How To: Build The Ultimate PC

Why buy a ho-hum off-the-rack computer when you can cherry-pick components to create a truly superior PC? Find out which products made the grade as we put together this year's

January 12, 2006

21 Min Read
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Anyone can buy a computer. You go down to your local superstore or crawl the Internet, find the one you want, plunk down your cash, and there it is. But don't you really deserve something more than an off-the-rack PC? That's a rhetorical question. Of course you do. So why not build one yourself?

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives•  More Drives

•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

Sure, there are some who contend that the art of building a PC was replaced long ago by the appliance computer. I beg to differ. Together, we're going to jump all over the parts lists and pluck out the absolute best of the best to build the Ultimate PC for 2006. By the time we're done, you'll have pegged your drool meter and made your neighbors green with envy.

With the average computer becoming obsolete (or so the tale goes) by the time it arrives at your home, it takes an incredible amount of hubris to attempt to define the ultimate performance PC for an entire year. But here I go anyway. One note of caution: Remember, these are my selections, based on my experience and opinion. Feel free to disagree. I don't mind at all.

Courtesy of Intel. Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

In The Beginning Was The CPU
Processor selection is always difficult, even though there are only two real choices: AMD and Intel. After testing both an Athlon FX60 and an Intel Pentium 955 Extreme Edition (XE), I'm going with Intel for this project, but it could have gone either way with these two dual-core processors. That's how close they are in performance.

Had the purpose behind this exercise in excess been to create a gaming PC, the FX60 would have been my choice in a heartbeat. In the tests I ran, it pumped data in and out of its dual-core interior with a speed that embarrassed its Intel counterpart — a gamer's dream. However, a synthetic benchmark, called COSBI OpenSourceMark, left the pair tied toe-to-toe in their general ability to do work. And when I got to an application near and dear to my heart — video rendering — the Pentium 955XE walked away from the FX60 with ease and speed.

By the way, when I talk about video rendering, I'm not talking about a "here are the clips, go render me a video" type of project. I change bit rates in both the video and audio, I modify the frame type, readjust the compression, and display the video while rendering. It's heavy lifting, and the FX60 just wasn't as good at it by a significant amount.

Yes, the dual-core Athlons are more elegantly designed and have more L1 cache than the dual-core Pentiums. They also use less power. But that's all IT pap — none of it has real meaning on the desktop. There, it's a matter of what does what I want done best. If I had to deftly explain the situation, it would be that the 955XE just has more muscle.

One small tidbit: According to the folks at Intel, the Pentium 955 Extreme Edition is unlocked and should prove interesting to anyone who dabbles in overclocking. That's a major change in policy for Intel, but it needs to encroach on traditional AMD territory to re-establish its competitiveness.

Street Price:  $1,106 - $1,204

Courtesy of ASUS. Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

Motherboard
Having selected the processor, we can now choose a motherboard: the ASUS P5N32-SLI Deluxe. (If you're still smarting over my choice of the Pentium instead of the Athlon, here's an out for you: The ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe is the Athlon version of this motherboard. The pricing should be comparable.)

Its list of particulars will cover almost any situation you're likely to encounter (the WiFi edition even supports onboard wireless networking), and its use of heatpipes, instead of buzzy little fans, to keep the chipsets cool will also help keep things quiet.

The SLI (Scalable Link Interface technology developed by nVidia) portion of the name probably clues you in to the fact that you can double up on SLI-compatible graphics cards and increase the overall graphics performance. But as you'll see when we get there, we're not going to go there. SLI will get you a little extra performance if you're gaming in the extreme, but even in the Ultimate PC, it can be a bit of overkill for almost everything else.

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives

•  More Drives•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

Odds are good that you'll want for nothing when it comes to external communications. The P5N32-SLI has ten USB 2.0/1.1 ports, two FireWire IEEE-1394a ports, and dual Gigabit LAN ports; the WiFi edition of the board includes an integrated wireless LAN port (plus antenna) as well. It won't let you interface with an old Commodore PET but there's very little else you can't talk to.

