Articles & Editorials: Hardware Guide #6

Please Note: This edition of Rogue Leader’s Hardware Guide contains a basic step by step guide to building a new PC. Neither the author, and/or CNCNZ.com can be held responsible for damages caused to any computer components from the advice you see here.

It has been a busy month in the world of hardware. Both video cards and processors have seen the speed cranked up, and that translates into happy gamers. So this month’s hardware guide will bring you the latest news from these two worlds.

Processors

The last month has marked AMD’s return to the competitive market. The Athlon XP 2200+ wasn’t able to keep up with the P4 2.53GHz, and its horrible overclocking abilities further hindered it. But AMD recently announced the 2600+, using a modified version of the Thoroughbred core found in the 2200+. This processor is lightning fast, breezing past the 2.53 P4. Also available with the new core is the ability for extreme overclocking. Early test have shown that the 2600+ can be overclocked to an astonishingly stable 3400+, with some sites claiming they did it with air cooling only. Of course, like all Athlons, the processor needs to be unlocked for overclocking, which is a complicated process. But for speed freaks, the results are more than worth it. To achieve this speed, you need to be able to overclock the front-side bus on your motherboard to 200 MHz and increase the voltage to the processor core, but on the new DDR 400 motherboards that are on the way, this is very easy to do with a set of dip switches and BIOS settings. Intel fired back at AMD by launching a 2.8 GHz processor. This, too, was fast, but when the two processors were compared, the P4 was only able to beat the Athlon on a few benchmarks, such as Q3Arena and video encoding. Things are really starting to heat up as both companies launch the last few processors of the year before the successors make their debut early next year.

Video Cards

With the launch of the Radeon 9700, ATI marked the first time they were able to outperform Nvidia’s flagship card. When compared to the G4 Ti4600, the Radeon sports a nominally faster clock speed on the GPU, although the RAM in slightly slower. The real advantage lies in the architecture of the core itself. The Radeon 9700 has double the vertex shaders and pipelines, allowing it to perform more calculations each beat than its Nvidia counterpart. Bottom line: The Radeon 9700 performs noticeably better than the Ti4600. Another major feature of the Radeon are the its DirectX 9 capabilities, like I discussed in last month’s guide. I can tell you now that the Radeon 9700’s drivers are looking stable. There have been very few problems that have been reported, and most of the feedback on the card has been very positive. The other major selling feature of the Radeon is AGP 8x, which doubles the bandwidth available to the card over the current 4x standard. This is backwards compatible, which means it should work on most current motherboards though it won’t be used to its full potential. All new chipsets support AGP 8x, but only newer motherboards are being built with 8x slots. The latest news on Nvidia’s counter, NV3x, is that they are planning a paper release shortly, meaning the specs will be released to show that the card is *better* than the ATI card. Nvidia is also planning on releasing advanced versions of the Geforce 4s by cranking up the clock speeds. They are hoping this will offset ATI’s edge until they decide to release their own equivalent.

Building a New PC

When I visited Tom’s Hardware Guide this morning, I found this little beauty. Tom’s boys explain what to look for when buying components, and the safety precautions you need to exercise. So I won’t go over that, I’ll just outline the steps once you have everything you need.

Step 1
First, prepare the motherboard for installation into the case. Do this by installing the processor, applying the thermal compound to the core, and installing the heatsink. Install the RAM. Also, set any jumpers or dip switches that are necessary. Refer to the motherboard manual for information on this.

Step 2
Next, prepare the case if not already done. Install the standoffs so that they match the mounting holes on the motherboard, and install the power supply. If the hard drive cage uses a slide-out attachment, remove it from the case for now so that you have more room to work. If the motherboard came with a back panel with all your connector mounts, install that as well.

Step 3
Carefully place the motherboard in the case, being sure to line up the mounting holes with the standoffs. Make sure the ports on the back, such as the PS/2 and Serial ports, fit comfortably in the rear panel. Screw the motherboard in place, and make sure it is solidly mounted.

