Building a new system is a lengthy process. It starts out with a week’s worth of reading and digging to figure out what the new nomenclature is (wth is “Sandy Bridge”?), what parts go with what parts, and whether the parts work themselves (reviews and forums), how well they work together (reviews and forums), what comes in the box (youtube) and how hard each piece will be to install (youtube).
I should forewarn you now: this article is less about the nuances and societal implications of system building and a lot more about what a pain in my butt it was.
You may have noticed that there’s a step missing there; maybe not. The step that is missing is the reason that higher education computer people all seem to use Macs. The missing step: verifying that various parts, when assembled, form a stable system. Macs are what we call “cookie-cutter hardware” in that at any given time there are only a dozen or so variants on the market. It’s easy to ensure your hardware will always work when 1. it’s a small subset of available hardware, and 2. you implicitly restrict what can run on the system by forcing developers to conform to weird standards (i.e. Objective C, Carbon, and the “we didn’t think of DirectX first and refuse to recognize it” disease). Now, many applications work very well on Mac, but most games don’t. My laptop is a Mac, which makes sense for the computer science-side of my life: it’s a stable testing platform for my not-so-stable experiments. When I want to play games though, I need a Windows machine. And I like my games pretty, so I need a workhorse.
Previously when I built a system, it was always to run modern and “next step” games, meaning it needed to be a step or two shy of cutting edge. Cutting edge hardware runs three to four times the cost of just two steps below, so when I saw there were six cores and that one step below them was the i7, I went with the i5. I picked up hardware that’s (ostensibly) durable enough to overclock, but I probably will not do this. 3.3 GHz is more than sufficient and, frankly, CPUs are not the bottleneck (the part of the system that things have to wait on) in games these days. The bottleneck is the graphics card.
The first challenge was getting Windows 7 to install: this boiled down to a mystic ritual: I made a USB key function as a bootdrive; I copied the Windows 7 DVD contents to it; I booted to it; ran Repair Installation -> Command Prompt; I manually ran setup.exe on the DVD-ROM. Yes. Booted from USB. Ran set-up from DVD-ROM. This – and ONLY this – worked. The second time I tried it. As part of this ritual, I had unplugged all non-essentials from the board, including one of my two RAM sticks.
After booting (which was orders of magnitude faster than my previous system) I found I still had trouble getting drivers to install off of the DVD-ROM; this was unfortunate, as I really needed a network driver to get my system on the Internet…so I could download every other driver I needed. I had two options: download the DVDR’s firmware on my laptop and port it over via USB, or do the same with the network driver. I went with the firmware update, though thinking back on it, this was silly. (I blame my frustration for clouding my judgement.)
The most up-to-date firmware for the drive was the same version that was on the drive…which implied that the firmware on the drive had been corrupted. A little weird, but not uncommon. Perhaps the version information was not entirely telling and they were different. With the DVD-ROM up and running, I gleefully plugged everything back in and plowed through the other DVDs that came with my equipment, installing drivers, the goal being to get the system on it’s legs so I could go scouting for updated drivers in peace. This entire process was hampered by frequent and seemingly random BSODs (blue screen of deaths, not a typo, srsly), all of which had a disturbing pattern: page faults.
memtest86 to the rescue. One of my RAM sticks passed all the tests flawlessly; the other completely failed them all flawlessly. Flawfully. It was bad. It meant my motherboard was likely fine, though, so I was relieved. Advanced RMA processed and new RAM is already on the way; hurray for Newegg.
I then tried to download World of Tanks, an updated graphics driver, and GIMP. All of them were corrupt. RIFT was throwing strange errors too, every time I ported to a new zone: saying that I had not loaded everything that was needed. What do these four events all have in common? Why, they involve the network driver.
Laptop back in action: downloaded an up-to-date network interface driver and – presto. I gamed on my system all weekend to get the bitterness out of my system. Body. Out of my me.
- i5 Sandy Bridge @ 3.3GHz (3.7GHz turbo) by Intel
- 4 (soon to be 8 again) GB of mem from GSkill
- MSI P67A GD65 Mainboard (overkill, but should last a long time)
- Corsair H70 Watercooling…because I’m a huge nerd.
- nVidia GTX 560Ti…which I’m considering SLIing (hence the watercooling for the processor)
- Crucial 64GB SSD to boot from (and run some small slow-loading apps like GIMP).
- 1 TB drive for games.
- 900W power supply (I won this at PAX; the system needs only a 600W at best, but will need more if I SLI).
- My case is a windtunnel with more mesh than wall and three 200mm fans.
So, the good news is, RIFT looks amazing and I get a lot of pretty sparkles even when I’m one of fifty players on the screen at any given moment. My Internet connection now seems to be the bottleneck, other players loading slowly but always moving smoothly. All it took was some troubleshooting and a minimal loss of my hair.
I am willing to write up more on this topic of MMOers are curious about system parts. I am by no means an OCing expert, but I’ve built a half dozen systems and you all may as well benefit from some of my experience so you don’t suffer like I do sometimes. There is a huge plus to buying a Mac or a Dell…and that is that all of the drivers you ever need are in a very easy to find, single-shopping space. Also, you can call for help. When my system dies, I call me for help. I am tech support. I have only me to hold responsible.
The benefits to building your own system, however, are well worth it in my opinion. Building your own system can save you hundreds of dollars. You know no corners were cut (i.e. you know all of your cache sizes and who made your graphics card). You pick what goes inside of it and you pick what it looks like.
This article feels harried. I feel harried. It’s been a long week. My new job is awesome and the RIFT event – which I’m sure everybody’s talking about – was a good start. It’s got potential; I already enjoy being thrown in with people who are all caught in the middle of the same surprise-attack; I enjoy even more fighting a raid boss with a similar group and doing okay. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible either. It was good.