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To Build or Not to Build One’s Own Desktop Computer?

[UPDATED JUNE 2021] - Whether you're a hobbyist, or someone who just needs a good desktop computer, or an IT professional who wants a wider breath of knowledge, or a gamer who needs a performant machine, you might have contemplated at some point whether to build your own desktop computer.

If you're a hobbyist, I think it's a great project.  If you're an IT professional - especially a "coder" - I urge you to do it: in my opinion, a full-fledged Computer Scientist absolutely needs breath, ranging from the likes of Shannon's Information Theory and the Halting Problem - all the way down to how transistors work.

And what about someone who just needs a good desktop computer?  A big maybe on that - but perhaps this blog entry will either help you, or scare you off for your own good!

To build, or not to build, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of OEM's cutting corners and limiting choices,
Or to take arms against a sea of details...

My Own Story
Here’s an overview of my experience in designing and building my desktop computer in early 2017 (with updates up to June 2021) – named Valentina in part because completed around Valentine’s Day!

You will probably have different needs, and come to different conclusions – not to mention the technological changes in the elapsed time – but I hope that sharing my thought process will be of help!

Why build your own computer from individual parts? In my opinion, besides the reasons I mentioned at the opening:
  • It's one of those things to do, ahem, at least once in one’s life!
  • You’ll learn tons about computers
  • You’ll get to know your system inside out
  • You won’t be at the mercy of OEM’s such as Dell cutting corners by using shoddy components (as I learned the hard way from past store-bought computers!)
  • Ultimate system personalization for your needs, especially if you have specific needs
You will need to ponder on what matters to you, especially in areas of special needs, such as gaming or VR. For example, my priorities included:
  • Room to expand, as the scientific computations I do (primarily in Theoretical Neuroscience and Machine Learning) are expected to expand
  • Capable of running today’s high-end consumer VR, such as Vive
  • Video editing and transcoding
  • High-quality flight simulators
  • A very stable, trustworthy system
  • Fairly future-proof for at least several years
  • No penny-pinching, but no top-of-the-line just for the sake of being at the cutting edge.
This blog entry is NOT about how to build the desktop computer; it's about the decision making that goes into it.


DECISION #1 – ECC memory
My desire for strong reliability led me early on to settle on error-correcting memory (ECC). Debates about exactly how useful and cost effective ECC is, have raged for years (here are two articles: Advantages of ECC Memory and To ECC or Not To ECC.)

Well, if I were an OEM, I may concur that ECC is not cost-effective for general consumer desktops, but for my own computer (“high reliability” and “no penny pinching”) I decided it was worthwhile. It will increase costs, but nothing outrageous… and it will decrease options, and to a small extent speed, but nothing I couldn’t live with.

DECISION #2 – Motherboard
My decision to use ECC memory severely restricted my choice of consumer motherboards – many of which don’t support ECC – and pushed me in the direction of server motherboards.
At the same time, though some of my intended uses (long-running scientific simulations) are server-like, the fact of the matter is that Valentina was meant to be my primary desktop computer.
In particular, server motherboards tend to offer few USB ports, etc, while a desktop is best suited to have lots!
I also wanted a motherboard with relatively high – for a consumer market – max memory (“room to expand” and “future proof”.)
To my rescue came Gigabyte GA-X170- WS ECC, a relatively high-end desktop motherboard for the “enthusiast market”, with ECC support and a max of 64 GB of memory. I found Gigabyte’s customer support to be slow, but the board turned out to be very satisfactory.

The CPU must be compatible with the motherboard, and in my case it must also support ECC. Among the CPU’s satisfying those requirement, and guided by the priorities I stated earlier, I settled on the Intel Xeon E3-1245 v5 @ 3.50GHz, a quad-core CPU, relatively high-end but not top of the line.

DECISION #4 – Memory
The memory must be compatible with the CPU, and in my case it must also support ECC. My chosen motherboard being fairly new, it supported (only) the relatively new, fast DDR4 memory.
I bought a Kingston ValueRAM 16GB (1 x 16G) DDR4 2133 Server Memory ECC
16 GB is plenty for me now… but I’m able to rev up to 32 or even 64 GB when the time comes.
[Dec. 2018 update: RAM prices have seriously increased, rather than decreased, in the past couple of years!  Waiting for lower prices isn't always good...]

