The Great 2012 PC component adventure

The idea was to do a minor upgrade to the two main pcs in the house. I just wanted to bump up the graphics a little bit. My graphics card is an antiquated (by enthusiast standards) radeon hd 5570, while my wife is sporting the also antiquated (by enthusiast standards) geforce 220. I say antiquated (by enthusiast standards) because they are plenty for what we are doing now, but they won’t be able to play new games at max frame rate, and my computers are the one area of life that I like to indulge (on a budget).

sapphire radeon 6850

Sapphire Radeon 6850 - mmmm.

So I set about to choosing a video card. I turned to Tom’s Hardware’s best video cards for the money to help me pick them out. If you are at all geeky about computers and you don’t know about that site, you certainly should check it out. Nearly any time I am trying to find information on a specific pc component, I am able to find it there. The site doesn’t just have a dude throwing out anecdotal evidence for why he thinks one brand is better than the other; there are pages and pages of benchmarks and extensive testing. The testing even breaks it down by what component is better suited for what task. To use a for instance, in the January edition of best processor for the moneyit breaks down the current hundred dollar processors and mentions that the AMD is better suited for multi-tasking, while the Intel counterpart may pull ahead in single application speed. That is exactly why I go there for the majority of my research. So in the aforementioned best graphics card for the money article, I found the Radeon graphics card they recommended in the ~150 dollar price range to be just what I was looking for; I play my games in 1920×1080 or 1920×1200 depending on the game, while the wife plays them at a lower resolution because she likes the interface to be bigger (she is a clicker, not a hotkey-er). This card should be able to run any game in those resolutions without having to lower settings. I was able to pick up a pair of the Sapphire Radeon 6850 cards for 149.99 a piece.

And that is how it all started.

I set about to scrolling through my email for the invoices for all the crap in our current pcs (I never delete any email. I have copied all incoming and outgoing email from pc to pc ((minus obvious junk mail)) for quite literally more than a decade) to see what I put into the power supplies at the time of purchase. You see, the video cards that are currently in our pcs are in there mostly because I was trying to get the best cards I could find without having to run separate power -that is, they are powered by the PCI-e slot alone.

Rosewill RP600V2-S-SL

Rosewill RP600V2-S-SL

It turns out that I (just like all pc manufacturers nowadays) had totally skimped on the power supplies on our current machines. In both cases they have listed the “surge” power on the PC stats, so realistically they are running at about half the listed power (and how can they get by with that? They don’t do that with a power supply when you buy it, why is it different when it comes already in a case?) While my wife’s rig does have a 600w power supply, that is a no-name, 600w “surge” unit that does not have a 6-pin power connector for the PCI-e. My machine only has a 500w “surge” unit, but it does have a 6-pin connector… which really doesn’t make sense, because at the maybe 250 watts it puts out continuously it won’t be able to realistically push a discrete video card in the first place unless I, you know, remove the cpu. At any rate, when I ordered the video cards, I went ahead and ordered a power supply unit as well. I ordered a Rosewill Rosewill RP600V2-S-SL 600w power supply for $59.99. I did this based on favorable results I have had with Rosewill power supplies in the past, as well as the ratings the power supply has on NewEgg. A lot of enthusiasts throw around the “you don’t want to run a cheap power supply like that because it will fry your whole system” phrase. But, what? In the 501-600 watt category on NewEgg, this particular unit has 73% five star ratings, which is better than the OCZ Fatal1ty and ModXstream, better than the Antec TruePower, better than the SeaSonic Bronze, better than the Corsair Gaming series. In fact the only supply you can find with a better % of 5 star ratings is the Antec BP 550 and then a few that have under 35 reviews, while this one has over 600. So I can’t figure out what they are basing this on. That is actually the reason I am writing this, but I will get to that later.

When the cards arrived, I threw them right into the pc’s. More or less as expected, my machine would fire up and run with it, but when I attempted to actually use the card to play a game the system would simply shut off. The wife’s machine could run it, but barely. It soon became evident that I would need to get a new power supply for her machine as well. So I ordered another of the Rosewill ones pictured above to replace the cheap-ass, flimsy crap that came with the system.

