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Building a PC 3: Flesh and Blood

With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC. This is part 3 in a series that aims to give the neophyte all of the most important, basic pieces of knowledge when choosing from the many options in the world of computer hardware, skipping over unnecessary details

The titles of each section below will become clickable links as the sections are completed.

1) Heart and Soul
CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.

2) Bones and Cartilage
Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.

3) Flesh and blood
Case - Make it last.
Cooling - Liquid or Gas?

4) Memories~
Storage - SSD, HDD or both?
Optical drive - Nah.

5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans
Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter

6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.

7) Other Sundry
Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency

Flesh and Blood
The case into which the components are installed is a part of the system that many new computer builders fail to give any thought. One would assume that it's just a hunk of metal and plastic, and it doesn't really matter what particular shape it's in. As for cooling, it's often assumed that any fan will do the trick. That may be true, but there are actually many factors that make one case or fan better than another case or fan, and most of it has to do with silence and air flow. Don't just buy any case, think about your choices before you commit to a case that doesn't quite meet your needs.

A computer case is commonly held to require several properties to be of high quality:
1) Mostly or all thick metal construction. Premium cases are all aluminum.
2) Cable management options; i.e. cutouts in what's called the "motherboard tray" through which power supply cables can be routed behind the motherboard to keep them out of the way of the airflow in the case.
3) Thermal design and acoustic design: how well does air flow through the case? Is there positive or negative pressure in the case? Does the case keep most of the sound produced inside of the system inside of the system?
4) Nice, big cpu cutout on the motherboard tray, as well as other matters of convenience.
5) Room for components. If that long graphics card can't fit, good cases have removable drive trays to make room.
6) Front I/O ports. Are there USB 3.0 ports on the front?
7) Aesthetics. Does it look good on or by your desk?

Everything beyond that is about personal taste and ease of use. For example, whether a side-panel window is a selling point will depend on your tastes, and whether the I/O ports should be on the front or the top of the case will depend on whether the system will be on a desk or on the ground. These little details are important to consider to find the right case for you.

Before going into detail on any of the above, it's important to understand the different sizes. There are size classifications and style classifications, and the only ones I'll discuss here are those relevant to the motherboard sizes discussed in part 2. The two styles to consider are "tower" and "desktop". A tower is what most people think of when they picture a computer case, standing upright like an XBox 360 with the motherboard oriented vertically. A "desktop" case is a more stout option with the motherboard oriented horizontally, such as this Cooler Master case. Most will want to go with a tower, simply because there are more options in that category, so my recommendations will focus on towers, but the sizes apply to both categories.

The size of a case is determined by the maximum motherboard size the case can comfortably accomodate. Naturally, this means you whould have chosen the parts described in parts 1 and 2 of this guide before making this decision.
●ATX full tower: can accomodate any consumer board, including eATX and all smaller sizes. These take up a lot of room, and will dwarf your monitor and challenge your TV. This size is excellent for water cooling, however, and has room for radiators, reservoirs and pumps that other sizes simply don't.
●ATX mid tower: A shorter version of the full tower, some can accomodate eATX, all can accomodate ATX or smaller. These are of reasonably large size, and most would still look out of place or at least grab the eye as part of a home theater. This is the smallest case that a water cooling setup could reasonably be expected to work in without modding the case.
●ATX mini tower: Barely fits an ATX board, and doesn't have room for many modern graphics cards. Not recommended for gamers, but good for a business. Manufacturers know this, and these cases are just about universally flimsy.
●Micro ATX mid tower: Can accomodate mATX and smaller, so ATX and eATX would be out of the question. There are few quality cases of this size, as the market tends to prefer the next size...
●Micro AXT mini tower: Can accomodate mATX and smaller, so ATX and eATX would be out of the question. I love this size, it would look just fine as part of a home theater, and the mATX boards are perfect for a focused gaming build.
●Mini ITX tower: mini ITX only. If you want something very tiny and very portable, this is the best you'll find for a PC.

It's my opinion that a case is something you want to stay with you for the foreseeable future. Cases are excellent computer parts in that they have very few electronic components, and an investment in a quality case can last you for the rest of your PC life if given enough thought. If, of course, you think you'll get a new case with each new system, that's irrelevant, but I recommend removing the case from the list of things you'll need to buy in the future and buying quality. As for the list above, a case I regretted buying in my more ignorant days will serve as a cautionary tale: the ultra-cheap Cooler Master 430 Elite.

