Evolution of a System Builder

As many people know, I like computers, well, like may not be a strong enough word, I love computers.  What some people may not know is, I haven't always been that way.  Not that many years ago, my knowledge and interest in computers was a lot less than it is today.  The reason for this is more to do with my lack of income to afford a real computer, and my drive pushing me in different directions.  During those times I floated by borrowing computers, sharing them, and eventually getting my hands on my very own very used old work laptop.  It barely ran, but it did what I wanted it to do at the time; it ran a web browser, it had a wireless card, and it played Diablo II, sort of.  These are the times you would catch me sitting in an old fluffy rocking chair, in my walk in closet, leaching WI-FI off of my neighbor.  That neighbor was also my boss from work, and is now one of my writers here at The Drakkarium.  This and more, we will discuss on our walk through the evolution of my home computer. Shortly before the times of the dinky weak laptop, I had a very good friend who was college educated in computers.  He was a system builder, and subsequently had his own self built computer at home.  Small silver box with a couple multi-colored lights on the front, and a lighted fan on the side.  At the time, it was a pretty impressive machine, seeing as it was my first real look at a computer that a big company didn't put together.  I consulted with this friend all the time, trying to learn as much about computers as I could, so maybe I could one day be talented enough to build something like that myself.  We never got into the nitty gritty of building, never actually tinkered with his computer, but he taught me a lot of the things I would one day use.

Fast forward a few months, my job changed, my life was different.  I made a few friends at work that invited me to come hang out all the time, and one of them in particular was a computer enthusiast and system builder.  He told me stories of his computer, and how much work he put into it, and it made me very interested in it a lot.  I have always had the little itch of "I would love to do these things, I am extremely interested in them, but I am too poor to pursue it", so when presented with the opportunity to see another custom build, I jumped at the chance.  It was a very interesting computer, shiny and simple, like my previous friend's was.  So my journey to learn even more about them continued with this new friend.  He taught me even more than I ever thought I could.  Not much time had passed and he and I became roommates.  After enough time making fun of my dinky weak laptop, he decided to take assorted parts and components and throw together a Frankenstein build, to give me something better to play games on.

That box lasted a while, but as would be expected with using old loose parts, something broke.  Something important; the hard drive had taken a dump.  So, with a fresh stack of loose parts, and a mostly whole HP tower, we rebuilt.  The HP tower had great longevity when it came to computers in my possession.  That computer lasted through two moves and a new baby.  It had a dual core processor, which was pretty beefy compared to what I was using before, plus it came with a flat panel monitor (Square, not widescreen), which was even more impressive to me.  My passion for computers, for customization, for building, was growing exponentially.

Then came a day that a little money came my way, and I had my eyes set on a new case, and a new cooling system for the processor.  The case? An XClio 380 Black full tower.  The Cooling? The Gigabyte Galaxy II liquid cooling system.

   I wanted a full tower computer, I wanted something people would immediately wonder about, and I wanted a eye catching and efficient water cooling system.  I chose this combination because they just fit me, for me.  So, I used that money, and I ordered those new pieces.  Finally I got a kick start into a computer I would be proud of, something I put some work into.  I didn't know this would be the first of many hours put into the customization of my computers.

While waiting for my new parts to show up, I decided I wanted to get my current parts ready to move, like a kid on Christmas, I just couldn't wait.  Well, somewhere in the mess that was my preparations, I broke something.  My computer would no longer boot, no longer do anything but turn the fans on when I hit the power button.  Naturally, I panicked.  I didn't know what to do, all the things I learned to try weren't working, and my system builder roommate had no ideas either.  Thankfully, I had someone who cared a lot about my happiness, because not long after declaring time of death, I had a new motherboard, processor, and memory on its way.  I turned my attentions to her computer to get it viable enough to use while waiting for my new components to arrive, and as luck would have it, I broke hers too.  I felt horrible, but there was nothing I could really do about it other than not touch anymore computers.

I did touch another computer again of course, I had to, I had my new parts to play with.  After too many days (around 4) of waiting, I had all my parts in hand.  My big tower case arrived with the water cooling a day or two before the rest, so I had been staring at them for 48 hours, shaking with anticipation.  Spread in front of me on that fateful day was my new case, open and waiting, cooling system, my new ASUS motherboard, my new Dual Core AMD processor, and my 4GB of DDR2 memory.  Carefully I pieced it together one by one, being more careful than I ever thought I was capable of being.  I was too afraid of ruining another computer.  After far too much time taken, I was finally done, and ready to prime the cooling and boot the computer.  And everything ran perfectly.

