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How To Choose And Configure A Custom Desktop System

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MattSlagle View Drop Down
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  Quote MattSlagle Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: How To Choose And Configure A Custom Desktop System
    Posted: 02 Jun 2008 at 2:18pm

How To Choose And Configure A Custom Desktop System

So you are shopping for either your first computer system or your fifth.  Either way, deciding upon components can be one of the hardest decisions to make.  It is all about finding the right price/performance ratio and if your components will meet your needs.  This article will try to help explain the process to go through for configuring each of the basic types of desktop computers.  Before reviewing this article, please make sure to review all the other articles on each and every single part inside the computer system.  Those single hardware guides go into much more detail than this guide does.

The Basic System


The basic system is the bare minimum needed to get a fully operational system.  You will be truly surprised how little components are needed to get a working system.  The basic system will be base for all other types of the systems that you can choose to follow.  Each of the separate systems either add or change from the basic system in some way.



Case: The case is there to protect the computer components from the outside world.  It also serves to house the cooling systems which keep the computer components cool and at the ideal operating temperatures.
Motherboard: The motherboard is where all the different components connect to.  There are different motherboards for different types of computing.  Usually basic motherboards have much onboard processing such as audio, video, external connections (USB, Firewire, Ethernet), and etc.
Processor: The processor is the main brain of the system.  The faster the CPU, usually the more data that can processed by the system.
Ram: The memory is where all the data is stored while in use.
Hard Drive: Hard drive is where data that is not being used is stored. 
Optical Drive: Optical drive is to load data into the system.  While not needed after the installation of the OS, it is still useful to burning data to optical disks and loading data and programs bought.
Power Supply: The power supply powers everything else in the system.  It takes normal household AC electricity and converts it down to DC levels that computer can use.
Operating System: This software controls the hardware and how it interacts with other software in the system.  Different OS are used for different uses.

Gaming System

A gaming system can be thought of as the top of the line consumer computer system.  It usually utilizes the fastest components so that games play at their full resolution and settings for maximum visual effect.  Extra pieces of hardware are usually bought to increase the standard motherboard hardware such as better sound cards and network cards.  Almost every single gaming system uses an external video card to supplement or replace the motherboard video capabilities.


Case: The case for a gaming system has to be large enough to handle the motherboard and components.  Gaming systems usually feature large video cards and CPU coolers to increase performance yet keep temperatures down.  Also, many gamers like to have stylish cases which are different and better looking than "normal" desktop cases.
Motherboard: The motherboard of a gaming system usually features the fastest types of buses (FSB, memory bus, PCI-Express) to connect equally fast hardware too.  These motherboards usually feature some type of cooling system for the onboard components.
Processor: The processor of a gaming system needs to be as fast as possible to calculate the physics of the game and handle the general game engine code.  Most games do not take advantage of multiple core CPUs (dual-core and quad-core), but future games are beginning to support that feature.  Dual-core at a high frequency is currently the best solution, but quad-core CPUs are coming down in price while going up in speeds which also makes it an equally popular option.
Ram: The memory of a gaming system has to be equally fast in performance as the processor.  Many games do not require large amounts of memory to get the best performance.  To get the best performance, 4 GB of fast memory is the the best current solution.
Hard Drive: Hard drive of a gaming system depends on the type of player.  A faster 10K HDD (WD Raptor series) will load the many game files faster allowing slower loading times, but offer decreased sizes and higher costs.  A slower drive will offer much larger storage for loading more games and also saving many music and video data files.  Depending upon your needs will influence your decision.

A popular option is to get both drives.  The fast 10K drive is used to store and load the OS and game files, while the larger drive is used to hold the user's data. 

Optical Drive: Optical drive of a gaming system is used to load and store the game data from the game disk onto the system.  In the old days when hard drives were much smaller, games would run directly from optical drive and thus needed the fastest drive possible.  Now with the advent of very large and cheap HDDs, most games install all the game data onto the HDD, so the need for a fast optical drive is no longer a priority.

Most games now use the DVD format, so adding a DVD drive is important.  DVD-writer drives now cost only a few dollars more than the non-writing counterpart.  It would be wise to spend the extra money on such a drive.  In a few short years, game makers will be producing game disks on higher capacity drives than DVD such as Blu-Ray like as is done currently for the SONY PS3.  However, it would be wise to not upgrade yet as the potential for a different technology in the future may happen within that timeframe.

