delirium happy

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Seeking advice from the great LJ oracle -- computer hardware
delirium happy
My dad has recently decided that he wants to finally move into the twentieth century and get himself a computer. The current plan is that I will be getting a new computer and my dad will be inheriting my current machine. Of course, it will have to be somewhat refitted before being given away -- the hard drive on here is both very small and full of my information; my dad has neither need nor space for a dual-monitor setup; and so on.

Since I'm going to have to be doing definite amounts of tinkering, refitting and reinstalling, I'm figuring that there's essentially no gain in getting a pre-built system, and it will probably be cheaper to buy the bits separately, and build the machine(s) myself. However, it's been a long while since I last tried this, and last time around, I had a kimble looking over my shoulder as I bought the bits and helping (reaD: doing most of the work with) the actual building.

So, I have several questions for the more computer-savvy of you:

1. Is there any good reason I'm missing why I'd be better of just getting a full system, and then any additional components I might need individually?

2. Are there any general tips you would care to offer me, or any gotchas that I should look out for?

3. What online reatailers tend to be good/reliable/cheap, and which ones should I be avoiding like the plague?

4. Likewise, which brands of components (monitors, harddrives, cpus, etc.) are good, and which ones suck?

5. I have a decent idea of what sort of things I should be looking for with most components, but I'm totally clueless with motherboards. What makes for a good motherboard?

6. Is there anything else that I ought to know?

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Well, first of all, I didn't have a kimble when I first built my own PC, and muddled my way through with manuals, and lots of praying. Things didn't explode, so I think we can safely say that my attempts were successful. My point is, I'm not the most technically minded of people (kim can vouch for that - I've wailed in desperation at her a few times now), so if I can do it you can too.

Despite a couple of kerfuffles with (which mainly boils down to the courier rather than ebuyer), they're usually reliable, and they're cheap. Handy thing with ebuyer is that there are plenty of reviews for stuff (you should have a look at the kettle lead reviews - most amusing), and people don't hold their punches. If something is crap, they will put a giant stonking review up saying exactly why it is crap. So, even if you don't buy from ebuyer, it's worth checking it to see what people are saying about it.

Favoured brands vary from person to person - different people like different things. For me, my harddrives are Maxtor, my CPU AMD (Athlon), my motherboard is an Asus (same as kim's, she recommended it), RAM is Crucial, video card is ATI Radeon. My CDRW/DVDRW drives are Lite-on (easy to make multiregion, because you just download a bit of software that will reset the region change counts through Windows). Never had a brand new monitor - I have hand me down Sony monitors, and I must say I'm impressed with them, because they fucking last. Shame they're so expensive, because I'm probably never going to be able to justify buying a Sony monitor brand new.

Oh, don't buy a PC Chips motherboard. They're crap, and seem to cause the kimble to develop a nervous twitch.

Most DVD drives can be made region-free thanks to, so long as you're not scared by the prospect of re-flashing the firmware. Given the right DVD player software, though, it doesn't seem to be necessary.

Yeah, but some of us once tried to re-flash the firmware of a DVD drive and fucked it up spectacularly, so have played it safe ever since. ;) Which is why I like the Lite-on drives - they're nice drives in themselves, with the added bonus you don't need to flash the drives, just run a small piece of software and click 'reset'.