Step 4
At this point, test the motherboard to make sure everything is working. Plug the ATX power cable to the motherboard, and plug the Power, Reset, PC speaker and LED wires into the motherboards. Install the video card in the AGP slot, plug in the monitor and keyboard, and plug the power supply into a wall. Make sure the voltage setting on the power supply is set for your area. In North America, 110V is the standard, while European standards are 220V. Double check all the connections, making sure the heatsink and fan are properly mounted and plugged in. Then, turn on the computer. The PC speaker will beep once if everything is okay. You should then be able to enter the BIOS and adjust any of the settings required by the motherboard manual. Check the CPU temperature in the BIOS, making sure that it isn’t climbing rapidly. Once you are satisfied with the settings, save and exit. Check the speed that is displayed on boot-up, confirming that it is what is should be. If it isn’t, consult the BIOS or the motherboard manual to see what you missed.

Step 5
Unplug the power from the socket, and install all the drives. If the hard drive cage is easily removable, take it out to make floppy and hard drive installation much easier. Plug in the power cables for these now to make it easier as well. Most new cases also feature rail-installation of optical drives, which is very easy. Simply screw the rail to the optical drive and slide it into the desired bay. It may take some experimenting to find out which screw holes will give you the right depth for the drive, but the ease with which you can install everything makes it worth it. If you don’t quite understand what I mean, you’ll see when you start installing it. Plug in all the data and power cables for all the drives, and the audio cable from the CD or DVD drive. The other end will be plugged in later.
Step 6
Install any PCI cards. These include sound cards, modems, or network cards. Plug the other end of the audio cable into the sound card. Make sure all are seated correctly in the slot, because improper installation can cause errors and even damage the components.

Step 7
Install any headers for the motherboard. Generally, these come in the form of extra USB or firewire ports. Refer to the motherboard manual for details.

Step 8
Double check all connections. Make sure everything is in the right place and is seated correctly. Once you are certain everything is right, boot up the system again. If the BIOS settings are correct, the computer should detect the hard drive and optical drives automatically. If everything boots correctly, the PC should eventually display “Insert System Disk”. Insert the startup disk for the operating system, and press the reset button. The disk will automatically launch the setup utility, and will allow you to format your hard drive. If you are using 98SE or ME, format using the FAT32 file system. If you are using XP or 2000, use the NTFS file system.

Step 9
Once Windows has been set up, install all the drivers for the hardware. Start with motherboard resources, such as the hard drive controller, USB controller, and any other motherboard devices you plan on using. Then install the video card drivers, sound card drivers, and any other drivers you have. Restart after each driver is installed. If there are any problems, it will be much easier to diagnose which device isn’t working correctly if they come up one at a time. Once all drivers are installed, install any software, such as DVD decoders and CD writer software, anti-virus programs, system health utilities, etc. Try not to expose your computer to the internet until you have all the protective software in place. Once you are online, download and install the latest drivers for all the hardware. Install and patch all the games you want, as well as productivity software like MS Office. Once you have all the software you want installed, run disk defragmenter or Norton Speed Disk. Initial setup of your PC can frag the hard drive as much as 30%, depending on the size of the drive, so make sure to remedy this before you play a game.

Step 10
Over the next couple of weeks, keep an eye on your system to make sure everything is working properly. If you notice errors, contact the retailer who sold you the components to see what they can do to help. Most importantly, have fun. This is where all the work pays off. For me, playing Jedi Outcast for the first time on my new system with full detail and hi-res brought joy to my heart and a tear to my eye ;). You worked hard to get the thing running, so enjoy every part of it.
If things don’t work properly, don’t panic. One of the best troubleshooting tips is relax. Take a 15 minute break, have a pop or watch some TV, then go back and try to solve the problem. Try to isolate what may be causing the problem, and go from there. And above all, if you can’t figure it out don’t be afraid to ask someone for advice. This is supposed to be a learning experience, and asking questions is a great way of doing it. Besides, you’d rather see the thing working than just sitting on the desk collecting dust. If someone can help you, let them. You’ll feel alot better if you do.

Well, that’s this month’s hardware guide. I’m surprised it was this long….I must have way too much time on my hands now that I’m back at college ;). As always, if you have any comments or suggestion, please e-mail me using the link below. I also want to point out that you are building this system at your own risk. My guide is merely a suggestion on how to go about building a new PC. Make sure to read all documentation for your components, and follow all manufacturers direction explicitly. If you feel I have made an error, please let me know so I can fix it at soon as possible. Happy gaming, folks!

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