Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Evolution of a PC Enthusiast's Addiction

I've had this gaming PC for 1 year and 9 months as of writing this post. My previous PC was a "prebuilt" from a local PC store. Not a Dell or a Gateway, but just a PC computer package with a Core 2 Duo (2.4ghz) and an 8600GT. One hot day I was playing DiRT in the living room, hooked up to my parent's big TV with my Logitech MOMO racing wheel and all of a sudden, the game got all glitchy and froze up. Rebooting gave me wierd visual artifacts even in the BIOS screen. Short of it was: burnt out GPU. I later opened it up and found a nice dust collection clogging the heat sink. Woops. Learned not to do that again.

In the meantime of not having a gaming PC for, oh, a year or two, I did plenty of other things. For my gaming fix, I had a Gamecube and eventually a Wii that I never played. I finally finished school and got a job, so I bought a PS3 Slim when those were released, and about 7 months later I put together a $1000 budget for a new gaming PC. I determined that I would build it myself. I researched parts, benchmarks, power, cooling, cases - everything. I sold my old PC to my parents for a small sum, and then picked up all the fancy new hardware for my awesome gaming rig.

I purchased the following on the 15th of April 2010:
CPU: Intel i5 750
Motherboard: MSI P55GD65
Cooler: Zalman CNPS10X Extreme
RAM: Patriot Viper II Sector 5 2x2gb
GPU: Sapphire Radeon 5850 (Dirt 2 edition/reference model)
HDD: Seagate 7200.12 RPM 500GB (x2 for RAID 0)
PSU: Corsair 750TX
Case: Antec 900 II
OS: Windows 7 64 bit
Monitor: Samsung 2494SW
Periphs: Logitech Easycall wireless keyboard and mouse (bad choice)
All in all this cost me $1599.83 (minus what I got for my old one)

I was, of course, completely thrilled with the power of this new PC. You better believe one of the first games I played was Crysis! I also started tweaking it, going into the BIOS and trying some CPU and GPU overclocking. Oh, and I lapped my CPU for better temps. This is where it all started.

Now, it isn't that I was reckless. I was keeping things within Intel specs. I wasn't letting temperatures run wild. However, only a month after my initial purchase, my PC blew up while trying to push maybe 4.1 or 4.2ghz. I had purchased the product replacement plans from the store, so I had to bring the computer in and after about a week they came back to me with the news: dead motherboard.

I suppose I was exceedingly lucky. They were able to POST a few times and saw the remenants of my overclock, so it was iffy whether I would get it replaced or not. However, they pulled through for me and not only gave me a replacement, but technically an upgrade to an Asus P7P55D Pro! I couldn't have been happier about that, and to this day am thoroughly pleased with the motherboard.

5850s, Bravura, GT240
Of course, I couldn't stop there. I was using a meager Altec Lansing 2.1 speaker setup that I used on my old PC. It was time to change that. I went out and bought the Logitech X-540 5.1 speaker system and, because I just had to, I also picked up an AuzenTech X-Fi Bravura 7.1 sound card... and then proceeded to plug both the 2.1 and 5.1 system into it for full on 7.2 surround! (note: I set the 2.1 up as "large" speakers for full sound, and the 5 speakers as satellite with a sub). This was 2 days after getting my PC back. Guess I was excited.

The next day I bought my second 5850.

2 weeks later I bought a GT 240 for PhysX.

Obviously at this point I was not just "into" PCs, I was full out addicted. And loving it! I was crushing games, tweaking everything, soaking it all up. By the way, I don't really recommend getting a dedicated PhysX GPU because so few games support it. Though, it only cost me $65 after rebate, so I'm happy.

What came next was aftermarket GPU coolers. The reference coolers were either quiet and mediocre, or loud and effective. The problem with buying aftermarket coolers, though, is that they are almost all 2 slots big, meaning the cards would occupy 3 slots each. As you can see, I was tight on space.

In the end there was 2 options for me: Zalman VF3000 or Scythe Setsugen coolers. And only the Scythe's were in stock. Honestly, though, I still use them and they are fantastic. I have made sure to have good air flow over them, and at 1300rpm they are whisper quiet and my GPUs don't even hit 70C with the overclock (stock volts, up from 700/1000 to 870/1200). Installing them was a bit of a pain, though. In particular the VRM and VRAM heat sinks that stick on. While gaming one fell off and broke the fan blades on the cooler! Fortunately, once again, it was a quick swap for a new one thanks to the replacement plan at the store. I also picked up some Thermal Adhesive to keep those suckers in place.

There was another issue, though. The stock VRM heat sink was extremely tiny and inadequete. It was basically 4mm wide, and extended only just long enough to cover the VRMs. The VRM temps were shooting up far higher and faster than the core or VRAM temps so I had to do something. I ended up using the spare parts to fabricate my own VRM heatsink - a copper base plate meant for the GPU core plus an extra heat sink. Works like a charm.

So now I've probably tripled my budget after only 4 months, but at the same time, thoroughly enjoying it. Naturally I had to find another something to buy. That something was a complimentary 2x2gb RAM kit to bring me up to 8gb. There was a small issue, though. The Zalman CPU cooler I had was so big that it covered the first RAM slot. This meant I had to get creative, so I flipped all my case fans around to blow back-to-front. I couldn't flip the top 200mm exhaust, though. But it worked, everything fit, and my temps only went up a little bit. I also was feeling an OCD itch about how wrong it is to have it backwards...

Now, at this point I was living in an appartment with my girlfriend, and my sound system was becoming an issue. Both because she didn't want to hear loud explosions when I gamed, and my neighbour below us didn't either. This led to me investigating headphones. I didn't want to spend much, so I tried out the SteelSeries 5H V2s... and they sucked. A lot. The sound has no bass and amplified treble, and I couldn't stand it. I decided I had to step up, and got Sennheiser PC 350s which are fan-freaking-tastic! I also swung a great deal, and got them for $150 because another retailer online had them on sale and my trusty local store price matched.

At this point, I was very happy with my system and managed to go a whole 9 days before buying another part. I was probably premature in jumping into this, but I picked up an Intel X25-M 80gb SSD for $215. Money not very well spent, to be honest. It's not that I dislike the SSD - I love it! But the problem is simply that my performance was great anyway and SSD prices were dropping. Regardless, at the time I was super happy with it and to this day I think an SSD is vital to any high end build.

Now I was running an i5 750 at 4ghz, a pair of 5850s overclocked to almost 5870 performance, an SSD, a sound card, a PhysX card, 8gb of RAM... everything was good. I was happy with the performance and the looks. Everything. Everything except the backwards cooling solution.

I'll save the rest for my next post.