  1. If you can find a complete system which closely matches your requirements, then you may be best off getting that, since you will get warranty coverage for the whole system and possibly a slightly lower price than for the individual components. If the system requries customisation this tends to make for a poorer deal. For example, Dell's cheap systems normally come with 256 MB RAM and adding another 256 MB at purchase time costs £80. If you got that extra memory elsewhere it would cost about £25. Unfortunately dual-channel memory access (explained below) requires matched RAM.
    1. Check reviews at Tom's Hardware and Anandtech (there are probably other good sites but those are the ones I know).
    2. Unless you have a particular need for speed or huge data sets (games, large image processing, video editing), a low-end processor (Athlon XP, Sempron or Celeron) should be fine. If you may deal with huge data sets, get an Athlon 64.
    3. Make sure the motherboard matches the processor - there are various different sockets for different processors. Make sure the motherboard has enough expansion slots for your needs. Be aware that on-board sound and graphics are often quite poor, though the nForce 3 chipset is an exception. (Note that not all versions of the chipset include these.) Don't worry too much about processor upgradability. When it's time to upgrade the processor, you'll probably need a new motherboard because the socket design will have changed.
    4. Make sure to buy plenty of RAM (at least 512 MB) since memory is often a major bottleneck and swapping will really slow things down. Ideally get 2 identical DIMMs because current memory controllers can use both at the same time, doubling the memory bandwidth.
    5. Make sure the RAM and motherboard are fast enough. The motherboard should be able to match the "front side bus" (FSB) speed of the processor. DDR memory speeds are quoted in 3 different ways: PCr, DDRf or g MHz. r is (theoretical) bandwidth in MB/s and f is transfer frequency in MHz, and g is clock frequency in MHz. The conversion is r = 8f = 16g. Ideally f should match the FSB speed, and there's no point paying extra for a higher speed. (Actually I'm not sure whether this is correct for the Athlon 64 since it has its own memory controller and doesn't depend on the motherboard for that.)
    6. Hard drive connectors for IDE (properly known as ATA) drives are changing from the old parallel ribbon cables to serial (SATA). Most motherboards have connectors for both, but do check that the hard drive and motherboard match.
  2. Ebuyer, Scan and Savastore are cheap and seem to be reliable, though Ebuyer's own-brand products are very variable. You do need to know exactly what you're after because they are just box-shifters. Check customer reviews. Don't pay much attention to estimated in-stock times.
  3. Monitors: Iiyama is generally good; Neovo and LG have some good TFT models but I can't remember what they are. Hard drives: Seagate seems to be good at the moment. Memory: I would go with Crucial or Micron (same company) though there are other good brands; do not be tempted by off-brand RAM as it tends to be unreliable.
  4. The whole point of a motherboard is to connect everything together, so the important questions (apart from reliability and price) are (i) does it have the connectors you need and (ii) does it have fast enough buses (covered above, I think).
  5. If you want to run Linux or BSD on it, be sure to check compatibility. See, Linux Hardware Compatibility HOWTO (somewhat outdated),

If you can find a complete system which closely matches your requirements, then you may be best off getting that, since you will get warranty coverage for the whole system and possibly a slightly lower price than for the individual components.


Also, the system will (hopefully) be designed such that the components work well together, whereas if you're building a box from scratch then it's up to you to make sure that there aren't any weird interactions (say, two expansion cards which end up on the same IRQ but don't like sharing, or whatever).

If the system requries customisation this tends to make for a poorer deal.

I'll add that if you envision tinkering with the system and/or adding or replacing bits and pieces later or upgrading components of your system, I'd be inclined to shy away from ready-made systems, especially brand-name ones such as Compaq or Dell.

In my (little) experience, those systems work well as-is but are not well prepared for tinkering: there may be little space inside the boxes, the cables may be just the right length for what's in there but with no slack, there may be few expansion slots, the system may not work well with third-party components (for example, though this is undoubtedly no longer true, Compaqs ca. 1995 had BIOSes that could only accommodate a list of 40 Compaq hard drives and would only accept third-party hardware if it had exactly the same number of heads, disks, and cylinders as one of the Compaq models on the list).

Most of my machines have been "made from scratch" due to my perception of this giving the system better upgradeability (though I didn't buy the parts separately - I sat down with a small local PC dealer and discussed what sort of things I wanted to have in there, and they did a bit of basic sanity checking), though my most recent one was a ready-made brand-name machine because it was cheap and from a company that regularly gets good reviews in the PC magazines I read (though it does warn that it's only good value for money if you need all the capabilities, otherwise you may well end up paying too much money).'s up to you to make sure that there aren't any weird interactions (say, two expansion cards which end up on the same IRQ but don't like sharing, or whatever).

Thankfully that particular issue no longer exists thanks to auto-configuring buses.

One more thing to remember is, if you need to buy a copy of Windows then you will probably want to get the cheaper OEM version, which is meant for sale with new computers. Some or all hardware components (it seems to depend on the shop) will qualify you to buy the OEM version, but you must buy them at the same time.

