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Building The Beast: Creating A Fast New Computer On A Budget -- Part 2

By Jeremiah Hall (doddleNEWS)

While some people prefer to use turnkey computer solutions (whether it's Apple, Windows, or Linux) doddleNEWS's Jeremiah Hall shows us what he learned building an editing system for the first time from the ground up. Part 1 can be found here

I made a list of everything I needed, and a list of everything I wanted. Then I hit the web. I looked at large e-tailers, do-it-yourself websites, and called around to a few local places that built systems and sold parts. I decided to go with a national chain that had a store close by. I didn’t want to deal with sending parts back if anything went wrong with them. I looked at their website, wrote down prices, and checked their inventory online.

Then I went shopping.

The first thing I did when I got there was look at cases. I wanted something that could hold at least six hard drives, and still have room for other Build your own, and you’ll find a wide range of cases: small, for those who just need to build a small machine, to monsters for those building a system that requires space for fifteen drives. There are also pretty ones with LED lights around them, with windows to look at the innards of your computer. I went in looking for a mid to large case that would hold an ATX size motherboard. I didn’t want anything gaudy, until I saw it.

The new case. Not what I expected to come home with.

And I lost it. I fell for a black mid-tower sized case with industrial-like grill work and a red LED light on the rear fan. For those interested, it goes by the name of GT1. It came from a company called Inwin, and has the window on the side to see the innards of your computer. It also had, I found out, built-in standoffs for the motherboard.

Motherboards can’t just lie loose in a case, and you don’t want the motherboard to randomly touch bare metal. They are screwed into what are called standoffs, small lifts so the motherboard’s circuitry doesn’t come into contact with the metal of the case. The case I picked had them built-in. It also came with drive trays to put hard drives in, without the tediousness of having to screw them in.

On top of the machine is a place to plug in a case-less 3.5-inch SATA drive. Add in USB 3.0 on the front (something my old PC lacked), space for up to six internal fans, 3 5.25-inch external bays and seven expansion slots for add-on cards. Price? About $60.00. There were some cheaper, and some more expensive. I justified my choice by telling myself I was the one who would have to look at it day-in and day-out.

The view from the side.

Next were the nuts and bolts. I grabbed a refurb DVD drive for $7.00. Two new 1TB hard drives, on sale that week. $80.00. A 500w power supply, $40.00. A card reader to fit in one of the 5.25-inch external bays, $7.00.

I also bought an OEM copy of Windows 8.1. Yes, I could have used my install disc from the old system. I won’t do that. I don’t pirate software. Software makers, be it giants like Microsoft down to mom-and-pop developers working from their garages, deserve to be paid for their labors -- especially if it’s something I use. That’s how we keep getting new software to work with. Okay, sermon over. Back to the system.

I called a salesman over to unlock the cabinet with the CPUs. I picked the AMD FX 6300. I liked what I read in reviews online, and it was well within my budget. My old processor was 2.8 GHz. This one is 3.5 GHz. This one I could overclock if I wanted to. The L2 cache per-core was 1Mb, higher than my current half a MB per-core. The L3 cache was also slightly higher, with 1.33Mb per-core, instead of my 1Mb per-core. In other words, this would run faster, better, and cooler than my old one. Plus, it was $99.00.

Next comes the motherboard. There was a deal the day I bought the parts. Buy a processor, get $40.00 off the motherboard. I was about to get a $100.00 motherboard, when I saw a metal shelf over to one side, holding refurbished motherboards. I looked through them, when I found the Asrock 970 Extreme 3 R2. It met almost all of my criteria: five SATA inputs, ATX, seven expansion slots, built-in SATA RAID capabilities, a couple of legacy PCI slots, two PCIe x1 slots.

What almost was a deal-breaker was it had two PCIe x16 slots. I had wanted a third, in case I ever decided to do dual video cards, and still have room for the Blackmagic Extreme card. It had a warranty on it, but I knew I would more than likely get an extended warranty on it just in case. The price of the refurb? $55.00. I did some quick math. I called the salesman over and asked him if the $40.00 off applied to refurb motherboards as well? He went and asked his supervisor. He came back and put a sticker on the box, telling the cashier to discount the motherboard $40.00. That motherboard cost a grand total of $15.00. Add the $2.00 for a 2-year extended warranty, the grand total for it was $17.00.

A note about refurbed gear. Some people love it, some people hate it. I’ve had pretty good luck with it. Two of the three Apple systems I had were refurbished. So have been a couple of cell phones, two GPS units, a PC laptop, and if I’m remembering correctly an audio receiver. Everything I listed lasted well beyond their warranty period. The first Apple system lasted around eight years. The other one lasted me seven years before the motherboard died. I still use the GPS units. I switched audio receivers years ago when 7.1 came out. Your mileage may vary. The only thing I don’t like to buy refurbed are hard drives. There’s probably nothing wrong with them, but I don’t like to tempt fate THAT much.