That was it, a small interest, turned into a fun hobby, hit full blown obsession right there.  Not long after that I started replacing more and more pieces of the HP's remaining components with my own hardware choices.  I replaced the small power supply with a more powerful BFG model gaming power unit.  I replaced the old parallel ATA (IDE for those who know) hard drive with a new Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive from Western Digital, because the transfer rate was supposed to be a huge improvement.  It didn't take long to add a real advanced graphics card, but as I am always restrained by a budget, I got the EVGA Nvidia 9800 GT, instead of the 9800 GTX or GX2 that were also out.  I also spoiled myself and purchased a new 22" LCD widescreen monitor from Samsung.

So here it was, an aptly named Blue Monster computer.  Boy did I spend a lot of time on it, tinkering, gaming, browsing, you know, computer things.  Something I was very proud of, and something I carried with me in my turbulent life that happened not long after I finished her.  It came with me when I was couch hopping to and fro, when I crashed with my Mom to get back on my feet, it traveled with me to Pendleton to visit an online friend, and survived two more moves after that.  I made minor tweaks here and there, but as my life became more complicated, and my priorities changed, I began to neglect her.

She got dusty, and I never did anything about it, her coolant got low and I just threw water in it, and any time I would dig in it to adjust or change anything, I would leave the cables strewn about.  Blue Monster quickly became depressed.  I soon would stop using it very much at all, using my playstation or netbook for my small computer needs.  Blue Monster lasted me a little over two years before I had near given up on her.

My roommates shuffled around a bit during this time, and eventually I ended up as the leader of the house.  I brought in people I could trust, people that were my friends, to take over empty roommate spots.  With that, two friends who shared an interest in computers (and one was my original system builder roommate).  Being exposed again to the wonders of what computers are capable of, my interest slowly regained its former momentum.  During the initial stages of roommate-ship with my friends, I cleaned out Blue Monster, reorganized the cabling, and got her all presentable again, but it just wasn't enough.  So, my dreamer mind started browsing new components, things I might be able to afford to make her better.  It was that, that small little window, that my obsession needed, and this started the new journey, one that would lead me to what I have today.

I was visited by my friend Todd, one of my very best friends and the very same friend I drove to Pendleton multiple times with Blue Monster.  We were all geeking out and having a good time, and the topic of new parts came up, naturally.  Todd had a new item, a computer case, he found and wanted to share with us.  This case was the Antec Dark Fleet DF-85 full tower case.  I was immediately in a deep love with this case,

and all of its very interesting features.  I had never seen a case like this before, and even the red color theme it had didn't deter me from immediately wanting it.  9 Internal hot swap capable drive bays, two shielded external drive bays, a external 2.5" hot swap drive slot on top, and a total of 7 fans built in.  It became my dream case, the case I knew would open up opportunities of hardware I once could never even think about.  The case also opened up the chance to use the larger CPX style power supplies, and mount them on the bottom of the case (This will come into play later). It wasn't long before I found a way to order the case, and not much more than a week later I added an upgraded liquid cooling system to the build as well.  The new cooling would end up suiting the new case a lot better and also be a lot more efficient than my previous cooling unit, that also leaked, so it needed replaced.

 

The transition went smoothly and the case was just as fantastic as I thought it would be.  The new cooling unit looked cleaner, and moved the bulk of the unit to a space much more suited to it, instead of it floating on the bottom of the case, taking up precious air flow room.  Blue Monster was a lot cooler looking, wasn't remotely all blue anymore, and I was in no way ready to settle with this.  After wrapping it all up, I began scouring the Internet again, looking at more replacements.  Just a few days later I had ordered the new CPX style power supply.  A huge, more powerful, and much more versatile power unit than I ever could have imagined having.  A big difference in both power output and size, and gave me, at least in part, a modular power supply like I had wanted since I learned they existed.  Staring at the comparison between old and new, I was just shocked at the size.  I had dealt with standard sized power units so long I never even considered that a larger size would make sense.

