on storage? Replace your HDD with twice the capacity. Need a bigger monitor? Replace it. Want better graphics performance? Upgrade your graphics card.
When I started researching online about upgrading to Intel Haswell, I read through zillions of posts:
- Articles for dummies that did not have enough technical depth
- Articles that were presumably intended for mainstream users but assumed basic knowledge of motherboards, PC components, and how one goes about assembling a PC
- Articles that were highly technical, too intimidating for average users, discussing evolution of Intel architecture of Ivy Bridge vs. Haswell, chipset comparisons, etc.
Hence this guide for regular, mainstream users like me.
To begin configuring your new PC, choose in this order:
- Storage: RAM, SSD/HDD, Optical Drive
- Graphics Card
- Cabinet and Power Supply
- Peripherals: Monitor(s), Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers
The sequence is important as each step depends on the previous one.
Intel CPUs come in 3 variants: the i7, i5, and i3. The i7 is the most powerful, i3 the least.
If you compile software, do video processing, render complex graphics, or are a heavy gamer, you need the i7. For mainstream PC usage, the i5 is more than adequate. Don’t overestimate the role of the CPU: for generic PC usage not involving those described earlier, an i7 would be indistinguishable from an i5. It is wiser to spend the differential cost in other components to make your PC ‘faster’.
Intel GENERATIONS: Ivy Bridge vs. Haswell
Ivy Bridge was Intel’s 3rd generation, Haswell is Intel’s latest 4th generation. Do you need Haswell for your desktop PC? Does Haswell bring significant advantages to desktop or is it only an enhancement for mobile? You can spend days researching this. A 3rd generation i7 will still deliver higher performance than a 4th generation i5.
For me, the decision is simple. If Intel will support 3rd generation for X years in the future, it will support the 4th generation for X+Z years in the future.
If the ‘support in future’ aspect doesn’t matter much, here’s the lowdown: Yes, Haswell has several enhancements for the desktop too, and it is worth using Haswell for desktop PCs rather than Ivy Bridge.
CPU OVERCLOCKING: THE ‘K’ FACTOR
Overclocking is driving your car at a higher speed than its max speed limit.
If you are reading this guide, you are probably a mainstream user like me. I don’t overclock, which keeps things pretty simple.
Each Intel CPU comes with a ‘K’ variant that allows hard-core gamers to overclock them. If you are not going to overclock your CPU, you do not need to buy the ‘K’ model, which costs more.
If the CPU is the queen bee, the Chipset is the army of worker bees that produce the computing juice – the honey – of your PC. You don’t buy a Chipset. You buy motherboards that are based on chipsets. Before you decide which motherboard you buy, you need to choose a chipset.
There are two options in Haswell for consumers: the Z87 and H87.
You need the Z87 Chipset if you are going to overclock OR are going to use multiple graphic cards. For everyone else, the H87 is adequate.
The Z87 chipset is geared for enthusiasts, while H87 is for mainstream users. Motherboard manufacturers embellish Z87 motherboards with bells and whistles, while keeping H87 motherboards limited to typical usage requirements.
You can use a Z87 chipset motherboard with an i5, or a H87 chipset motherboard with an i7, so choose your CPU, Chipset, Motherboard as per your needs.
To reiterate, if you don’t compile software, create video, render artistic or architectural drawings, or play Call of Duty/Battlefield/Total War kind of games, then the i5-H87 combination is good enough.
Once you have chosen your CPU and Chipset, you can select your motherboard based on that chipset from the the various vendors: Intel, Asus, Gigabyte, ASRock, MSI. Your CPU determines the ‘Socket Type’, and specific motherboards are designed for specific socket types. Intel Haswell CPUs use the ‘LGA 1150’ socket type, which is what you need to specify when searching for a motherboard.
SIZE (FORM FACTOR): MICRO-ATX/MINI-ATX/ATX
Motherboards come in different sizes, and the size of your PC Cabinet will depend on your motherboard size. Micro-ATX is the smallest, Mini-ATX is medium, ATX is full size. For mainstream users, micro/mini ATX are adequate.
Here are some factors to consider when choosing a motherboard:
- Get a Motherboard with UEFI Bios. These are new GUI based, mouse-supported BIOSes, unlike primitive DOS-era BIOSes.
- Do you need WiFi/Bluetooth on the motherboard? (Useful for wireless keyboard/mouse)
- What kind of audio output do you need? Stereo or 5.1 surround sound?
- Multi-monitor support, if you are going to use multiple monitors. Monitor interface – HDMI/DVI/VGA? VGA is outdated, newer monitors have HDMI/DVI both of which are equally good.
- Do you want to be able to charge your smartphone/iPod over USB even when your PC is in standby?
- For mainstream users who use a single graphic card, this is not important, but if you may use multiple graphic cards in the future, does your motherboard support it? AMD uses Crossfire, Nvidia uses SLI. Check what the motherboard supports.
Minimum 4GB RAM, recommend 8GB RAM. Use DDR3 RAM, which is much faster than DDR2. The frequency of the RAM (1333/1660) doesn’t matter much.