Build quality: A large part of the cost of a case comes from how much metal was used to make it. Thicker metal in the construction makes for a sturdier case, and this is more important than it may seem. A thin piece of sheet metal holding up expensive electronics can begin to warp or buckle over time, and moving the system presents a fairly significant risk. It can be tempting to grab a cheap case, as in something costing $25-$30, but it's better to buy something of higher quality that will last. This is less of an issue with very small cases, however, especially if they are to be moved around a lot. Look for reviews to get an idea of the build quality of a case you're considering.

The CM 430 Elite is made of flimsy sheet metal, as hinted at by its price. For an ATX mid tower especially, this is not good enough.

Cable management: Look at holes highlighted below in the older version of the popular Cooler Master HAF:

The large hole on the bottom is meant for the bundle of cables coming out of the power supply mounted in the bottom of the case to be routed through behind that metal plate with all the holes in it, called the "motherboard tray". The other holes are there so that each cable can be poked through only where it needs to be plugged in. Take a look at the red cables in this build to see what that looks like. This process is very important for effective cooling of the system, not to mention good looks.

The CM 430 Elite has no cable management options at all, indiciative of its lousy quality as a case.

Thermal Design and acoustic design: These are tricky properties to nail down, but some simple rules of thumb will help:
●These two properties have an inverse relationship: if you have excellent thermal design, you had to sacrifice some acoustics and accept a louder system. If you have excellent acoustic design and a very quiet system, you had to sacrifice some cooling optimization to get it. It all comes down to which is more important to you.
●Good thermal design is about the number of fans pulling air in and pushing it out, as well as their relative positions (for example, I find side-mounted fans can disrupt air flow and decrease thermal performance overall). More and larger fans pointing in than out creates positive pressure (more air pumped in means higher pressure inside than immediately outside the case) which is not as thermally efficient, but does discourage dust from moving into the case, whereas more and larger fans pointing out than in leads to negative internal pressure, which is more thermally efficient, but also draws dust into the case.
●Good acoustic design is about having a case with few holes in it and acoustic foam lining the panels of the case, and it's also about selecting quiet fans, which will be discussed below.

This is an example of a case which emphasizes good thermal design. Notice that most faces of the case have open meshes. Also notice that there is room for 3 120 mm fans and one 140 mm fan pulling air into the case and two 140 mm fans and one 120 mm fan pushing air out. This case is optimized for negative pressure. It also has a top bezel (cover) in which an average sized radiator could be hidden, making this excellent for basic water cooling, as well.

This is an example of a case which emphasizes acoustics. Notice the lack of open meshes in favor of solid panels, and that these panels have acoustic foam lining them.

The CM 430 Elite has mediocre cooling and acoustics, with less room for fans and no acoustic optimizations at all (one of the top fans is actually positioned such that a fan mounted there would actually get in the way of a motherboard).

CPU cutouts and other matters of convenience: The CPU cutout is this thing:

That cutout is positioned right behind the CPU socket on most boards, and this allows easy access for the installation of backplates for after-market coolers ("after-market coolers" are CPU coolers bought separately from the CPU, and backplates are what they sound like: metal or plastic brackets placed on the back of the motherboard that provide screw threads for the cooler itself to be screwed into). A large cutout makes installation of these coolers easier, and they are an absolute pain without one.

Other matters of convenience include things like removable drive trays, tool-free mounting for drives, included fan controllers (I like these, not everyone does) and easily removable fan filters for easy cleaning.

The CM 430 Elite has a fairly small cutout, and none of the other convenient features mentioned.

Room for components: This is mainly about ensuring your graphics card will fit. Get the measurements of the card you're considering from the statistics available at any online retailer and compare those against the dimensions of the case you're considering. Many cases advertise the maximum dimensions for graphics cards.

The other two things in the list are self-explanatory.

Recommendations: Please keep in mind that these are cases I would buy, and that's actually a very small category. Part of this is aesthetics, so if you don't like more minimalistic designs as I do, this won't be of much use to you. If you want a cheaper option than any of those offered here, just think about the above factors and shop around.

●ATX Full tower: NZXT Phantom or Fractal Design Define XL. There are actually a lot or spectacular cases in this class, and these are two of my favorites. The Phantom (not to be confused with its little brother, the Phantom 410) is definitely optimized for airflow over silence (and it has beautiful interior lighting which you can adjust to basically any color). Fractal Design's Define series will be a recommendation throughout this guide: they are sleek, beautiful and optimized for silence, not to mention on the affordable side for the quality.
●ATX mid tower: NZXT Phantom 410 or Fractal Design R4. Yeah. I like these cases a lot.
●Micro-ATX mini tower: IN WIN Dragon Slayer or Silverstone Temjin TJ08B-E. I really like the IN WIN DS, I think it's just a great value, unique looking without being overdone and allows enough options for cooling that a silent system isn't impossible. The Temjin series from Silverstone boasts some of the smartest, most efficient design in computer cases, but comes at a premium.