DECISION #5 – SSD for the main OS
My Gigabyte motherboard supports one SSD using the newer – and much faster – interface PCIe 3.0 x4 and protocol NVMe 1.1.
I bought a 250 GB Samsung 960 EVO M.2 NVMe SSD  from NewEgg to take advantage of those newer technologies.
Please note that this is a small-capacity (250 GB) SSD, which I use for the OS and programs, for the main one of the 3 operating systems in my triple-boot configuration.
For the other 2 operating systems, and for the bulk of my storage needs, I use other SSD’s (SATA interface), hard drives (SATA interface) and external drives (USB 3 connections.)
[Dec. 2018 update: that system drive is almost full. I’m glad I didn’t go any lower than 250 GB!]

DECISION #6 – The Case
This being the first computer I ever built, I wanted a case that was easy to use – and in particular, not cramped. Also not too heavy, to be nice to my back!
Since I use lots of external drives that I’m always plugging and unplugging, I also wanted at least two fast USB-3 ports in the front of the case.
And some style and elegance!
After reading a bazillion user reviews as I ventured into this new territory, I settled for a Phanteks Enthoo Pro M PH-ES515PA_BK (Full Acrylic Window version).
Very spacious, good airflow, a clever design and easy to use: the glowing reviews were right!  I bought it from NewEgg.
Manufacturer's page

DECISION #7 – Power Supply
I opted for a modular design (where you use only the cables you need) and a fairly efficient energy use (“80+ GOLD” rating.)
In view of expected future expansion, I picked a comfortably large wattage (850 W), and I followed the prevalent advice not to be a cheapskate about power supply!
Indeed, a past computer of mine suffered from a fried motherboard due to a shoddy power supply, according to the repair shop; lesson learned…
Even though I had built power supplies from individual electronic components back in high school, I wasn’t too familiar with power supplies for computers.
My research led me to the stellar-rated CORSAIR RM850i. 850W 80+ GOLD Haswell Ready Full Modular ATX12V.
Manufacturer page .  An entry in a review site that helped me.

DECISION #8 – The Other SSD’s
My new computer case supports 2 SSD’s (not counting the one in card form installed directly on the motherboard.) I felt that was adequate.
I’ll wait to buy larger-capacity SSD’s when the prices come down, but for now I’m comfortable with a 1 TB Crucial MX200 2.5″ and a 500 GB version of the same brand.
Both use the (not-so-)good, ol’ SATA interface, familiar from rotary hard drives (SATA generation 3, offering 6 Gbps.)
[2018 update: I took away the product links because that particular SSD model is now obsolete.]
[2019 update: I ended up partitioning the 1 TB drive in two - on one `partition I installed Linux Mint, and on the other one Windows 10; my "main" OS, on the fast drive mentioned in #5, is Windows 7]

DECISION #9 – The Rotary Hard Drives
My computer case, in its default configuration, can hold 2 rotary hard drives. If you buy an extra internal shelf (from the case manufacturer), and move around a fan, you can install a bunch more hard drives.
For now, I’m happy with the 2 hard drives I already had on hand, 2 TB and 3 TB respectively.
[Update: I upgraded the aging 2 TB one with a new 6 TB: Seagate BarraCuda Pro ST6000DM004 (7,200 RPM) ; good results after I turned off the “drive sleep” mode in the OS control panel]

Well, my CPU contains a built-in GPU. It works perfectly well for my monitor and for video editing. Some day, when I get to VR, or when my scientific simulations grow to the point of benefiting from a GPU accelerator, my motherboard is ready to accept a fast PCIe Gen3 card.

[Dec. 2018 update: I ended up splurging on a high-end graphics card, because I wanted something that would serve me well for several years.  I got a Gigabyte GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming OC 8G , and have been quite pleased with it.  It takes 2 PCI x16 slots, and also needs 6-pin and 8-pin supplemental power connectors.  Manufacturer's page.
As of June 2021, I'm still pleased with it; it was well-spent money that I've been getting good mileage out of, over the years!]

And the verdict is…

Now that the dust has settled, I’ve very happy with my choices and with the experience; it can be very satisfying to embark on a more ambitious project once in a while!
As you can from my various updates later, the system nicely grew with my needs and with technological advances.

As a "plan B", I had a local computer repair shop I was ready to turn to for help... but it turned out to be un-necessary ☺

I hope that this blog entry will inspire you, too, if it sounds like it's the right project for you!


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