ASUS' AI NOS (Non-delay Overclocking System), PEG (PCI Express Graphics) Link Mode, and C.P.R. (CPU Parameter Recall) should be of special interest if your intention is to make your processor perform a bit more robustly than Intel initially intended it to.

Street Price:  $198 - $244
Memory

Courtesy of Crucial Technology.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

The P5N32-SLI supports a maximum of 4GB of memory; we're going to split the difference at 2GB and use a pair of 1GB Crucial Technology Ballistix memory modules. It's a "performance" memory product, and again, will have its biggest impact if you decide to adjust the CPU's and bus' clock rate.

(Note to you stubborn AMD people: ASUS has partnered with Corsair to produce a memory product specific to the A8N32-SLI motherboard and the Athlon processor: the Corsair XMS-3500LL Pro. It's sold in matched pairs, two sticks of 1GB capacity each, 2GB in total. If you dig around, you might even find that it's a bit less expensive than the Crucial memory.)

Street Price:  $361

Graphics Card

Courtesy of eVGA. Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

Although the P5N32-SLI motherboard is Scalable Link Interface-compliant (using two 16-bit PCIe slots, the "32" part of its name), we're going to sidestep the SLI issue for now — but not by a whole lot. We'll be equipping our Ultimate PC with an eVGA e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO graphics card. It's one of the fastest you'll currently find, and it's half of an SLI solution.

By doing this, you get the graphics speed this system deserves with the ability to complete the SLI pair later, if you feel it's needed. Considering that the best price on these cards is currently around $500 each (and some of the emerging versions from other vendors go up from there), the 7800 GTX KO is the second most expensive component of this system, just behind the processor itself. One will do for now.

Street Price:  $555 - $587

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives•  More Drives

•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

Sound
Back when audio first reared its head as an integrated component on motherboards, the technology was pathetic, little better than your basic comb wrapped in tissue paper. Things have changed since then.

The P5N32-SLI benefits from a Realtek ALC850 8-channel codec and offers the usual universal audio jacks, audio sensing and enumeration technology, and coaxial/optical S/PDIF out ports on the back I/O panel. Translation: It's real cool stuff and no plug-in audio card is needed.

Price:  Included with motherboard
Making A Case
While your motherboard, processor, and all its plug-in thingies could spend their time sitting on your desk, they're hardly ideal candidates for sculpture. They need a home of their own and that means a case, a power supply, and some internal fans. We're going to collect all those goodies from one company: Antec, Inc.

Courtesy of Antec. Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

For the case, we'll go with Antec's Performance P160. It's a lightweight aluminum model with rails for 5.25-inch devices and trays to hold your 3.5-inch drives. The trays use isolation mounts to dampen any vibrations from the drives. All told, you'll have room for four 5.25-inch and two 3.5-inch external drives, while four more 3.5-inch drives will fit inside. There's even a removable tray that makes motherboard installations a breeze.

The three large oval cutouts up front allow air to be drawn into the case. They're backed by a washable filter to keep the fuzzies out of your computer, and an optional (I'd say essential) 120mm fan can be installed behind them to cool the hard drives in those lower four internal bays. You will have to put up with a blue glow wafting from behind those vents — unless you unplug the LEDs.

Up top is an LED temperature status display for two user-definable zones as well as front-mounted USB, FireWire, and audio ports. (The top of the case is the ideal position for ports on a floor-mounted system.)

Street Price:  $82 - $99

Courtesy of Antec.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

Power To The Rails
This Antec P160 case has one small flaw: it doesn't have power supply. It's not a big deal. We're going to put an Antec Phantom 500 PSU inside. It's 550 watts maximum, which might seem a little like overkill to you, but trust me, it's not. Well, maybe not a lot of overkill.

The smaller version of the Phantom (350 watts) has no fan whatsoever. That makes it one of the quietest power supplies you can buy. Big brother PSU does have a fan, but it works via a thermostat that you can set for any of three heat ranges (40, 47.5, or 55 degrees C, or roughly 104, 118, or 131 degrees F). When the internal temperature reaches your selected value, that's when the fan switches on, and it only stays on until the temperature drops below that value. It's not totally silent, but this hybrid fan design is the next best thing.