Roswill X3 Gamer Case

Roswill X3 Gear Case

top fan detailHere is the part where I curse NewEgg (where I buy all my parts). When I went online to order her power supply, they had the exact case I had been planning to buy for my next pc build on sale with their shell shocker deal for … $39.99. When I say it was the exact case I had been wanting, I don’t mean that I was looking at this case and a few others too, I mean I had done some research on cases, I narrowed my decision down to a few different ones, then I watched the NewEgg review of it on YouTubeand decided it was definitely the case I wanted. The major selling points for me were: 1)A single USB 3.0 on the front panel; I recently got an external hard drive that uses USB 3.0, and I currently have it running through a 2.0 on my machine. I am storing all my programming crap on the external drive so I don’t have to copy it to a thumb drive anytime I want to use it on a different machine. Having the USB 3.0 on the front panel will make that so much easier. 2) The case has one front, two top, two side, and one rear fan position. I intend to use them all -more air is always better. 3)There are slide-out, washable filters on the PSU intake and front fan intake. I have several dogs that like to strategically place their hair all over the case fans on my PC’s, hopefully this will alleviate some of that. This leads us nicely into 4) The thing that sets this case apart from all others I had been looking at is what you see to the right here: The top fans can be lifted out for cleaning. My current rig has 2 top fans, but to clean them I have to disconnect all the cables and take the pc out, otherwise I have to blow the dust down on top of the MOBO and other components. With this I should be able to quickly snap them out, hit them with compressed air and be right back in business. In theory.

At this point, I had already purchased three out of 8 of the components necessary to build two new ground up pcs, so I started shopping that idea to see if I could come up with a build that was 1) forward compatible. 2) A reasonable upgrade over our existing systems. 3) Cheap. And while I didn’t know it at the time, 4) Just to piss off some smug, know-it-all enthusiasts. Here is the final build -in image form, as the cart came through in email with base64 encryption, which didn’t transfer to the web page. I also made it into a public wish list, which looks like it will stay active for about six months, after which that link will be broken and I will be directly responsible for slopp(ier that usual)y writing.

newegg shopping cart

I’m no computer expert and I don’t pretend to be. I would have been happy to hide in a dark corner somewhere to build this budget box and never tell anyone what components went into it… Had it not been for the wild, unsubstantiated facts that were being spewed to me when I asked for a compatibility check in a popular pc building forum. First up was this one:

…It’s a low quality power supply that could potentially fry other computer components. The Seasonic 520W would output more in reality and definitely safer. Alternatives are the Atnec Earthwatts Green 500W (no power cords included) .

This scared the beejeezeus out of me. Could my choice of this piece of shit power supply cause my entire pc to catch fire, rape my wife, stalk and kill my children? Oh noes! That actually talked me out of the build completely for about a week. That was when I started reading customer reviews for the power supplies (and other components) and tried to find evidence beyond anecdotal of this (or any other for that matter) spontaneously exploding and taking the rest of the machine with it. Sure, there is this video (which is thrown about on every pc building forum):

What you’ll notice about that video is that -like all tests designed for a specific result- they conveniently don’t tell you what they are testing, don’t show you any evidence of what load is on it, don’t perform the same test on units from multiple brands, hell, for all I know this is corsair performing this test on their very own power unit.

Next up is my immense annoyance at what constitutes a low quality computer component. What is this based on? I don’t know of any pc part manufacturers that say like, “Buy Widget Brand motherboards, creating low quality pc components for over 3 days now”. Feel free to take the time to search the internet for any computer parts being advertised as “low quality”, I think you’ll come up with the same thing I did: nada. In fact the only references to ‘low quality’ that I can come up with in any reputable review or benchmark testing is in reference to the video setting on graphics cards during testing. Simply put: low quality computer parts is a subjective term. If you have an old eMachine or Dell system laying around somewhere, go pop the cover off of it and take a look at the stock power supply. All of them that I have laying around (about three) have a power supply that is non-descript, wrapped in some cheap galvanized looking tin, look flimsy, feel flimsy, and weight about 10% of what any hard drive you can buy from NewEgg does. I actually wrote about that when I was replacing the stock power supply in my first CyberPower PC. So to me, and probably any layman out there, I think the definition of a low quality power supply would be these cheap-ass, stock power supplies. To some enthusiasts, however, anything that is not their preferred brand gets that moniker.