Power Supply: The power supply of a gaming system needs to be powerful enough to handle the power-hungry components such as the processor and video cards.  A base starting point for a gaming system is 550-600 watt PSU for single CPU and GPU combination.  Add 150 watts for each additional GPU or CPU added to the system.  That means a single CPU running Tri-SLI (3 GPUs) should have a PSU rated for at least 900 watts to handle all that power.

However, this recommendation is for near top of the line hardware.  Your PSU requirements may be lower or higher depending on which hardware you select.

Operating System: The OS of a gaming system is currently mainly Windows XP or Vista.  XP is still good to use because older games are not supported on Vista and older hardware may not compatible with Vista.  Vista is great to use for newer games so that DirectX 10 can be used for even greater visual appeal.

32-bit OS is to be used with less than 4 GB of system memory.  64-bit OS should be used with 4 GB or more of system memory.  How the OS are designed, a 32-bit OS cannot use more than the 4 GB of memory and would be pointless to use such a combination.

Required Extra Hardware For This System Type

Video Card: Almost all onboard video processors cannot handle the immense amount of 3D processor required to run a current game.  Video cards are used to take this task away from the onboard processing and transfer it to hardware that is designed for these types of calculations.  The larger number of processing units and the faster the video card processor and memory speeds,  the faster the video card can render a single 3D image.  The larger the memory on the video card the larger a 3D image the card can render correctly without losing rendering speeds.
Cooling: Most processors come with stock coolers, but can be inefficient and loud.  Aftermarket cooling systems such as:  better air coolers, liquid cooling, and peltier elements can keep the system cooler while keeping noise levels down.  Also replacing the noisy case fans with aftermarket fans will also help lower the temperatures while also lowering noise levels.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Network Card: While almost motherboards feature an Ethernet connection, the CPU and system spends a few cycles to regulate and control this onboard hardware.  Transferring this control to an external card may help improve game performance while also increasing the performance of the internet connection.
Sound Card: While almost motherboards feature onboard audio, the CPU and system spends a few cycles to regulate and control this onboard hardware.  Transferring this control to an external card may help improve game performance while usually increasing the quality of the sound.  It also allows the usage of a multi-channel speaker setup if the motherboard did not support such a feature.
Case Mods: Most gamers prefer to accentuate their cases with popular options such as windows, lighting effects, and designs.  While not adding adding to the performance of the system, it is akin to adding bodywork onto a car.  It shows the performance of the system without actually seeing what is inside.

Home Office System


A home office system is the most popular choice for regular computer users.  It has enough processing power to handle most of the normal computing needs of the average consumer.  Large hard drives are used because an average consumer now likes to listen to music and download lots of data.  Usually the basic system is enough, but a few optional hardware additions can add much value to such a system.


Case: The case for a home office does not need to be flashy in any way.  Most home office systems are hidden below a desk anyways.  Something to look for in a case is the size of the case and the connectors at the front.  Most home office cases should be a mid-tower cases to hold a normal ATX motherboard.  The more front ports (USB, Firewire, Audio, E-SATA) the less likely you will need to crawl behind the case in the event to attach something to the system.
Motherboard: The motherboard of a home office system should be of ATX size for maximum value to performance and ease of upgrading.  Should also look for current technology such as DVI ports and many USB ports.  Also look for onboard solutions such as onboard sound, video, and Ethernet hardware.
Processor: The processor of a home office system does not need to be top of the line.  Most applications for home office use rely more on memory and hard drives more than the speed of the processor.  However, multiple cores will speed up the system as a whole as multiple open documents and programs will benefit more from quad-core processors than a faster dual-core processor.
Ram: The memory of a home office system should be at least 2 GB and recommended at 4 GB.  Most home office applications benefit from this memory amount and opening many instances of programs and data will benefit even more from more amounts of memory.
Hard Drive: Hard drive of a home office system should be as large as the budget allows.  Most users like to download audio and video files and install many programs.  This can quickly eat up much of the available hard drive space.  If the data is important, a second hard drive setup to save the data on the first drive in a Raid 1 combination will be helpful if either drive fails.
Optical Drive: Optical drive of a home office system should be at least a DVD-writer.  This way, most current applications can be loaded on the system and data can also be written to these disk types as well.  Unless watching high-def movies, a next generation optical drive is not needed as most home office applications are still using old CD-ROM technology.
Power Supply: The power supply of a home office system is usually included with the case, unless a custom case is used.  These are rated anywhere from 300 to 550 watts and should be powerful for any home office system.  Unless using additional add-in cards and multiple hard drives or better processors, and upgrade is not mandatory.
Operating System: The OS of a home office is most likely going to be either Windows XP or Vista.  Most home office users are accustomed to this OS and any others may be confusing.  32-bit OS is the best choice unless using 4 GB or more of memory or plan on upgrading to this amount later on.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Sound Card: While almost motherboards feature onboard audio, the CPU and system spends a few cycles to regulate and control this onboard hardware.  Also, the home office system may be used to play music through external speakers or audio system.  A better sound card will improve the performance and clarity of the audio.
Cooling: Most processors come with stock coolers, but can be inefficient and loud.  Aftermarket air coolers will definitely lower the noise level of the system.  Case fans on less expensive cases may also prove to be loud which can be replaced with quieter aftermarket case fans.