Just for extra measure, it has dual +12V outputs with dedicated circuits to isolate the CPU power line from peripherals, and it's claimed to be 86 percent efficient at full load. Yes, it has SATA hard drive power connectors as well as those needed by PCIe graphics cards.

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU

•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives•  More Drives•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

Street Price:  $147 - $282

Cooling The Beast
The CPU heatsink and fan should do a good job of keeping your processor from boiling over (it's included in the box with the processor), but there's more than just the CPU in that case. Luckily for you, the P160 already has a 120mm fan drawing air from inside and pushing it out through a grill in the back panel.

(120mm fans, by the way, are great. Spinning at the same rate as the more typical 80mm versions, they move about 30+ percent more air. Slowed down to the point where they move the same amount of air as the smaller fans, the 120mm versions are incredibly quieter.)

Courtesy of Antec. Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

So the first thing you're going to do is rip out the fan that's supplied with the P160. Not to fear. You'll be replacing it with one of Antec's 120mm SmartCool case fans. Like the one in the power supply, these are also thermally controlled and the fan speed increases as the temperature inside the case rises. Maximum fan noise occurs only at maximum heat. Don't forget a second one for the front panel to keep your hard drives cool too.

Street Price:  $12 - $20 each

Courtesy of Western Digital.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

Hard Drives
The key to a great hard drive experience is speed and capacity. Those qualities need not apply to the same drives. To prove that, we're going to stock our Ultimate PC with a pair of Western Digital 150GB 10,000rpm Raptor SATA drives in a RAID 0 configuration used for the boot partition.

(There's also the Raptor X if you want the same drive but with a clear acrylic top and a higher price tag.)

The Raptors are the speed demons of the desktop, just short of some exotic SCSI configurations best left to servers. Until now, they've never been big in the capacity department, but the new 150GB version changes that. While that's still not the Grand Canyon of capacity, the 300GB virtual RAID drive that results from combining two of them is no slouch in any sense of the word.

Street Price:  $283 - $350

Courtesy of Western Digital.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

On the data side of the storage equation we'll be adding a pair of 400GB Western Digital Caviar RE2 SATA drives, again in a RAID 0 configuration, for a total of 800GB.

Why bother? Well, the simple truth is that no matter how fast a hard drive is, if you try to read and write to the same drive at the same time, it slows down as the read/write heads do a two-step across the patter to get a byte from here and put it over there. Keeping separate source and destination drives is always the better idea.

Street Price:  $209 - $313

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling

•  Hard Drives•  More Drives•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the motherboard's RAID 1, 0+1, or five redundancy capabilities for data security, that's a good catch on your part. What it all amounts to is that each of those options is less efficient in terms of overall system performance (and, in some ways, cost as well) than doing it outside of the box when it comes to a desktop PC.

The better option for the desktop today is to add any of the available Network Attached Storage (NAS) solutions that provide backup and data sharing. That may sound more like an enterprise, rather than desktop, solution, and in some ways it is. It's also indicative of the overlap that has developed between these previously separate computing identities.
Optical Drives Are In
Building the Ultimate PC, you'd naturally think that you should scoop up one of those Blu-ray optical drives that Pioneer showed off at CES as soon as one is available retail. As an habitual early adopter, and owner of several now obsolete 1x DVD-RAM burners that had outrageous price tags, let me give you a word of advice: Don't.

I'm not saying that you'll need to wait for version 2.0 (although the time lag between 1x and 16x DVD burners wasn't really that long), but you never know, someone may actually release a dual-format Blu-ray/HD DVD drive and you'll end up sitting there with a trophy in your case.

