Here are some of the things I discovered when trying to pick parts from an online PC builder. Be aware of the pitfalls you can encounter.
Is It Time to Upgrade?
The first step in the process is deciding if you really need one. I realised that my PC was struggling in VR because I could see the effect of dropped frames and time stuttering in-game.
My i7 CPU gets uncomfortably close to the 100 C thermal limit quite often In X-Plane. Here are the temperature traces provided by Speedfan. I have a 4 core i7-4790K processor which has provided really good service for 5 years. On the charts the upper tangle of lines are measurements from the 4 CPU cores and the 70 C line in bright green is the temperature of a GTX 1070 GPU.
While I was at it I also checked Star Citizen as well. The result was really bad even when I had the graphics set to ‘low’, it didn’t seem to matter.
All 4 cores are running hot and three of them are hovering on thermal shutdown. At least the mildly overclocked graphics card is happy.
Partial or Full Upgrade?
Since I had already tried to improve things with a better graphics card, and the above thermal graphs told me the CPU was struggling, I knew that a faster CPU would be required.
However, a CPU depends entirely on its motherboard, and if you replace those parts you should probably replace the memory to take advantage of higher clock speeds and faster data transfer specs. These three components can be considered a set since the motherboard has to provide the power and the CPU and memory have to run at particular clock speeds for optimal throughput.
Choosing a New PC Build
Keep a list of must-have features in mind as you negotiate multiple websites and component selections – it will be easy to forget your specifics or assume that the PC builder has the same priorities you do. It’s better to assume that they don’t.
As a VR fan, my current priority is X-Plane and my future priority will be Microsoft Flight Simulator. Therefore, I will need fast single core processors now and good multi-core processors later.
Which PC Builder?
I used Trustpilot to gauge how the different UK PC Builders were doing. My method was to order the companies by adding the percentage scores of average and above. In other words anything that wasn’t a negative.
- 100% UK Gaming Computers (see note-1)
- 98% PC Specialist
- 98% Gladiator PC
- 97% Chilliblast
- 97% Cyberpower PC
- 97% CCL Computers
- 95% Novatech
- 95% Aria PC
- 92% Scan Computers
- 82% Mesh Computers
Although this list is subjective it gives some kind of information about the relative risks of buying from them and is far better than no information.
It turns out that they are offering a bribes for their 100% reviews.
They offer a 4 year warranty, as long as you don’t open your case. To prove this you have to show a photo of the seal intact. If you want to make changes to your computer, you have to ‘ask them their permission’ using a form. I would have been happier had I known the setup before I had paid rather than when its way too late.
Intel or AMD?
The most significant choice you will make is choosing the CPU manufacturer. At the time of writing the choice is fairly well defined.
- AMD have a good multicore design using 7 nm tech so it runs at a good speed and normal temperatures up to 16 cores. It’s a sensible design that outperforms Intel on all fronts except single thread speed, but it’s close on that too.
- Intel have been pushing their CPUs to run faster but that makes them hotter with equivalent numbers of cores and Have much higher per-core prices. They also require more of their cooling system to keep things hanging together, and that potentially means a louder fan noise.
If you have neutral loyalty to either company here are the ways you can look at what they offer:
- If your preference is for maximum game frame rates in the short term then you will probably prefer Intel as its about 7% ahead of AMD when comparing frame rates from similar CPUs.
- If you are doing work that would benefit from multiple cores such as rendering graphics and similarly editing and encoding video then the AMD would be of benefit.
The percentage figure is a rough estimate I made while watching the many comparison videos you can find on YouTube. Worst-case the difference could rise to 10% occasionally, but thats for specific games.
My current preference is to choose AMD for gaming as well as other tasks since the framerate difference for say 60Hz is only about 4 frames per second.
The benefits of going with AMD as I see it:
- The CPU design seems stable and well organised
- The 7nm tech requires less power and generates less heat
- AMD is far cheaper for equivalent core counts
- Intel is competing by selecting a proportion of the components and pushing them electrically to do better with the same design. That’s not how there were intended to be run, and that bothers me.
- The next generation of XBox and Playstation consoles are both using customised AMD multi-core processors. This will encourage the market to make use of the higher core counts in my opinion.
Which CPU Version?
At first the 3900X seemed like a good choice overall. It has 12 cores, a thermal design power (TDP) of 105 C and is reasonably priced given what it offers. The single core speed is good and all the improvements to the latest motherboards and memory will make the throughput much higher for the same clock speed compared to my current system.
The higher grade Threadripper series are nice-to-have’s although most of the time the extra cores will probably be under utilised. They use a different socket and you will need a different motherboard to support them.
The Threadripper series require more power too. My old i7-4970K processor has a TDP of 100 C, and the Ryzen 3950X as a TDP of 105 C. Threadrippers support so many cores that the TDPs are significantly higher, meaning that you will also need to have far better cooling to go with it.
Bearing that all in mind, I decided I might as well go to the end of the Ryzen line in one step by choosing the 3950X. It has a marginally lower base speed but still performs better than the 3900X and has 4 more cores that would absolutely love to get better acquainted with the Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Once you have chosen your CPU, you should spend time considering the heart of the system – the motherboard. Check that your chosen CPU is supported by the motherboard:
- Does it support the type of CPU via its socket?
- Does it support the number of CPU cores via its power circuits?
- Does it support the desired number and type of modules that can be connected? (eg the number of pcie slots etc.)
- Does it support the latest transfer speeds between the modules?
- Will its UEFI (BIOS) provide you with full control over the finished system?
Be especially careful with the total amount of power that the board is designed to supply to the CPU.