Media Editing System

The media editing system is designed for the consumer as stable and quiet powerful system for editing audio or video files.  It uses standard desktop components as opposed to the professional systems which use workstation and server components.  It features large amounts of ram and hard drive space so that it can work efficiently with very large file sizes.


Case: Most media editing systems need to be as quiet as possible so that the recording of audio and video is as background noise free as possible.  Zalman creates a completely noiseless system that uses passive cooling.  Antec makes some cases which has foam inside the panels to reduce noise such as the P180 series.
Motherboard: A standard desktop motherboard will suffice as this system will not be overclocking or using the fastest processors and memories.  Be on the lookout for motherboards with firewire wire inputs as these are the de facto standard for hooking up digital video camcorders.
Processor: Most audio and video editing programs now take advantage of multiple cored processors when they encode their files.  It would be recommended to use a quad-core processor.  A faster quad-core would speed up rendering and encoding times, but would only speed it up by 10% or so.  A mid-range quad-core processor is the best recommended solution.
Ram: Since these files can be very large, large amounts of ram will benefit more than the speed of the ram.  4 GB is the recommended minimum while 8 GB will truly help in working with very large files.  DDR2-800 ram is recommended as 8 GB of DDR3 ram can cost up to 4x as much as DDR2.
Hard Drive: Two separate HDDs are recommended in a system such as this.  A small disk (80 - 200 GB) is used as the system disk where all the OS and program files are stored.  A secondary larger disk(s) (500 GB - 1 TB) of storage is recommended for the data files.  Raid 0 can be used to achieve faster performance and larger logical HDD space.
Optical Drive: At minimum, a dual-layer DVD burner is needed to burn movies to disk.  This same drive can also be used to burn music to CDs as well.  If working with high-definition video, a Blu-Ray burner is needed to burn the content to the required Blu-Ray disks for high-definition playback.
Power Supply: Unless purchasing a specialized case, most standard cases come with a PSU.  However that might not be quiet or rated high enough with the components installed.  If a high-end system is being built, it is recommended to have at least 550 watts.
Operating System: Using more than 4 GB of memory will need an OS with 64-bit support.  XP does have 64-bit versions, but many hardware vendors do not support this OS.  There is much better Vista 64-bit support.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

While all the above will be enough to accomplish media editing tasks, the below is strongly recommended for full performance.

Sound Card: Most mid-range motherboards feature decent audio encoding chipsets.  However for the best audio capturing possible, an internal audio card or external USB audio device is necessary.  These devices allow the connection of MIDI instruments, high-end digital recording equipment, and the usage of other audio equipment that standard motherboards just do not support.
Graphics Card: While audio editing does not need a video card, a discrete video card will allow better Vista performance with its 3D effects built in.  A professional video card (NVidia Quaddro or ATI FireGL cards) is recommended as these cards are designed to be used with hardware supported OpenGL effects, which many video editing software suites use.  While not good for gaming, these cards are better suited for this application than standard gaming video cards.  Many of them also offer multiple monitor support which is needed or preferred with some media editing programs.
Video Capture Card: While some graphics cards can capture video and firewire ports can transmit DV quality video from camcorder to computer, none of these can transmit high-def video from a high-def camcorder.  An extra PCI-Express card is needed which supports HDMI encoding.
Case Mods: If recording in the same room as the system, additional cooling or sound dampening may be needed to completely reduce the noise levels.  This may include changing the CPU cooler, changing the case fans, or adding acoustic foam to the case.