Since the power supply that was suggested several times as the best replacement for the Rosewill was the Seasonic 520 Bronze, I started to compare the two as objectively as I could with the information I had at my disposal. They had roughly an equal % of DOA complaints -but I would ignore those anyway as DOA does happen and NewEgg is stellar at their customer service and RMA process. As I mentioned way up in this page, the Rosewill power supply that I bought has 73% 5 star ratings on newegg. The Seasonic 520w Bronze currently has 67% 5 star ratings. Of those reviews, 5% (3) are 1 star ratings that say that this high quality psu failed between six and nine months. A direct comparison to the customer reviews of the Rosewill product is difficult since it has 10 times the customer ratings, but I went through the 100 most recent reviews (35 more reviews than the Seasonic has total), and there are also about 5% (5) 1 star ratings based on longevity, only in the case of the Rosewill there is one instance where the customer review says it lasted only six months, while the other four gave it a one star rating because it lasted between 2.5 and 3.5 years. So the average complaint of failure of the high quality Seasonic is 7 months, the average complaint of failure of the low quality Rosewill is 2.25 years. So the term low quality is subjective indeed.

It was at about that point that I realized that it is all bullshit. This is really no different than someone who really likes Ford saying that Chevy is poorly built, shoddy crap, and any foreign cars are death traps held together by rice paper and spit. Someone uses a particular component (a power supply in this case) and every other one is worthless crap. I did find one little nugget in a forum that proves a point (although I think it is exactly the opposite of what the poster was going for):

A low quality psu can do all kinds of things including frying your entire system…if you try to run it anywhere near the overexaggerated wattage rating

Well that is true of any power supply, isn’t it?

The thing is that in the case of Chevy vs. Ford I know that it is just an opinion. In the case of the power supplies I was under the (mistaken) impression that there was undeniable truth to what the tech guys were saying on the forums. I am thankful that I took the time to look a bit further into this because it really changed my entire view of pc building. Every stat I need to know is right there in the component listing, and rather than taking the advice of someone who says that component x is worthless at face value, I can read reviews of actual customers to see if that opinion has merit. In every case in this budget build, the answer to that question was a resounding no.

With all that in mind, I put the pc back together using my own research instead of listening to what the tech guys in the forums were saying. I went with the Intel BOXDH67CLB3 LGA 1155 Intel H67 motherboard because it had the features I was looking for: USB 3.0, SATA 6gb/s, 4×240 pin DDR3 SDRAM, a much lower sticker price and, you guessed it, better customer reviews than the MSI H67A-G43 (B3) LGA 1155 Intel H67 that was being recommended. The Intel Core i3-2120 Sandy Bridge was a no brainer at that price range. And of course for the RAM I went with the Team Elite 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM because, once again, it had a much lower sticker price than what was being suggested (G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333) and had great customer reviews. And that is what happened with every other component in the build.

To be fair, I haven’t built this thing yet, so it is entirely possible that once I hit the power button it will catch fire, rape my wife, stalk and kill my children. …I’m going to call that unlikely… Since I’m going to assume that’s not going to happen, the bottom line is that I saved myself about 20% off of what the tech guys recommended, and got these two machines built with the components you see listed for about $731 each (after bundle discounts and shipping). I’m not saying that you should outright ignore input on a pc build, but I am saying that you should definitely use that input to augment your own research and make a relatively informed decision; just because TechMan2012 has godlike builder status in the forums doesn’t necessarily mean his opinion is gospel.

Power supply replacement

If you know me at all, or if you happen across my website once every 6 months or so, you know that I go through a lot of pc’s around my place. At any given moment there are always a minimum of three pc’s up and operating in the room I am sitting in now, additionally I have a laptop connected to the TV in my living room right now to use for instant video through Netflix. Normally I think of the PC’s as disposable, however since I have been doing a lot more tinkering with them lately, I have started to become a little more attached to them. The one you see in the picture here was the first one that I really started customizing. In a previous post, I detailed the time and effort spent sawing through the top of this case when I made it my mission to get 4 case fans installed in it. And I really loved how it looked when I finished it. So after I put all the time and effort into it, I was a little too attached to it to just give up on it when it quit working last week.

Oddly the power supply is the one thing that I have never replaced in a pc. I say oddly because I have replaced pretty much everything else, even the cpu, but the power supply is the one part that I have never actually pulled out of the case and changed. Well, I have never changed a motherboard either, but IMO the motherboard and case are the PC, so if you plan on changing one of them you may as well just move to a new box/motherboard combo and call it a new pc.