I enjoyed the new powerhouse Blue Monster had, but started dwelling on the name.  She wasn't blue anymore, she was mostly red, with a dash of blue here and there.  I had done my best to add blue back in, by adding a couple of old cathodes I had sitting around the house, and the fan to the new cooling was blue, but she was overshadowed by red.  I dug around in my assorted computer parts and came up with one, just one, blue case fan with the correct fan speed adjustment option.  To keep things symmetrical I replaced the center fan on the front of the case.  That certainly changed the look of the case, but it still wasn't a Blue Monster, and with that I brainstormed.  I decided she needed a new name, one that suited her coloring, her presence, who she was now.  Red, blue, red, blue, what to do, while thinking I found another fan to use for the side panel, one that also lit up blue.  "It kind of looks like cop lights..." is all it took, and The Interceptor was born.  At this point she was still mostly Blue Monster, but she had changed, and with that, the new name came with it.
One would think, a person would stop pushing so hard at this point, stop striving so hard to upgrade now that it looked and cooled so much better, but not me, no, the performance wasn't increased, not like I wanted.  So, I kept digging and working, and begging, and saving.  Not a month later I had found my new motherboard, processor, and memory.  The award winning ASUS Sabertooth 990FX high performance motherboard was an absolute must.  I wasn't going to settle this time, I was going to get the most important piece as the best.  Some would argue that the Crosshair at the time would have been a lot better, but comparing the two, the differences were so marginal, I would have been an idiot to spend that much more money on very little gain.  I did settle a little on the processor because that can be upgraded, easily, in the future.  I went with the newest AMD quad core built on the Bulldozer architecture, giving me the newest in CPU technology, but a value I could justify.  I didn't, however, skimp on the memory.  I grabbed four 4GB DDR3 1600mhz fast gaming memory.  Something that I knew would last.  Doing this to push out every inch of power my system could grant me.
By now, I had no trouble whatsoever with building and troubleshooting.  The years spent breaking, tinkering, and building had granted me enough experience and knowledge to overcome any obstacle.  So much so, when I revisited the original HP issue I had in my infancy of knowledge, I quickly realized what had happened to it.  Not necessarily even my fault, the on board graphics had failed, and could simply have been replaced with a advanced graphics card to give it its life back.  Nothing to be done by the time I figured this out of course, the Blue Monster had long been built by that point, and at the time I could see no reason to have more than one computer.  When it came to my new parts, they went in beautifully, and on top, I had ordered a fancy new cathode to breathe new life into the interior lighting.

 