Small Form Factor System

While a small form factor (SFF) system is just like any other desktop, it uses smaller components to fit the system into smaller cases and spaces.  Due to this, different issues need to be address such as cooling, amount of components, and power which may not appear in a normal sized desktop machine.  Also while the SFF may be able to perform any of the other roles of a normal desktop sized system, its smaller size may limit its effectiveness.


Case: Most SFF cases accept the mATX motherboard format.  A popular design is a cubed-shaped with places the motherboard on the bottom, and stacks the components (optical drive, HDDs, PSU) on top of the motherboard, creating a smaller system footprint.  Another popular design is akin to the older popular "desktop" style, place the components like a standard case, but the case lies horizontal instead of vertical. 
Motherboard: The mATX format takes the standard ATX format, and reduces its size by a few inches horizontally.  Because of this, the mother has reduced amounts of expansion slots and features.  Currently, multiple video cards are not supported and overclocking is also not supported on many mATX boards.  Also finding the same feature set on a standard ATX board may not be available on a mATX board.  Some SFF systems also feature proprietary sizes which are not interchangeable with other motherboards.
Processor: Most current mATX boards can accept the same processors as the ATX boards.  But because of the smaller design, heat from the top of the line processors is hard to disperse effectively.  Therefore a mid-range processor is recommended to keep heat levels in check.
Ram: Most mATX boards can only accept 2 DIMMs of DDR2 memory.  This limits the hardware to only 4 GB total.  Some might offer 4 DIMMs, but many mATX boards are limited to 4 GB of memory either by design or by chipset limitations.  However, 4 GB is plenty for a system of this type.
Hard Drive: The cases of SFF systems may only accept one or two HDDs.  Depending on your SFF system function, choose the HDD size and speed based on that.  Most systems have no need for more than 2 HDDs anyway.
Optical Drive: Some systems may offer only one external drive.  A DVD writer drive is recommended unless support for high-def is needed.
Power Supply: Most of these systems come with a built in PSU as standard.  Some of the larger cases might be able accept aftermarket PSUs, but many of them are proprietary.  If using high-end components, that case's PSU may be inadequate.  Either use a different case with better PSU or down-grade your components.
Operating System: Since 4 GB seems to be the maximum at the moment, a 32-bit OS can be recommended such as XP or Vista.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Graphics Card: While a SFF can make a great gaming system, the size of the case and motherboard layout can limit the size of the video card.  Some cases limit the video card to 8" or smaller, which means the newer generation of mid to high range video cards is off limits.  Most of these systems can only use a single slot video card, so a 8800 GT or 9600 GT is recommended.
Remote Interface: Most SFF systems are designed to be connected to a home entertainment system.  A remote interface allows the user to control the system from a couch some distance away without using a wireless keyboard or mouse.

Overclocking System

A highly OC system requires that all the components be able to overclock to a very high degree.  Most hardware companies produce such hardware in the "Enthusiast" category, but comes with a price premium.  This system is mainly used to either run games at high detail, run intense computing programs (F@H), or just plain reach the highest OC possible while being stable.  Most people only care about the processor speed, but many other components such as the ram, video card, motherboard, and possibly even hard drives can be OC.


Case: An OC system generates much more heat than the same system that is not OC.  Because of this, a large case such as a full tower is necessary to house all the cooling hardware needed.  A bigger case is also much easier to cool than the same hardware in a smaller case.  Also OC requires constant access to the motherboard to clear BIOS settings and remove/change components, which is easier in a larger case.

Some extreme OCers forego the case completely and use a specialized stand for this type of enthusiast.  However, this type of setup is not recommended for extended usage and the proper hardware must be used with this.