Let's talk about liquid and air. Liquid cooling is expensive, and most people aren't going to want to bother with it. The advantages of liquid cooling are as follows:
●Liquid cooling can bring the idle and load temperatures of the components in a system way down, if the cooling loop has high radiator density. This means that most of the "all-in-one" CPU coolers like the Corsair H80 or the Antec Khüler H2O won't actually perform much better than an aftermarket (meaning separately purchased from the CPU and made by a company other than AMD or Intel) air cooler.
●Liquid cooling is a good investment in extremely humid climates as the humidity in the air can damage computer hardware over time.
●Liquid cooling helps heep dust away from components.
●Liquid cooling looks super amazing like seriously wow.
So, I'll say it straight: unless you're an enthusiast or just loaded, don't bother with liquid cooling, even the all-in-one CPU coolers.

So what about the other options? There are two things to think about: cooling your CPU and cooling the rest of your system.

First, a couple of general principles: heat is transferred in three ways:
1) Convection, which is the motion of heated molecules of some fluid substance (air or liquid, for example); when these molecules hit something hotter than themselves, they absorb heat from that something, and transfer their heat when carried to something colder. This is the kind of heat transfer fans or pumps help with.
2) Conduction, which is the propagation of heat energy through a medium as the molecules of that medium knock each other around. This is what radiators and heatsinks rely on.
3) Radiation, which is when the heat is radiated as light. This takes a while, and isn't really relevant to this topic.

Cooling starts at metal to metal contact, typically to "heat pipes" which conduct heat to an array of metal "fins" on a heatsink or to a metal fin array in a waterblock (liquid cooling thing, don't worry about it). The heat will be more efficiently conducted across a metal piece with a high surface area to volume ratio. More fins in a smaller volume makes for better cooling assuming that the density is not too high to move air through the fins.

That brings us to the next concept: air or liquid needs to convect the heat away from the heatsink/radiator. Moving air through a radiator is not about how much air a fan can move, but about the pressure of the air around the fins. There's a concept called "static pressure" you'll hear a lot about, but you don't need to know what that means. Any after market cooler will come with fans appropriate for the cooler. Just know this: the fan on the left is optimized for static pressure, the fan on the right is optimized for airflow:

The wide blades with small gaps indicate that the fan is good for static pressure. Good to know, but you shouldn't actually have to think about this.

Cooling your CPU: Many, but not all, CPUs will come packaged with a fan and a heatsink. This is almost always garbage, and an after market cooler will always be an improvement in temperatures and reliability. On the left is a typical Intel heatsink, and on the right is a fairly cheap after market cooler:

Notice that the after market cooler has far more fins in the heatsink. This means far better cooling because physics. I would recommend an after market cooler to pretty much anyone who can afford one. Make sure your case has enough room for whatever you choose, and make sure it's for the right CPU socket. Here are some good ones:
Enermax ETS-T40-TB
Silverstone NT06-Pro
Silverstone Ar02
Arctic Freezer Xtreme
●All-in-ones like the Corsair H80i will perform about the same or not perform better enough to justify the added cost.

Cooling the rest of your system: This is about the fans you install in your case. Fan size is measured from one edge to another, rather than from one corner to the other, in millimeters (mm). Most cases will have mounting options for 120mm or 140mm fans. Your case will likely come with several fans and some extra room for more fans should you wish to use it. Besides the looks and the size, there are primarily three statistics to consider when looking at fans:
1) Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM): higher numbers mean higher airflow.
2) dBA (decibels): Below about 25 dBA is essentially inaudible.
3) Static pressure: This isn't usually reported, just look above to see what you should look for.

There is a trade-off between CFM and the other two stats. Quiet fans are quiet in part because they move less air, and optimizing for airflow means not optimizing for static pressure. More airflow is good for open environments like the inside of your case, high static pressure is good for a fan mounted to a heatsink/radiator.

If you buy a good case and manage your cables well, quiet fans should be sufficient to cool your system, and I recommend prioritizing silence over CFM. Here are some good fans to consider:
Silverstone AP series
Corsair AF series quiet edition
Noctua fans (these are expensive and ugly, but widely considered the highest quality fans out there, for good reason)
Noiseblocker black

That should do it for the longer posts in this series. The next should be coming later this week.
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About dagiarratone of us since 2:20 PM on 01.10.2013

I am dagiarrat. I work as a tutor and do a lot of other things for money. My hobby is procrastinating on the internet.