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How To Build the Ultimate Gaming System on a Budget, Part 4: Putting It All Together

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Cyrus Peikari continues his step-by-step account for building a wicked cool game system. Here we assemble our dream computer, and then convert it to a street-racing hot rod.
Editor's Note: This is part 4 of a 4 part series. Here are links to part 1, part 2, Choosing the Motherboard, and part 3, Choosing the Graphics Card if you're joining us late. And when you're ready to put your system to the test, see what Cyrus had to say about the Doom 3 experience at Quakecon 2004.
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We've done our research, designed on paper, and hunted down only the best components. Now it's time to breathe life into our ultimate, high-end gaming system on a budget.

If you've ever worked in an emergency room, you might have had the opportunity to use the electric shock paddles (defibrillator) to—sometimes successfully—attempt to bring the dead back to life. If so, you know the feeling you get when you charge the paddles up to 200 Joules, hear the hum of the power through your fingers, and let the paddles hover over the chest for a moment as you say a short prayer.

This breathless pause is the same feeling you get after spending weeks researching, ordering, and finally building your dream machine—at the moment just before you first apply power. You've bolted the mainboard into the case on its brass struts, carefully dropped in the CPU and heatsink, aligned the RAM in the strange new dual configuration, slotted the graphics card, and attached the all-important CPU fan cable. Both power connectors are in the mainboard, and you power it on. Your wince as you flip the power switch, and then...

Nothing.

The power hums, the fans spin, and some LEDs light up, but the screen is blank. The mainboard refuses to POST the BIOS. Without this most basic step, you're helpless. You can't even get to the BIOS setup to try to debug. What went wrong?

This is exactly what happened to me the first time I powered on this particular system. Fortunately, thanks to long experience I had been in this situation before. Otherwise, I might have panicked, sold the components back on eBay, and—heaven forbid—ordered a Dell. But once you've driven a custom-built hot rod, you can never go back to stock automobiles.

In this situation, there's no need to panic. If you can't even POST, the problem must be one of your basic components. Here's what to do:

  1. The first thing to try is switching the RAM slots.

  2. Then, if you have it on hand, try substituting a different set of RAM, preferably from a different manufacturer.

  3. Next, try changing out the video card to make sure there isn't a conflict with the mainboard.

  4. If that doesn't work, try inspecting and reseating your CPU, as the pins are sometimes slightly bent.

  5. Failing that, clear out the CMOS using the jumpers on your mainboard as described in the user's manual.

  6. You could even change out the power supply.

  7. As a last resort, try changing to another mainboard to make sure that your current board isn't dead.

About 99% of "unable to POST" problems will be resolved by the above sequence of tests, which will help you make sure that you did everything right and that you don't have a dead component somewhere.

In our case, I went through the entire sequence twice. Finally, when I came back to the original components, the third time I dropped in the CPU everything POSTed, booted, and worked fine. I've never had a problem since.

Benchmarking

The gold standard of software benchmarking tools is SiSoftware's Sandra. I won't post the fifty-page Sandra printout here, but suffice to say that Sandra gives you a wealth of information, more so than you might ever need. It also gives helpful performance tweaks to make sure that your system runs at maximum.

Figures 1 and 2 give some sample benchmarks of our system. This is the system in its base state, before any overclocking. By over-building a high-end system, we'll have room for growth and performance tweaking. Choosing the best-quality components means more stability and higher tolerance, which will allow for more stable overclocking at higher voltages and temperatures.

Figure 1Figure 1 Sandra benchmark results for CPU multimedia.

Figure 2Figure 2 Sandra benchmark results for memory bandwidth.

One other thing to keep in mind is that benchmarks can never describe the "feel" of an individual computer. I've mentioned that we can save $2,000 over an equivalent retail high-end system by building this rig ourselves on a budget. However, because we did our research, didn't skimp on the important components, and chose quality where it matters, our system will have a better feel than stock systems that are much more expensive. It's a difficult concept for me to express adequately in words. Quality RAM, high-speed but low-error drives, well-cooled chipsets, and whisper-quiet fans ensure that you'll fall in love with this computer. This is where you cease to be a custom case builder, and start to become an artist. And we haven't even started talking about aesthetics yet.

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