Motherboard: To OC properly, the motherboard much have an unlocked BIOS which allows to change the settings such as the FSB and voltages.  Without access to this, OC cannot be done at all, or it can be done through software, but not as effectively.  Also, the motherboard must be able to accept a high FSB such as 1333 MHz or 1600 MHz and be able to accept fast ram such as DD2-1200 or DDR3-2000.  I will not get into specifics as why, but the higher the numbers, the higher the components can be OC without the motherboard being the weak link.
Processor: While any processor can be OC, an unlocked processor allows just the processor to OC independent of the motherboard and ram.  A locked processor cannot have its multiplier changed, so to raise the processor frequency, the FSB must be raised.  While moderately high clock rates can be achieved, the motherboard can only support a FSB so high before it fails.  This may be under what the maximum frequency the processor may be able to support.  Intel and AMD both produce unlocked processors in the "Extreme" and "Black" editions respectively.
Ram: The faster the memory, the faster the processor can go without exceeding the bandwidth of the memory bus.  When that happens, slower performance may be seen even with high processor frequencies.  Also, ram manufacturers each produce their own line of OC friendly ram which have high clock rates such as DDR2-1160 or DDR3-1800 which exceed the standards set forth by the JEDEC (memory manufacturer's consortium).  While normal DDR2-800 and DDR3-1600 ram may clock that high, this ram has been tested to reach these levels without failing.
Hard Drive: Any hard drive is capable of working in an OC machine, but a slow HDD can affect some scores in performance testing machines.  For the best performance, two high speed 10K or 15K drives in a Raid 0 array will allow for the fastest transfer of data.
Optical Drive: Any optical drive will suffice as long as it has the features needed in the system.
Power Supply: The PSU of an OC system needs to be quite large to support the increased voltages and frequencies.  While increasing the frequency of a component will increase the power used linearly, increasing the voltage will increase the power used by a quadratic rate.  This increase in power use can actually double for some components.  A large PSU such as 1000 watts and above is recommended for any highly OC system which top of the line components.
Operating System: While an overclock is entirely dependant on hardware rather than software, most consumer overclock utilities are created for Windows XP or Vista.

Required Extra Hardware For This System Type

Cooling: Because of all the excessive heat created, specialized cooling has to be used when doing extreme overclocks.  Liquid cooling is a popular option as many more "ready to use" systems are being created all the time.  They can effectively cool down the CPU to keep it stable.  Custom liquid cooling setups are necessary for the more extreme OCs as these "ready to use" systems are mainly rated for stock speeds and temperatures.  A liquid system is also possible to cool GPUs and chipsets which other extreme cooling solutions cannot do.

Another more extreme option is phase cooling or thermo electric cooling.  Both of these technologies create temperature difference that is less than room temperature.  With the right setup, these systems can remove more heat than a liquid cooling setup.

The most extreme solution is to use liquid nitrogen or dry ice.  A specialized container is used to directly place these super cold substances directly on the processor block.  However, this is dangerous to the equipment, expensive, and cannot be used for daily use computers.  However the highest record-holding OCs use these technologies.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Video Card: To see the most performance out of this system without relying on test scores a video card is needed to play any type of 3D computer game.  Also the enthusiast OCer may also want to OC his video card for even more performance or for added enjoyment.  To OC this component correctly, a PSU large enough and proper cooling (aftermarket air cooling or liquid) is needed.
Monitoring Hardware: External screens which connect to the motherboard can represent in real time the temperatures and performance levels of the different components of the system.  It can be great in determining the actual OC and keeping track of errors and instabilities.

Other Systems

If you feel like another system type should be added, please leave a comment in this thread.

Edited by MattSlagle - 05 Jun 2008 at 11:35am
Matt Slagle
AVADirect Research and Developement
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Airball View Drop Down
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  Quote Airball Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13 Dec 2011 at 10:34am
An update would be great. My needs would fit the 775, but it's apparently out of production.

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Jmundy View Drop Down
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AVADirect Sales

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  Quote Jmundy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 Apr 2012 at 4:14pm
Hello Airball,
We will work on an updated article once the next generation Intel processor is released; thank you for your input!
Please feel free to continue posting on AVAForums and have a wonderful day!
Joseph Mundy
Assistant Sales Manager
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