Daily Archives: July 24, 2018

The New Rig in the House

We’ve been running on the same hardware around our house for quite a while now. We are working our way towards museum status on the console front, what with a Wii and a PlayStation 3 still hooked up to the TV and multiple samples of the soon-to-be-abandoned Nintendo DS/3DS line scattered about the landscape.

On the PC front my wife has the most recent machines in the house, both a desktop in her office and a laptop which she uses for work being of recent vintage. My daughter and I were both sitting on some aging processing iron for our gaming needs. But the dam broke on that when my daughter headed back into World of Warcraft. The coming of Battle for Azeroth and the finishing of Legion got her invested again. This will be the last expansion before she heads off to college, so we’ve both been talking it up, making plans, and getting ready.

However, WoW was crashing for her pretty regularly on her old machine, a 2012 vintage iMac. At the time I bought it, the unit was a magnificent piece of hardware, a 27″ model with an i7 Intel processor. But time makes a mockery of hardware that stands still. The burden of regular upgrades to MacOS have slowed the machine down. I cannot say for sure that Apple deliberately hamstrings older models, but they got caught doing that on the iPhone.

My own machine is actually older than hers. I initially put it together back in 2010, which I am shocked to learn was eight years ago now. How does this happen? But I had to refresh it in 2013 when a power supply blew and zapped the motherboard. So I at least have a generation 4 Intel i5 in it, along with an updated video card.

But with an iMac there are no upgrades. That beautiful industrial design, that slim package built around a magnificent screen, that all stays frozen in time. It will always be running a 3rd generation i7 and an nVidia mobile chip set from the time. Even some every day tasks, like web rendering, was feeling a bit on the slow side, and WoW would crash regularly and could barely keep up with the current version of Dalaran. So it was about time for a refresh.

This time around my daughter wanted a Windows machine. The iMac, and the one mentioned here is the third one that has been out in the family room for her to use, was chosen by me due to its ease of administration. Like every corporate IT group, if I have to keep things running then I get to pick the configuration. Also, parental controls were available and easy to configure and maintain relative to the Windows alternatives.

But now she is old enough to drive a car, has a job, and is giving serious thought to exactly which university she wants to attend. Also, she is tired of being limited to the MacOS options when it comes to software, so I did not fight the Window option. If anything, I was in favor of it because it would be cheaper.

I set out to build her a modest but capable Windows desktop. I wanted it to be cheap-ish because she also wants a laptop for school at some point, we still have the whole “pay for college” thing looming in the distance, and I also want to refresh my own desktop at some point.

My new favorite tool for configuring and pricing setups is PC Parts Picker. I spent some time there tinkering with configurations. One of my problems is that it is easy for me to fall prey to the “for just a few dollars more…” aspect of pricing. Why get processor X when processor Y is just $80 more… and you know what, processor Z is just another $120 more than that… and soon I have a configuration priced well beyond what I really want to spend. This time I planned to hold the line.

Fortunately there was some inspiration on PC Part Picker. One of their sample builds was based around the Gen 8 Intel i3 processor. I might have eschewed the low end of the line in the past, but at this point the i3 is a pretty hardy specimen. It now comes with four cores and the clock rate is good, while the heat and power draw are modest.

But what really sold me on the sample config was the case, a small Cooler Master model that, frankly, looked nifty. I don’t know why, I just wanted to build up a PC in that case, and since I was keeping the budget small I thought I might as well keep the form factor small as well. So I ended up with the following parts list:

I was still hemming and hawing about it when Prime Day came along at Amazon and the SSD I wanted was actually one of the sale items. So I ordered that, then just went all-in and ordered everything else.

Everything had arrived by Friday last week so I set about putting everything together on Saturday morning.

Getting the case together and the hardware set did not take too long. I was surprised at how small the Mini ITX motherboard was. It is basically a bit wider than the RAM slots, with just enough room hanging on over the end for a PCIe slot.

Motherboard, CPU in place

I ended up not using the Zalman CPU cooler, opting for the stock one simply because the Zalman was too big for me to attach and work around easily. The stock cooler is probably good enough. We don’t plan on tinkering with clocking or anything.

The video card was missing from the initial build. The one on the list is the one that is in my current machine. I plan to move it over to her system once I get around building out my own new setup. There was also 8GB of RAM to install as well.

Then it came time to install the OS. I went to the Microsoft Store down at the mall to pick up a copy of Windows 10 Home. I’d never actually been inside, so just wanted a reason to go in. The place is pretty empty most times I walk by it, at least compared to the mob that is always in the Apple Store right across the way, so I never go in lest I be pounced upon by the staff. This time I wanted something though, so the pounce, which came right away, was appreciated. Good luck getting helped that fast at the Apple Store.

Of course, installing Windows took longer than actually assembling the hardware.

And not just because the cats stepped in to help…

The Windows installer recognized the SSD just fine, but did not like the way it was formatted, or so I gathered once I deciphered the error. MBR and GPT were new acronyms for me, but it has been a while since I installed a fresh OS. Unfortunately, Googling the error sent me off to the BIOS for some settings that had zero impact on the error. I finally realized I just needed to delete the curren partition on the SSD and let the Windows 10 installer format it however it felt it needed to and everything went fine from there.

Then came the really long task… installing World of Warcraft. That was the first thing my daughter wanted on the machine. But installing WoW, which weighs in at 58GB these days, over WiFi was taking a long time. Eventually I turned everything off and dragged the new box to my office where I could hook it up directly to the router. That sped things up. Then I brought it back out to the family room, got it set up with my old monitor and a scrounged keyboard and mouse, and set her off to try it out.

She was impressed with the load time. WoW practically leaps off of the SSD into memory. She was a little less impressed with the way things looked. However, that was more a matter of going from the really nice screen built-in to the iMac to the hand-me-down 20″ monitor she was using, a unit that dates back to about 2003.

New Rig in Operation

The built-in video support was up to the effort and she was able to move up the grapic settings for WoW to 7 on their basic 1 to 10 scale. When the video card is in place at some point in the future she’ll be able to run at max settings.

As it turns out, you can use the iMac as a monitor, and we even have the cable for it. We will experiment with that this week. But for now she is all set up on a handy little system. I am not as happy with the case as I thought I would be… the moveable front panel aspect of it is kind of flimsy… but the airflow through it is really good. The 140mm fan it comes with barely has to turn to keep the whole thing cool. We shall see how the magnetic dust filters on the top and front work out.

Now I need to use this warm up to help me spec out my own new system.  I will probably go with an Intel i5 for my own use.  I am tempted to go with the Mini ITX motherboard and a small, well ventilated case though.  I don’t need a super-deluxe ATX motherboard with SLI support and all that.  I always overbuild on that front.  This time I will try to keep things slimmed down.