Choosing hardware for a custom computer

Advancing software has gradually brought my 2004 Dell D600 laptop to a standstill, and this year the laptop has been hindering me from learning and experimenting with new technology at home. And my circa 2000 Pentium III 733 under the desk is relegated to file storage, and way overdue for being donated to a rural school.

The Time Has Come for a new machine! But not an off the shelf rip-off: I have a specific philosophy about what goes into a good computer.


My philosophy for a personal computer:
  • Buy for a 5 year lifespan. Less than 5 years makes a computer one expensive consumable. Even at my R10,000 price point, computing is a R2000 per year expense.
  • Skip generations. I am buying a Core 2 Duo, and my next PC will be the successor to the Core i7 (but only once its successor comes out - see "best of 18 months ago")
  • Buy wholesale parts. I thoroughly recommend DC3 Distributors - the powerful box below comes to the same R8000 that one would normally pay for underpowered entry level crud at Incredible Connection. Be prepared to spend hours reading hardware reviews, benchmarks and spec sheets to be sure you are getting reliable, performing, mutually-compatible parts.
  • Buy the best of 18 months ago. After the new generation arrives (give it 18 months), the previous generation becomes mid-range, and yields the best price/performance ratio.
  • It will always cost around R10,000. The "best of 18 months ago" desktop always comes to around R10,000 (including monitor). This principle, stated by my father, has held between 1987 (remember the 80386?) and 2009 (Core 2 Duo / Phenom II)
In summary this leads me to http://dc3.co.za/, where I put together a machine involving this stuff, including VAT. It should be ready in a week:
  • Processor (R1411): Intel Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz, 3MB L2 cache
  • Motherboard (R1165): ASUS-P5QL Pro Intel P43 chipset, 1066MHz FSB
  • RAM (2xR298): 2 x Apacer 2GB DDR2 PC6400 (400MHz, 800MT/s)
  • Graphics (R1233): Zotac Nvidia 9800GT 512MB GDDR3, at 660MHz (couldn't get the "Eco" version in SA)
  • Disk (2xR679): 2 x Western Digital Caviar Green 500GB / 16MB cache
  • Optical (R350): Sonu DRU-830C (old drive I already had - recommend a silent DVD drive instead)
  • Wifi (R254): DLink 54Mbps WiFi (had some driver problems under Win7)
  • Case (R439): CoolerMaster Elite 335 ATX (took Sileo 500 instead)
  • PSU (R450): Gigabyte ODIN 470W (took silent PSU instead)
  • Mouse (R225): Microsoft Comfort Optical 3000 (no longer available, took a Logitech mouse instead but not happy with the loud clicks)
  • Keyboard (R600): Logitech Wave (bad choice)
  • Monitor (R2300): Samsung 2494HS, 23.6 inch 16:9,1920x1080 (should have got height-adjust stand)
  • Assembly (R114): Because frying the motherboard costs a lot more.
The total comes to R8,194 excluding the monitor, and R10,494 including. AFAIK the CPU, motherboard, graphics and RAM were all available 18 months ago (January 2008). The monitor, keyboard and mouse are higher end parts, you could save R500 on kb/mouse and R800 with a 19" monitor, to bring the total down to R9100.

You might ask, why not a new laptop, such as the new MacBook Pro? The answer is lifestyle. I almost never have to work 'on the go'. When I work, it is in my nerd cave, for hours at a time. If you have to work at clients, or wherever you may be, a laptop is the answer. I only work at the office and at home, so a desktop suits me fine, and I can get much more power for less by doing so.

Silent Computing Update

I've amended the order to get some more premium parts to make the computer silent:
  • PSU (R1234): CoolerMaster Silent Pro M500
  • Chassis (R819): CoolerMaster Sileo 500
  • Graphics (R1233): Zotac Geforce 9800GT Eco
The PSU is ~80+% efficiency instead of ~70%, so the fan can run at a lower speed for a given wattage. The Sileo 500 chassis has silent fans and insulation, and no side ventilation so it is warmer but internal fan noise is damped. The 9800GT Eco is an underclocked version of the 9800GT that uses 40% less power, so needs less cooling. The new system should draw under (76+50+12+30)/0.80 = 210W idle and 300W fully loaded, versus about (120+50+12+30)/0.70=300W idle and 440W fully loaded.

The total price is R9009 without the monitor, increasing cost by R1100 to get something quiet and efficient.

Lessons Learned

Keyboard: I no longer recommend the Logitech Wave keyboard.  It's somewhat loud, I don't like the feel of the keys which are a bit loose, and I think the "wave" curve in the keys is pure marketing gimmick.

Monitor: The Samsung 2494HS 23.6" monitor... you can now get similar monitors for under R2300, and this one came with a fixed base.  Do ask for a height-adjustable base!

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