I bought a new Rosewill power supply unit. This one is 500 watts, so only a very slight upgrade from the previous one, but being a better name, I expected the quality of this to be far superior to the one that had been in the tower in the first place. There was also a less important concern with aesthetics; this one has two blue LED fans to match the case as well as the wrapped cables you see in the picture here. The lines wrapped around the ribbons glow under the lights in the case also. So with the wrapped cables eliminating most of the wire clutter in the tower and the additional glow of the striped cables the whole setup looks far better than it did before. If I were to base the relative quality of the product on weight alone (certainly not the best measure of quality) this one is far superior to the supply it was replacing. The listed weight on this is 5.2 lbs and it certainly feels like it. The old psu, while 480 watts, so only nominally smaller in output, barely weighed 1.5lbs.

My only real concern with the new power supply was with the cables. There were so many different letters in the descriptions -SATA, MOLEX, ATS, EPX,- it had me a bit frightened. Most concerning though was whether a 24pin connector was the same as a 20+4pin connector. I mean, if its the same thing then why are there separate listings for 24pin and 20+4 pin? Is the 20+4pin an older version that was later incorporated as standard into motherboards until eventually they dropped the confusing +4pin descriptor? Thankfully I never had to learn since it all worked when I hooked it up.

In addition to cleaning up the inside of the case by wrapping all the power cables, the inside was further reduced of clutter by being able to directly plug in the hard drive and dvd drives, which had been run through a 4-pin converter on the old power supply but could be directly hooked up with the (SATA?) cables the new psu came with. I only took one picture of it after I got it put back together and then stuck it back beside and behind my wife’s desk (this is our third pc right now, so for backup and occasional internet use only) before I found that the picture didn’t turn out, so until I feel the urge to slide it back out you’ll just have to take my word that it looks considerably better.

But the reason for this post is that I began to wonder -after seeing how easy it was to replace the power supply- if the industry intentionally uses so many acronyms and abbreviations for the cables and plugs on the inside of pcs to try to intimidate the average Joe into thinking that they are difficult to work on. Or perhaps the enthusiasts that build their own machines perpetuate the use of the jargon to make themselves sound more knowledgeable than they really are? At any rate, each new project I work on with regards to pcs makes me realize that they are extremely simple to work on and I’m not sure why I find that surprising anymore.

Happy new keyboard day to me!

When I initially set this site up all those years ago, I never really planned for it to become a daily “blog” type thing. That just sort of happened. Much in the same way that I never intended for it to become a daily thing, I also never really planned to stop posting, that also just sort of happened.

As I write now, I have just had a birthday (33 candles, happy birthday to me!). As I sit and think about it, I have had more changes in my life -very drastic changes- in the last year (18 months to be fair) than I had experienced in the other 31+ years leading up to it. Without going into too much boring detail, I will just say that now, for the first time I can really remember, my life doesn’t suck. I am not unhappy. I can’t think of anything that I would really want to change or improve (sure I would love to be rich, and I have always wanted to have chiseled abs, but one mustn’t be greedy). A lot of what I used to post about here was self-deprecating, and with the changes in my life over the last year or so, I am just about out of that type of material. I guess what I am getting at here is that happiness just isn’t a very rich subject to write about.

That is the deep, philosophical reason for why I haven’t been posting anything lately. Now for the shallow, material reason that I haven’t been posting anything: My keyboard sucks!

I bought a new keyboard about a year ago, I remember writing a post about the process, but I can’t seem to find it now. Anyway, I always have a problem finding a keyboard because it has to, and I mean has to have four very simple features:

1) It has to be a v-shaped keyboard. Most companies call that “ergonomic”, but I happened across a keyboard that used that term for a standard keyboard. I guess having some wrist padding on the front of it also qualifies it as such. When I do get to writing, I write a lot and I write pretty fast. A standard keyboard starts to really burn on my wrists after only thirty minutes or so of concentrated writing action, so when I do decide to write something, I need the relative comfort of the v shape or it is right out the window.

2) The left, down, and right arrow have to be lined up side by side. I always thought that this was the only configuration for them until I started trying to find a new keyboard. For some reason a lot of keyboards now have all the arrow keys lined up almost in a cross pattern; like a video game controller. I can’t use them when they are set up like that. When you spend 30 years typing on them in one configuration, it is difficult to change to another layout. So any keyboard that doesn’t meet this very simple standard is out of the question.