The video card (up top) was from my old system.

I haven’t mentioned video cards or memory. My old system was running an Nvidea GT. Not the fastest card family in the world, but one that handles my needs fairly well. I decided to put that in the new machine. I also decided to put in the memory from my current PC into the new one. I still had the old memory chips tucked away for when/if I upgraded.

Grand total out of the store – $400.00 plus tax.

Building it went better than I had expected. I was paranoid about static electricity. I always am around computer components. I dug through the closet and found my old anti-static wrist band. It has the adjustable grounding on it. I grounded myself and went to work.

Power supply first, screwed into the bottom of the case. Next was the motherboard. I put it in and screwed it to the built-in standoffs in the case. Next I put in the CPU, followed by the CPU cooling fan. I opened the old PC and robbed it of memory, video card, and two 1TB hard drives. I also put in a replacement drive for the new system drive while I was at it, as well as the old memory chips. I put the memory in, followed by the video card. I installed the DVD drive. I put in the card reader. I installed the two new hard drives, then my two old hard drives. Then I wired it all together. I cursed the day we moved away from vacuum tubes, as I had a hard time plugging in the tiny connector for the case fans and CPU fan into the tiny connectors on the motherboard. Everything went fine. I finished up by putting in my Blackmagic card and a spare firewire card.

All told? Took about an hour.

Then I borrowed my wife’s laptop to get online to see about installing Windows 8.1 on a RAID 1 configuration. I read from Asrock’s website, then went searching around the web for other’s successes and foibles. I found the instructions for creating the RAID sets I wanted on ASRock’s website. Then I found someone who said they had problems getting Windows to recognize the RAID as a RAID and not merely multiple drives. The solution, I read, said to get on another computer and copy over the drivers onto a thumb drive. Plug it in, then Windows would install onto a RAID-1.

In case you’re wondering, RAID stands for "Redundant Array of Independent Discs." It comes in several flavors. RAID-0 takes two or more drives and fixes it so the drives act like on big drive. The advantages are faster read times for the drives and a much bigger storage space to work with. The bad side is if anything happens to one of the discs, you lose all the information on the entire RAID set. RAID-1 is the opposite. It takes two drives, with one drive mirroring the other. Any change on one happens on both.

If a drive in the RAID-1 goes down, you have the exact same disc at your disposal so nothing is lost. There are other RAIDS. For example RAID-10 is also known as RAID 1+0. It involves at least four drives, two act as RAID-0 and the other two mirroring the first two, like in a RAID-1. So if you lose a drive in the RAID-0 set, you don’t lose everything.

I bit the bullet. I went ahead and made the driver thumb-drive for later. I moved a monitor onto the kitchen table, where I was building my new beast, and hooked it up. I plugged everything in -- and then realized I’d forgotten a keyboard and a mouse. I rummaged through my office closet and found the old wired keyboard and old wired mouse that came with my old system. I plugged those in. And I plugged in my internet connection to the motherboard’s onboard LAN connection.

And fired it up. Lights came on, words appeared on the screen. Success! I set up the UEFI (a modern version of the old BIOS) as instructed by the motherboard manual. I then made my RAID-1 and RAID-0 configurations. I plugged in the thumb-drive, and restarted everything with the Windows 8.1 install disc in place. It took about three hours for Windows to install on my new RAID-1. It’s worked flawlessly since.

Over the next couple of days I reinstalled my editing and compositing software. I noticed that the speeds are faster. Not warp-speed faster, but enough to notice a difference. I also noticed render times are faster when I’m in After Effects. I also have use of the Blackmagic card (yeah!). I also have faster backup times to my USB external drives, now that I’ve joined the 21st century and actually have USB 3 inputs.

The red LED light on the rear fan.

This also gave me time to consider what to get rid of. I got rid of trial versions of software that were eating space, freeware I didn’t need or want, files tucked away in folders labeled things like "New Folder 7." On a side note, I also did add another three fans to the case. I figure it couldn’t hurt and I had the space. One went to the bottom of the case, one went to the top, and the third joined an existing fan in the front. No LEDs on these, but maybe at a later date . . .

The guy that I was talking to during lunch was right. Building it did give me a better appreciation of my machine. I also now know that when I need to upgrade something, say I need those three PCIe x16 slots, I’m capable of replacing the motherboard. Or the power supply. Or the etc., etc., etc. All without having to buy an entirely new system. Is this the fastest system I could build? No, But it does fit my needs. Most of the footage I work with is 2K@24 or below. If I was going to start work with 4K footage, I’d need a bigger boat – CPU, video card, motherboard.

Now, for a few hundred dollars, asking some questions about prices to a salesman, and some time spent getting my hands dirty – uh, keeping my hands scrupulously clean as I worked with delicate computer components, I’ve got a better system than I started with, all under budget. If I can do it, you can too.

Happy cutting.

The post Building The Beast: Creating A Fast New Computer On A Budget -- Part 2 appeared first on Doddle.