Courtesy of Pioneer.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

For now, we're going to populate two of the P160's 5.25-inch bays with a pair of Pioneer DVR-R100 optical drives. They're dual-layer, +/-, 16x devices that write CDs as well, and Pioneer claims that these drives generate 75 percent less noise during playback. Having two makes copying your own DVDs or CDs a one-step process. It also leaves you with two unused 5.25-inch bays to fill later with the Blu-ray or HD DVD drives of your choice.

Street Price:  $73 - $95 each

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU

•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives•  More Drives•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag

•  Image Gallery

The Floppy Isn't Dead
You may have heard rumors that the floppy drive is a dinosaur best left untouched. Not true, at least not totally. It's cheap insurance (like the fire extinguisher you keep in the kitchen and garage) against something unreasonable happening to your computer's BIOS.

In theory, you can upgrade or restore a BIOS from a USB floppy drive or even from CD, and that's probably true 99.8 percent of the time. The $8 to $10 you'll spend on an internal floppy drive will cover you for that remaining 0.2 percent. Don't worry about a brand name — inside the case they're all the same.

Street Price:  $5 - $10

Courtesy of Sabrent.Click image to enlarge and to see the photo gallery.

Don't Forget A Flash Memory Card Reader
And because the P160 case has two 3.5-inch external bays, you might as well toss in a Sabrent 52-in-1 card reader/writer (CRW-INWB). Personally, I didn't know that there were 52 varieties of flash memory, but with all the different memory sticks and whatnot, it has you covered for almost everything. Besides, for the $20 you're likely to pay for it, what the heck.

Street Price:  $20
Odds And Ends
In the end, you're left to your own resources for keyboards and mice (Bluetooth remote, if it was up to me!), speakers, and a monitor as well. You'll probably choose an LCD display for the last, and it befits a system such as this.

The Ultimate PC For 2006

•  CPU•  Motherboard•  Memory, Graphics, Sound•  Case, Power, Cooling•  Hard Drives•  More Drives

•  Odds, Ends, Price Tag•  Image Gallery

One note of caution on this last choice: As with dentures, you shouldn't buy an LCD panel through the mail — at least not without an excellent return policy.

Sure, you can read about sizes (15-inch is out of vogue, 17-inch is currently mainstream, while 19-inch and larger are considered top tier), contrast ratios, brightness, and every other hardware specification, but you can't see what it looks like — and you should, up close and personal. You want to know what the range of color adjustment is, you want to see if black is really black or some attempt at blending purple and blue, you need to experience how white white can be before everything else on the screen washes out.

Those are things that can be talked about in ads and reviews ad nauseam, but the true cognitive quality of these features can only be experienced. Do yourself a favor, this one time, and go take a look.

Price Tag
We've been breaking it to you gently as we went along, but just in case math isn't your strong suit, here's what you can expect to spend for your screaming new system — and that's before you've bought a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and speakers (not to mention tax and shipping). But hey, ultimateness doesn't come cheap.

Product

CPU: Intel Pentium D 955 Extreme Edition

$1,106

 – 

Motherboard: ASUS P5N32-SLI

198

244

Memory: Crucial Technology Ballistix

361

361

Graphics Card: eVGA e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO

555

587

Case: Antec Performance P160

82

99

Power Supply: Antec Phantom 500 PSU

147

282

Cooling Fan 1: Antec 120mm SmartCool fan

12

20

Cooling Fan 2: Antec 120mm SmartCool fan

12

20

Hard Drive 1: Western Digital Raptor WD-1500ADFD

283

350

Hard Drive 2: Western Digital Raptor WD-1500ADFD

283

350

Hard Drive 3: Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB

209

313

Hard Drive 4: Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB

209

313

Optical Drive 1: Pioneer DVR-R100

73

95

Optical Drive 2: Pioneer DVR-R100

73

95

Floppy Disk Drive: your choice

5

10

Flash Memory Card Reader/Writer: Sabrent 52-in-1

20

20

Total Price:

$3,628

 – 


Bill O'Brien can be blamed for more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology topics. With his writing partner, Alice Hill, Bill co-authored "The Hard Edge," the longest-running (1992 to 2004) technology column penned by a techno duo. For more, go to technudge.com.

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