Building a new PC part 2 – The minimum spec

So the first question to ask before building a new PC is, does my current PC meet the requirements with a few upgrades? I currently have an old 3 GHz P4 with 2Gb of RAM and using the onboard graphics. The minimum spec for Bioshock Infinite (my requirements model) is the following:

  • OS: Windows Vista Service Pack 2 32-bit
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 DUO 2.4 GHz / AMD Athlon X2 2.7 GHZ
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Hard Drive: 20 GB free
  • Video Card: DirectX10 Compatible ATI Radeon 3870 / NVIDIA 8800 GT / Intel HD 3000 Integrated Graphics
  • Video Card Memory: 512 MB
  • Sound Card: DirectX Compatible

I’m running Win7 and I have 2Gb of RAM. The rest however is below spec. Due to the AGP graphics slot slapping a new graphics card in there is out of the question so I’m back to square one. I need to build a new PC.

As I’m not just using the PC for gaming I’m making the decision now to add more memory and go with 4Gb of RAM. This is due to a very extensive music library and a lot of photo editing (see previous post).

Next I’m looking at the CPU. The question here is whether to go for a combined graphics CPU with Intel HD graphics onboard to save money or go for a separate graphics card. Looking at the benchmarks for the graphics cards the integrated graphics fall so far behind the discrete cards that it becomes a no-brainer. For gaming discrete is always better, even at the bottom end. With that in mind it becomes a straight race between the AMD and Intel processors. And this is where I get my first surprise. My preferred supplier has stopped selling the Intel Core Duo. The next Intel processor in the benchmarks is the Pentium G630T (£56.69), almost twice the price of the Athlon II 340 (£28.28). Another surprise is the fact that these processors are now only available in 64bit. Effectively 32bit computing is dead. Despite the cost difference the Intel processor is still in the running however as we still have the motherboard to factor in.

So next up, the motherboard. With 2 processors to choose from that means 2 different motherboards to choose from. We’re not interested in how great the board is, just will the processor fit and is it cheap. First up is the AMD processor, which requires an Socket FM2 board. Straight away I’m looking at a selection of micro-ATX form factor boards. I also spot in the list at the same price point the board for the Intel processor, again in micro-ATX form factor. The 2 MSI boards are thrown out straight away for not being compatible with the processor (despite being the right socket type) which leaves me with a pair of Gigabyte motherboards. The Gigabyte F2A55M-DS2 at £39.74 for the AMD processor and the Gigabyte GA-H61M-DS2 at £37.25 for the Intel. Both boards take DDR3 memory with the AMD board allowing for the faster 1600 MHz memory over the Intel’s 1333 MHz memory, both 240 pin.  For graphics they’re both the same with PCIe 2×16 slots on both boards.

So back to memory. Now we know what to buy it’s a simple question of whether to buy the slower memory for both boards (£44.88 for a Lenovo 4Gb stick) or go for the faster memory for the AMD board. At exactly the same price it’s another no-brainer, the AMD board gets the faster memory.

This brings us handily to the graphics card. And another minefield of differing specs, manufacturers and compatibilities. With the onboard graphics already out of the running it’s a straight race between nVidia and Radeon. Straight away I have a problem. The only nVidea cards available that are a high enough spec are all PCIe3 and much more expensive starting at £89. While these are backwards compatible it does mean hobbling the graphics card slightly down to the PCIe2.0 specification. That leaves us with the Asus ATI Radeon 6670 with 1Gb of memory (twice the minimum needed) at £73.81.

Going back to the processors I find another problem. The heatsink. For the Intel build I have the Hyper 212 EVO Processor Cooler from Coolermaster at £25.88. But the AMD processor is socket FM2. Some mixed information online but from what I can tell the same heatsink and fan should also fit the FM2 socket processors so that’s added to the build on both machines.

Knowing cases and PSUs can also have issues I decide to look first at the case and then choose a PSU. Thanks to the micro-ATX motherboards we can go for the relatively tiny Coolermaster Elite 343 at £28.15.

Being quite a basic setup there’s no real power consumption here (not even once I add the DVD drive) so we can get away with the Coolermaster Elite Power 460W at £36.90.

Hard drives surprise me. The only compatible drives are not only huge capacity, but also exceptionally expensive. Luckily I have a few other vendors to choose from and I quickly find a WD 500Gb SATA II drive for £45.67.

And as stated, we’ll need a DVD drive to play all those games that still require physical media to install. Again I have to go with one of my other vendors and quickly find a LiteOn iHAS124 DVDRW for £12.99.

So now time for the maths. During this I’ve assumed that somewhere you have a copy of Windows 7 or 8 lying around. This is a purely hardware exercise.

So for the Intel machine this brings us up to £362.22 and which also brings us to this:
http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=FS-344-OE

When it comes to building a minimum spec machine for gaming you may as well not bother. The PC being sold above is a much better machine for pretty much the same price as it would cost to build your minimum spec. In short you’d be wasting your money doing it yourself. You’ll notice I didn’t price up the AMD machine. At less than £30 between them and with such a huge difference between the AMD machine that can be built and the one that can be bought there’s no point. In fact the machine being sold Is so close to the recommended spec for Bioshock Infinite it makes building a recommended spec PC obsolete as well.

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A marriage made in Heaven or Hell?