... or use... *contacts*... for software...

Some or all hardware components (it seems to depend on the shop)

I thought the list was (a) motherboard and (b) hard disk -- I got my Win98SE back then with a new, bigger hard drive. I didn't need to buy anything else along with it.

I meant any of several hardware components would qualify, not that several hardware components together would qualify. The list is longer than just motherboard and hard drive. On Ebuyer's product page for the OEM version of Windows XP it says:

Microsoft OEM Operating system software MUST be purchased with a non-peripheral hardware component or fully assembled computer system. Non-peripheral hardware consists of a motherboard, graphics card, memory module, hard disk, keyboard or mouse.

(Since when is a keyboard or mouse not a peripheral?) I'm not sure this is consistent between retailers.

Since when is a keyboard or mouse not a peripheral?

That does look weird.

And "graphics card" and "memory module" also look vaguely suspect, since I thought the basic idea was that you are entitled to an OEM version when you're getting a "new system"... simply upgrading or replacing memory, or even your graphics card, seems a bit little for a new system.

Though now that I look at the list, I'm a bit surprised that "processor" is not on the list ... not sure what it's like these days (motherboard types and socket shapes seem to change fairly often), but several years ago it was not uncommon for users to be able to buy a new processor and stick it in their old motherboard and breathe new life into their system that way. CPU meets the criteria of "non-peripheral" (obviously), "hardware", and "component" IMO.

(Deleted comment)
Quick comment from me, although kimble may comment later when she surfaces.

Ebuyer are crap with delivery, but are 100% okay about sorting returns which is handy. They are also generally the cheapest although avoiding their own branded stuff is a GoodThing. After building 36 a cheapie machine we regretted it, we don't use extra-cheap parts anymore because they aren't worth it.

Dabs are also very good, slightly more expensive than ebuyer but deliver efficiently using ParcelFarce in Sheffield at least. Not sure about where you are for courier specific stuff tho.

Scan, well they sting you for delivery, are complete gits about returns and sometimes have good deals. On the other hand you guys are relatively near Scan's real life depo in Bolton and could collect the parts yourself. Scan sometimes have parts no one else does, but are generally more expensive unless it's the 'deal of the day'. I know we're looking at an obscure piece of hardware from them at some point.

Like windiain said don't use PCChips stuff, it stinks. Ebuyer RAM is known flaky (Crucial is usually a few quid more, but SO worth it and has lifetime guarantee or something). We tend to stick lots of fans into things which are likely to run hot, they are cheapcheap and can compensate for dodgy cooling.. We have found These cases to be very good value as they are nice to build in (no sharp edges), and come with a reasonable keyboard, mouse and speakers at the same time. They also have adequate cooling which is sometimes more of an issue with cheaper cases.

I have also done the get a 'Dell' system for someone, notably my younger sister who is a pain in the arse. We did the design your own system, knocked off stupid warranty stuff and got it down to just under 500 including nice shiny Dell 17" monitor. It has so far been great and despite running XP Home *spit* it's been good because we didn't have to build it and under the warranty it was Dell's problem for the first yr. Also my sister is less likely to blame /us/ if something went wrong with it. We figured more RAM could be added at a later date and CPU could be upgraded if/when needed.

The only thing I'd be wary of with a prebuilt system from someone like Dell/Compaq is that they use proprietary motherboards and powersupply units. Dell PSUs will kill non Dell parts and vice-a-versa and Dell parts cost more to replace if that becomes necessary.

So there you have my thoughts... Kim may add/correct/amend things later.


I would consider a pre-built system, there are some inxcredible offeres out there, which make building your own pretty much unaffordable. Go have a look at Dell's website, you can get a full system for £279, which includes a 17' flat screen monitor. OK you will want a few of the upgrades such as a DVD and a better graphics card, but even if it comes to say £500, you can't buy the components for that price.

I got my current box from United Micro; it's pretty hawt, and was quite reasonably priced. Specs here.

My precious.... *cuddles with case*

also, I can get four more copies of XP Pro for free, from the colleges I've attended. :)

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