3) The backspace key has to be a double-sized key. I am so used to using a larger backspace key, and I use it so often to correct myself while typing that if it is a standard, letter-sized key, I will end up with sentences that look like this “Teh=he cow jumpd=ed over teh=he mon=on”. That is assuming that the key next to the backspace is the “=” key. I don’t look at the keys while I type, but I also don’t really look at the screen. When I am typing, I am putting it to paper (well, the keyboard) as fast as I am thinking it, and I know, even without looking at either, when I have made a mistake. I will correct the mistakes as I go without ever having to look down. Unless, of course, the backspace key has been secretly replaced by another key, in which case I will be throwing a whole bunch of random characters in that I will have to go back and decipher later. So, no double-sized backspace key, no keyboard for me.

4) The [insert][home][page up] keys have to be in a single row right above another row with the [delete][end][page down] keys. For unknown reasons, some keyboards have changed those rows to being only 2 keys wide but three keys high. That may save them a fraction of an inch in overall keyboard width, but it seriously fucks with me when I am trying to find the keys. I may not get a hell of a lot of use out of those keys, but they need to be where they should be, and in the right damn order, when I do need them.

It would seem like those four things would be easy enough to find in a keyboard, but in practice, it is hard as hell to find all four on the same keyboard. First off, it seems that the v-shaped keyboards are falling out of favor. It used to be that if you searched keyboards at any pc supply website, you would get at least half of the returns for v-shaped ones. Now it seems that there are usually only one or two, usually either Microsoft or a brand that you have never heard of. Never anything in the middle of the road on that one. Not a cheaper one from a company that you may have bought some other product from to be able to judge whether you would like it or not based on previous experience (unless you count Microsoft, but if I get to basing whether I will like a keyboard on how much I hate the latest version of their OS, I will never buy another MS product. I still think it has been straight downhill since windows 3.1), either Microsoft of Nakashimiashi. Nothing else.

The last time I bought a keyboard, every Microsoft keyboard that I could find was missing one of my four key features. In fact the only keyboard that I could find which actually had all four was a Belkin, which I am sure you will all recognize as the leading manufacturer of pc accessories (I put that in as sarcasm, but for all I know they really are). The keyboard looked just about like this one:

I started having problems with it almost immediately. Since the shape of the keyboard is basically like a little hill, with the t and y keys right about the top of it, one would assume that the keys were somehow set up so that the keystrokes would be slightly off from straight down. One would be wrong. So while my hands were not sitting flat, it was required that I push the keys down straight, else they would be hard to push, and also stick a lot. This was a nuisance for sure, but something that I got used to since it was my only option other than a keyboard that either wasn’t v-shaped, or one that was missing most of the other features I was looking for.

As time passed though, the problem got much, much worse. The last time I actually tried to type anything other than an instant message on it, I had to spend at least 3x as long correcting myself as I did writing it in the first place. The keys were sticking on nearly every word, and some of them didn’t get pressed hard enough (or straight enough down) to show up at all. Note that the keyboard still function just fine, you just have to hold your hands slightly raised from it while you type. If you rest your palms in their natural position, you can’t push the keys straight down. That is both maddening and painful.

After having to type something on my pc, the wife decided to gift me a new keyboard for my birthday. See, she hated it so much after just one session, and a short one at that, that she had to do something about it. She ran into the same wall when trying to find a keyboard that was suitable though. When she finally did find one that matched all of my criteria, it was actually a Microsoft one. The one that she bought me looks just like this:

The layout of the keys is right, but the shape is just a bit odd. Some of the keys really are curved a little bit, and it feels a bit odd to type on it. However, it doesn’t seem to be having the same issue the old one did when it comes to pushing down the keys. Also to note that I didn’t install whatever it was that came on the cd with the thing. I have never done that with any microsoft product that I have plugged into my machine; every problem I have with my pc is with a microsoft product. Be it windows or messenger (which I use very rarely, and which always encounters an error on close), every pc problem is microsoft related and I somehow doubt that adding more ms products to it is likely to help -like putting gasoline on a fire to put it out. For now it seems to be working just fine for me.

And who knows, maybe if the keyboard works out okay for me, I might go ahead and throw a post up here from time to time.

I make no promises.