05 Apr

I Built a New PC Tower from Scratch

When I was 14 I started buying PC Magazine off the news rack back in the USVI. I used to go into the computer stores, where you would tell a salesman what you needed in a computer, and they would assemble it from parts.

My first computer was a 286 25Mhz beast that ran CIV 1 and let me type some papers I purchased from a buddy in school when he upgraded. The 286 died shortly after I purchased it. I parted it out and made enough to put some money toward a word processing machine that then died. Shortly after that I put summer money toward a 486 DX 66 (!) that could run video off a CD-Rom.

My stepdad had me buy that new, but what I really wanted to do was to order a used tower, and then all the parts from PC Magazine and assemble one to get what I needed.

In college, I babied a used tower and parts from my 486 to create a new machine. Eventually I switched to Apple laptops. I did some adding of parts to some Apple desktops, but my bucket list of just ordering all the parts and building a machine was something I never got around to.

Until now!

I have been recently obsessed with a game called Kerbal Space Program. It’s a space simulator. Basically it lets you pretend to be your own Elon Musk.

I tried playing this game on my old MacBook Air a couple years ago and it was fun, but the Air was underpowered. Last month I downloaded it to my Xbox One and got into it again with a few friends, blowing up rockets as we struggled to control them and then passing the controller to the next person to try.

It was fun, but the Xbox port was buggy, particularly the maneuver node visuals that help you prepare for burns that change your orbit kept breaking, requiring a restart. I looked at my MacBook Pro and realized it would run it better. Basically, Kerbal doesn’t depend on graphics cards as much as raw processor cycles (Ghz). So my 2.6 Ghz laptop would do better than the 800mhz Xbox One as Kerbal just requires a ton of physics modeling, not pretty graphics.

We tested it out, and it was WAY more fun on the laptop. Better graphics, and we could install some mods that made the game way better to play.

But I have a rule about playing games on my work laptop. Plus, my MacBook Pro is three years old now.

So my bucket list included ‘build a computer from parts, from scratch’ and I idly wondered what a decent Kerbal machine would cost and need to look like.

For one thing, we wouldn’t need a powerful video card. In fact, the on board graphics cards of most chips today would handle most of what Kerbal threw at it.

For another, I could use an older Intel i3 chip and get high Ghz out of it for cheap, and what Kerbal needed wasn’t tons of cores and raw power, but Ghz. So instead of the latest i7, a decent i3 with 4.2Ghz, vastly faster than my laptop or the Xbox for Kerbal, was $160.

Okay.

I’m on a tight budget these days, so I started building parts lists and playing around, just trying to see if what the least I could pay for a Kerbal Machine would be. I came up with a few builds around $350, one for $290.

I used this site, PC Parts Picker.

So first I found a good case and a motherboard. I’d just gotten $100 in reprint fees, and I had some points on a credit card. I was able to snag an MSI Sli Plus motherboard and a case for just a touch over $100.

When I moved my office down into my basement, I also found some stuff that I could sell off that I didn’t need. A spare router. Spare tablet. Etc. I sold off the spare stuff to clean out the office.

As I did that, I realized I could get the whole computer for about $100 out of pocket. I ordered the rest of the parts: an i3 4.2Ghz chip, some 2400mhz ram (8 gigs was all I could swing), the cheapest hard drive I could get (Western Digital, $16, a platter hard drive).

Here’s the whole part list. It’s a $475 computer that runs Kerbal pretty well.

I ended up spending $100 to get it. To make it cash neutral I’d considered getting a slower chip, but then splurged on the fastest i3 instead of a Celeron or Pentium.

For the OS, I installed the latest Ubuntu Linux.

Over the next year I’ll occasionally upgrade the ram or hard drive, maybe add a video card. But it runs Kerbal really well off the onboard graphics on the i3 chip, better than my laptop in fact.

So a $100 gaming computer that I can plug into the TV upstairs, or use as a backup for my office downstairs. Not bad. I picked parts that should work with OS X, except for the chip. I may turn it into a Hackintosh with a few tweaks if my laptop ever dies in the next year or so. Or just for fun.

The only hiccup was that I didn’t realize there was a separate power plug on the motherboard for CPU power. I went through a long dark despair for a day thinking I’d broken the chip or motherboard when installing as the CPU wouldn’t work. All the help forums recommended really complex stuff. It wasn’t until I saw a stray, sneering comment of ‘the most common idiotic newbie mistake is not plugging the separate CPU power in’ that I was like ‘lightbulb!’ The pictograph on the easy setup sheet showed an 8 pin connector, and my power supply had 2 4-pin connectors. Once I made that leap, I got it plugged in and running.

One thought on “I Built a New PC Tower from Scratch

  1. Cool. PC Parts Picker is an awesomely useful site. I’m getting ready to do a new build as my last machine is about 6 years old now.
    Glad you got this checked off your bucket list.

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