A SSD for Windows 8 and Programs, a HDD for data. The SSD is the behind-the-scenes component that makes your PC ‘appear faster’.
Get a DVD Drive as an alternate boot option, install various software, or watch movies or play audio CDs, only if you wish.
The SATA (Serial ATA ) interface on your motherboard is where data transfer takes place between your storage devices (SDD/HDD/Optical Drive) and motherboard.
Older motherboards only used SATA 2.0, meaning max data transfer speed of 3 Gbps. SSDs and HDDs are now capable of 6 Gbps, which needs SATA 3.0. Your H87/Z87 motherboard will support SATA 3.0, make sure you use those for connecting your SSD & HDD.
Your onboard (included as part of the Intel Chipset on your motherboard) Intel Graphics is not good enough. You need a separate graphics card. This is a complex choice, about which you can spend months just researching online articles. Here’s the lowdown:
- There are Nvidia (GeForce GTX) and AMD (Radeon HD) cards, both are equally good.
- Higher numbers of graphic cards mean more advanced.
- Choose a graphic card that uses GDDR5 memory.
Choose the best between (AMD) Radeon HD and (Nvidia) GeForce GTX Series that you can afford.
CABINET And POWER SUPPLY
The form-factor of your chosen motherboard (micro/mini/ATX) determines what size of cabinet you need. Choose a cabinet that has an intake fan and an exhaust fan, so as to have sufficient cooling capacity to dissipate heat from your internal PC components.
Power Supplies for regular PCs are 500W. With a modern graphics card, get a 600W power supply to be on the safer side.
Newer wireless keyboard/mouse combos come in WiFi/Bluetooth variants. I have not had a good experience with wireless keyboards or mice, and the most frustrating aspect of them is to regularly keep changing their batteries. So, I keep using old-fashioned wired keyboard and mouse. Feel free to use wireless keyboard/mice if you want flexibility of moving your keyboard around and don’t mind changing batteries regularly.
Microsoft now has the Ergonomic Sculpt Keyboard. It doesn’t have a wired option, so I stuck with the antiquated Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 2000. The height of ergonomic keyboards is much greater than regular ones, so make sure your desktop keyboard tray accommodates them.
The Monitor selection depends on your requirements. This is what you stare at all the while you use your desktop PC. Factors to consider:
- Size and Max Resolution
- Aspect Ratio: Square (4:3) or Wide (16:9)
- Touchscreen for Windows 8?
- Prefer LED backlight LCD
- For fastest response time, opt for a TN panel monitor. For most accurate color reproduction and widest viewing angles, choose an IPS monitor. VA panel based monitors strike a balance between these two.
- Additional USB ports in the monitor?
- Adjustability – the tilt, swivel, height adjustability of the monitor
- Speakers in monitor or separate?
Depending on your requirements, you can opt for a simple stereo speaker setup, in-built monitor with speakers, or a 5.1 surround sound system.
WINDOWS 8 INSTALLATION
Clean install Windows 8 on your SSD using this guide. You can clean install Windows 8 even with an upgrade license. I use 64-bit Windows 8 Pro.
MBR/GPT: SHOULD YOU CARE?
Use standard MBR install. You don’t even need to know about MBR/GPT options as a mainstream user, just go ahead with regular install. GPT is for technical users who want to cut a few more milliseconds from their boot time in return for which they’re willing to spend days troubleshooting.
Do *not* set Windows Update to Automatic mode. I went through a nightmare after a clean Windows 8 install with automatic updates. Some updates failed, restart tried to undo the updates, I tried the new ‘Refresh PC’ option and ended up with an unstable, corrupted setup that I needlessly spent multiple days troubleshooting, only to resort to a clean install again starting from square one after frustrated attempts.
Windows 8 uses stubs and does not include full components for the .Net 3.5 framework. Install the full .Net 3.5 framework from Control Panel –> Add/Remove Windows 8 Features before you install any Windows Updates.
When installing Windows Updates, do it in batches. There are “Updates for Windows x64”, “Security Updates for Windows x64” and “Security Updates for .NET Framework”. Install a common batch, restart, then install the next batch.
SUMMARY AND RESULTS WITH MY CONFIG
I built my new PC with the following:
- CPU: Intel i5 4670 3.4 GHz
- Motherboard: Gigabyte H87M-D3H
- RAM: 8 GB Corsair DDR3 1600Mhz
- SSD: Samsung 256GB 840 Pro
- Other Storage: 1 TB HDD + (reused) Sony Optical DVD Drive
- Graphics Card: MSI N660-2GD5/OC (GeForce GTX 660)
- Monitors: Old Dell 24” U2410 + New Dell 21.5” S2240L
- Cooler Master HAF 912 Cabinet
- Cooler Master 600W Power Supply
- Windows 8 Experience Index 7.8
- Installed Apps on SSD: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, MS Office Word & Excel, Skype (desktop), SkyDrive (desktop), 7-Zip, CCleaner, Silverlight, Textpad 5, Twitter, MediaMonkey, VLC
- SSD Space: 40GB used, 190GB free.
- Boot up from cold start with all 3rd party services running: 15 seconds