If ever there was a marriage made in Hell it has to be Microsoft and Apple, right? And yet it may surprise many just how compatible the products of these 2 companies actually are.

When I’m not getting annoyed at the petty politics of the UK and the rest of the world I am at heart a geek. I hacked my first computer game when I was 10 or 11, a text adventure written for the Sinclair ZX81. I created my first website back in 1995 and ran my first online business back in 1996. One thing that has not changed in the years since is my love of gaming and music. My home setup is one that works well both for a simple bedroom setup, or as in my case for my living room. And it’s a lot cheaper to make than people might think.

My main media player is my XBox 360. However, being an old and creaky model there’s no way it can hold just over 40 year’s worth of music collecting. And after so many years of computing what do I do with the old PC that’s now no good for gaming? Why not stream my music from the PC to the XBox? Luckily over the years I’ve made it a habit to rip all my music to MP3, even before Apple brought out it’s first iPod, so I’m spared the pain of attempting to rip 2000 CDs to my computer.

iTunes is a great application for keeping my music organised, but unfortunately is not recognised by the XBox as a valid source of streaming music or video. So in a moment of Microsoft/Apple Hell I need to find an alternative. Thankfully Microsoft has a free solution in the form of Zune. A quick download, install and change of settings and it’s soon imported my iTunes music library ready to stream. Before switching to the XBox there’s still one last thing to do. Hidden in the Zune settings there’s an option to allow other devices to access your music library. Handily there’s a tick box for all available XBoxes and in next to no time 40 years of music is streaming across the network to mine and my daughter’s XBox upstairs.

You may ask why go to all that trouble when I could just play the music straight from the computer? The answer is sound quality. My setup at home is actually quite simple. A cheap 42″ 3D TV (it’s a rebranded Celsus, courtesy of a phone deal). Picture quality is remarkably good for such a cheap TV with a surprisingly generous array of connections on the back. The old PC has a VGA out (10 year old graphics card that keeps soldiering on despite the cooling fan having fallen off the card years ago) which plugs straight into the TV. Sound is then ported to the TV from the headphone/speaker jack on the soundcard. While the sound is reasonable it lacks the punch of a dedicated speaker system. This is where the XBox (and my love of gaming) comes in. The Xbox is also plugged into the TV using the HD cable that comes supplied with it (the one with half a dozen coloured cables that plug into the TV’s component AV slots). As my old surround sound system decided to die when we had a power cut a few years ago sound production duties have been replaced by a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system. As the XBox also doubles as a DVD player this also enables us to watch movies with the surround sound (but not currently regular TV as the Digital Receiver plugs straight into the TV by HDMI, more on this later). The result is that streamed music now gets converted by the XBox and output to all speakers giving a much louder and punchier response. And Gears Of War 3 takes on a whole new level of gaming when viewed in 3D with surround sound.

So far of course there’s been no Apple in this mix, everything to this point has been achieved by Microsoft and 3rd party hardware. So this is where Apple and Microsoft make their match in Heaven. It’s all very well having the PC connected to the same screen as the XBox and TV Receiver, but what if you really need to make changes to something on the PC while the kids have decided now is the only time they can watch Hannah Montana. This is where we introduce PocketCloud, an iPhone and iPad app that allows you to login to your PC remotely while on the same network. Using this you have full access to all the programs and files on your PC. If you only wish to access files on your PC, such as photos and PDF documents there’s always FileBrowser instead.

And the Apple/Microsoft Heaven doesn’t just stop at your PC. There are also apps for the iPhone and iPad that will allow you to connect to your XBox remotely. Want to control your music remotely while it’s playing on the XBox? Microsoft have provided the ultimate free app for allowing this with SmartGlass. The only drawback is that it will require an XBox Live account and your XBox must already be turned on and logged in, but that’s it. Instant control via phone or iPad from anywhere in the house over wifi. Friends over and want to listen to whatever music is on their iPod, iPhone or iPad? There’s even an app for that. Download AirMusic and you’ll soon be streaming direct from your Apple device of choice to the XBox.

The above is of course quite a simple setup, done more for the low cost than for elegance. A couple of simple upgrades would improve your gaming and media pleasure at relatively low costs. The simplest upgrade is to switch out the speakers. Hard to come by nowadays, but there are surround sound systems with multiple inputs. The original surround sound speakers that I had till the power cut had stereo, coax and optical inputs, allowing me to connect 3 systems at once and switch between them. Much the same can also be done now with a HDMI receiver that combines multiple HDMI inputs with HDMI out and optical out, allowing the receiver to switch between inputs and output to a standard home theatre system. Again, this is a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade. If you’re lucky and have a slightly more expensive TV you may even find that the TV itself has an optical out for plugging direct into a home theatre, but be aware that not all output the full Dolby 5.1 (my old Samsung TV only output stereo through the optical out). If budget allows a lot of higher end Blu-Ray home theatre kits also come complete with multiple HDMI inputs allowing for much the same effect.

Should you be able to upgrade your listening pleasure using the ideas above (and having swapped out the old VGA card for a nice shiny new HDMI graphics card) you can then go for the other option of listening to your music using your PC again (leaving your XBox relegated back to gaming duties). Again, there’s an app available for this, simply download Apple’s Remote for iPhone or iPad and gain direct control of your PC’s iTunes library, even being able to choose songs to be played using iTunes Auto DJ feature.