Check your CPU and motherboard specification to determine what clock speed you should use for your memory. It will only go a fast as the slowest definition.
DDR specifications provide two paths to the 4 memory slots on the motherboard. Only 2 of the 4 slots can be accessed simultaneously, which suggests that for example two 16 GB memory sticks would operate faster than 4 x 8 GB memory sticks but I haven’t sought confirmation on that.
The motherboard will have a diagram next to the memory slots indicating which two lanes should be populated with memory modules first.
A good option is to have solid state memory for the system drive and cheaper mechanical drives for the data. Beware of 5400 rpm drives, you will definitely notice the difference between those and 7200 rpm drives so check the drive speed carefully.
I learned that a well known manufacturer only guarantees their solid state drives (SSD) for 3 years! Mine has operated flawlessly for 5 years, but I won’t be reusing it in my new build.
The case, cooling system and ambient temperature will influence the temperature of the PC.
I had originally selected liquid cooling for the CPU but learned from some reviewers that air coolers can compete with water coolers and are quieter. I like to keep things simple, but there are two downsides to air cooling with large fans:
- They may set a limit of the physical size of the memory modules that you use depending on the case configuration.
- The weight of the cooling unit could potentially put stress on the motherboard particularly when it is shipped to you or you transport the PC yourself.
In order to choose a cooling fan you need to find out what CPU Thermal Design Power (TDP) it is able to dissipate. Google helps with that, since cooler manufacturers may not list this metric in their specification lists.
I don’t like to have a noisy PC. The best way I can combat that is to get good quality low-noise fans, good air flow, choose a CPU that doesn’t have to be hot to run well and have some sound dampening.
When you see a fan marked as ‘quiet’, that could mean that the fan is switched off at low temperatures, but for me that was a problem. I bought a GTX 1070 graphics card that used to switch on and off quite frequently and the sound it made doing that was very irritating. I attached sound dampening sponge pads to the cover of the card and set the fan minimum speed to 40% to avoid the problem.
With respect to air flow in general, one YouTube reviewer found that adding a second fan to the front of the case prevented the CPU fan from drawing air in from the top ventilation mesh and the CPU temperature went up! It’s likely that your build will have better and worse fan patterns as well so don’t assume more is better.
I’d also like to note that the PC I am currently using had a sealed front door covering the intake fan. It’s not something I thought about at the time I had the PC made, and they certainly didn’t point the issue out to me. However, its been running well for many years, and only became an issue once I bought VR and the temperatures started rising.
I took the front door panel off completely and now the air flow is good. It taught me that I could not rely on the PC builder to take care of these types of details in they way I thought they would. You will have to work through all of these problems yourself even when you are buying from people who call themselves experts.
I noticed that some of the most expensive cases had bad reviews and vice-versa.
One I originally selected was referred to as a ‘budget’ case, which is disturbing but I didn’t find anything particularly wrong with it in online reviews. I did eventually realise that its fans were manually controlled with an off/on/full-on button – that is to say I would not be able to create a fan speed profile in the UEFI (BIOS). I had to select a different case.
The average price of a case in the list I was given was £75, which is where I ended up for a case with 3 fans controlled by the motherboard and noise dampening included.
Niggles With PC Builders
While assembling my parts list one of the companies I talked to said that they would not offer 3200 MHz memory that the AMD CPU was rated for since there was an instability issue. When I took this information and other references to a second PC builder with the same Trustpilot rating, they said that this may have been true with earlier versions, it wasn’t something they had encountered and since they claim to stress test each component, the whole system and also run 12 hour soak-tests overnight I felt inclined to believe them.
They also stated that they offer a 4 year warranty but the wording on their website is debatable and their Terms & Conditions only offer telephone support contractually. At this point I put my faith in the Trustpilot score.
One week later the first PC builder was offering 3200 MHz memory again. All these things make me doubtful, so having a good trust score as backup becomes very significant.
For what its worth, this is how I see it:
- Because I use PC builders I feel there is an optimum lifespan for the computer. If you upgrade often or buy the first wave of new technology before its settled, you may be wasting money.
- It’s better to choose a base PC with the closest build you are interested in before you start customisation since there are background specifications that can be compromised by lower priced starting points and won’t necessarily be addressed as you choose your components (eg: motherboard power supply to the CPU).
- PC builders may offer to add in parts that aren’t in their drop-down lists but non-standard variations are more likely to lead to errors and issues with your order.
- You need to consider all the issues you may encounter with every module you select just as you would if you were going to assemble the PC yourself. You cannot assume that they will protect you from your own decisions. If you make bad ones you may end up with a PC that doesn’t fulfil its full potential. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed in order to avoid disappointment.
- The physical size of each module.
- The power requirements.
- Their heat dissipation.
- Their compatibility.
- If you can think of anything that you don’t understand about the selections you have made, make sure to learn enough to settle your fears. Do not carry on with a ‘hope for the best’ attitude.
PC Builders are a good option but they can only go so far in creating a good system for you. You will have different priorities to them so you will need to take care that you are getting the best choice for your current and future needs.
There are a ton of ‘gotchas’ mixed up with that in terms of the specifications of the chipsets, circuits, speeds and power to consider. The PC builder will make it all work ok for you, but you can make it work to its full potential by learning about and selecting the correct devices yourself.
You will have to live with the build choices for years, including what it looks like, how much noise it will make, what it is capable of doing and whether you can upgrade any of its components. It’s worth making build decisions slowly so you have time to think of questions and to determine if whichever feature is worth paying for.
It’s also an enjoyable part of the process and it would be shame to rush through it.