So here she was, The Interceptor, evolution complete.  Along the way, I had increased my hard drives to 3TB worth, with a Black Edition Western Digital 2TB drive leading the way with storage.  My operating system hard drive was a small 320GB Western Digital Blue spin drive.  Naturally, as one would know, I knew there were more things I could and wanted to do to upgrade her.  I had to fight and fight to stop myself from buying more upgrades.  What I hadn't taken into consideration was that Christmas was right around the corner, and people were asking me what I wanted.  Well that was an easy question to answer.  I wanted a good quality solid state hard drive and a new graphics card.  The two things left of my internal list of things to upgrade, and that is exactly what I asked for.  Don't get me wrong, it took them a lot of pushing to get me to actually answer this question, because I personally hate getting gifts when I cannot reciprocate a gift back to them, but my family can be very stubborn.
Wouldn't you know it, come Christmas time, I had enough Newegg gift cards to buy my solid state drive, and guess what I did?  Well, silly question of course, I bought the damn drive.  People may not know it, but the biggest bottleneck your computer suffers is the speed of which your hard drive can communicate information to the rest of the computer.  It won't matter how fast your processor is or hefty your memory is, if you hard drive is slow, your whole computer is slow.  There is only so much hardware you can throw at a hard drive before its time to look into a faster option.  Solid state hard drives are near instantaneous, the aren't spinning drives with needles and spinning platters, they are essentially flash memory.  An interesting combination between that little thumb drive you plug into the front of your computer to keep files on the go and the extended memory your computer uses to run.  And that, my friends, was what was headed my way.
It didn't take me long to get it installed onto the bottom of my case, and get it ready to rock.  Installation of windows and, well, everything went by so quickly that I almost had a cardiac episode with how excited I was.  Being able to push my power button and being at the log on screen of Windows in less than ten seconds was astonishing to me.  If I had to restart the computer, I no longer felt the annoyance of having to wait.  It booted faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer opens on a "normal computer".  I went on a spree of tests, playing all the intense games I could to see how they were improved, and by god it was there.  However, I did notice one thing, my graphics still suffered with the newest games, throwing a huge reminder to me of why I had also wanted an upgraded graphics card.  So that contented feeling, that joyous feeling I had over my new found equipment had, yet again, received its first chip.  That chip wore away into a gaping hole very fast, and my obsession came back.  She wasn't whole.  I had replaced near everything about this computer, but one of those old things was a glaring reminder of its being unfinished.
I took a few measures about a month later, I took those measures to give me the finances it would take to upgrade my graphics.  I had it in my hand, ready, and Newegg threw a curve ball at me.  Right on the front page of their website, staring me in the face, was a sale item.  That sale item was a ridiculously low priced high end LED backlit 24" display.  At this point, graphics were more important, but that didn't matter now.  It didn't take much thought, not that I would have given it much to begin with, before I hit purchase.  Thankfully, part of that thought was the reminder of my incoming tax return, so all was not lost on the graphics card front.  Around the time the monitor showed up on my doorstep, I had tax return in hand, and followed through with the purchase of the graphics as well.  An EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti Superclocked with upgraded dual fan cooling.  It was a beast of the mid ranged cards available.
Some people may not know this but you can get close to SLi performance with two PhysX capable graphics cards, even if they aren't the same cards.  What you can do is have them both installed, and use your Nvidia settings to set your secondary graphics card to process the PhysX, so the primary card can focus on graphics rendering.  The frame rate and performance is a considerable boost over a stand alone card.  Also, during that time, it opened up your ability to add a third and fourth monitor.  That was important to me, because I had two monitors and my television I wanted to power, and Nvidia's cards didn't have the capability to run more than two displays off one card, at the time.  That has changed now, sadly behind AMD, as they could do it for a lot longer.  We are to the point in this story now that the computer is near what I have it now, not many things changed beyond the purchase of the graphics card.
A few months later I was able to work out a trade to swap my secondary graphics card, the 9800 GT, for a slightly better model, a 9800 GTX+, to improve performance slightly and increase cooling.  During this time I was also able to rebuild Blue Monster out of its own previous parts, and run it as a server for a while.  It didn't take long before that novelty wore off, and I sold it to a friend who needed a gaming computer.  I added yet another hard drive to expand my storage by another 2TB.  I got my hands on a nice 7.1 surround headset for my gaming and communication needs.  The Christmas a year after the big build brought me a desk mount for my monitors so they no longer topple over when I move the desk, they float high above on their sturdy steel arms.  The most recent change lately, was the addition of one more solid state hard drive.
Chris Pirillo, head of Lockergnome, ran a contest to help inaugurate a new video series he was creating.  If you followed certain steps to qualify, you entered yourself to a chance at winning an Intel 520 series 120GB solid state drive.  I entered, not thinking I would win, but I did want to support Chris in his new series, and spread the word, so it was a win-win.  Coincidentally, win is what I did.  I won the very first round of the giveaways and he sent me this brand new drive, all for me.  I was thrilled by the idea of having more solid state space for my games.  The downfall of going even 120GB in solid state, is you run out of room for games and programs after a handful of them, leaving you choosing which games to have installed where, and what ones will be SSD and what ones won't.  With the added drive, I no longer had to worry.  Use the original for windows and programs, and the new one for games.  Sure it was only another 120GB but that was huge compared to what I had to throw at it.  The biggest thrill was when it got here, and I installed it, I found out that they made a mistake at Intel, and accidentally put a 180GB SSD in the 120GB box, and I got an extra surprise 60GB for my troubles.
That, my friends, is where she sits now.  I will list the full specifications at the bottom of this article for anyone interested in knowing.  She is well taken care of now, and very protected.  That was my journey from interested in computers to near professional system builder.  I do build for others, I can help you shop for parts and customize your own computer, I can build it for you, or I can teach you how to build it yourself.  My rates for that are very low, and you always leave knowing a lot more about computers than you knew before.  Know that you always get more bang for your buck when building yourself, and you never get shorted on quality when you get to choose your own components.  I hope you enjoyed this tale, and I hope it helped show you who I am and how I got where I am today.  Many details were left out, some very much on purpose, mainly for the privacy of the individuals in the story.  I won't write like this often, but there may come a time or two I get the gumption to do it.  I know it's anecdotal, far too long, and written a little out of proper format, but I felt the story needed to be told.

The Interceptor:

  • Antec Dark Fleet DF-85 Chassis
  • ASUS Sabertooth 990FX System Board
  • AMD FX-4100 Zambezi 3.6Ghz Processor
  • Thermaltake Bigwater 760 Plus drive bay mounted Liquid Cooling System
  • G.Skill Sniper Series DDR3 1600Mhz dual channel Extended Memory (16GB)
  • EVGA Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti Superclocked Primary Graphics
  • EVGA Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+ Seconardy PhysX Processor
  • OCZ Vertex 3 120GB Solid State Drive
  • Intel 520 180GB Solid State Drive
  • Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB Storage drive
  • Seagate Barracuda 2TB Storage Drive
  • Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB Ubuntu Drive
  • ASUS Blu-Ray Optical Drive
  • Antec CP-850 CPX factor Power Supply
  • ASUS LED 24" LCD Primary Display
  • Samsung 22" LCD Secondary Dispaly