Now that we've finished Part 1, the easy part of building our dream machine is over. In Part 2, we deal with the two most complex decisions: choosing a graphics card and memory.
Choosing the Graphics Card
To recap, our dream system will be used for mild overclocking, along with daily data processing duties. Most importantly, we want to be able to game aggressively, and that means a first-class graphics card. Another important feature is that we want to do some video editing, as well as have support for High-Definition (HD) TV input signals.
Our biggest surprise of this year was the extreme value we found in NVIDIA's 7900 GS. This card packs an amazing amount of power into a small price point. GeForce 7900 GS is based on the same GPU as NVIDIA's more expensive, high-end cards such as the 7950 GT and 7900 GTX, except that NVIDIA has disabled four pixel shading units. This gives an effective number of 20 pixel shaders, which in this 256MB card performs stunningly.
A variety of OEMs make their own flavor of 7900GS. We went with EVGA (EVGA 256-P2-N624-AR GeForce 7900GS 256MB 256-bit GDDR3 PCI Express x16 KO Video Card), not only because of its reputation for quality and customer service, but also because of the extras. For example, the EVGA "KO" version comes with native HD support, which was key for us. In addition, EVGA has chosen to pre-overclock its card by about 10 percent, making it blazingly fast. Finally, the GPU cooler is a custom version with a streamlined, solid copper heatsink and fins (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 This EVGA card ships with a high-end, custom GPU cooler with solid copper fin construction.
The high-quality embedded fan is optimized for dynamic sound reduction based on the current heat load. It cools both the GPU and on on-board graphics memory modules.
This GPU fan worries us for the future, because it is the smallest and most delicate fan on the system. Because our fanless, passively-cooled mainboard allows us to eliminate a Northbridge chipset fan, this GPU fan is likely going to be the main trouble spot in the future. If it does get loud at some point, we'll switch it to some combination of passive heatpipe cooling with an additional system fan. However, for now it is extremely efficient, silent, and robust. In fact, we were so pleased with it that we left off all the aftermarket coolers that we had been testing—thus saving even more money.
Speaking of aftermarket GPU coolers, there is one worth mentioning in our quest for a more silent PC. Although it didn't make it into our custom build this year, the "Accelero" series from Arctic Cooling is designed from the ground up with silence in mind. A large mass of heatpipes and fins, efficient layout, and a precision fan all combine to improve cooling while reducing noise. The design also blows air over the MOSFETs, which can further enhance voltage regulation. For those of you who plan to use higher-end cards and/or do heavy overclocking, take a look at the Accelero GPU coolers. You just need to check with Arctic Cooling before you purchase to find out which model is compatible with your specific graphics card; otherwise, it won't fit and you will have to return it.
One final point to mention is the highest-end cards currently available. We're talking about the monstrous 8800 series cards from NVIDIA. Currently, these are hands-down the most powerful consumer-grade cards you can buy. However, they are mostly good for the "wow" factor, rather than for being a day-to-day workhorse. You can think of them as the graphics equivalent of a Hummer: You'd like to drive it around to make your friends jealous, but you'd hate commuting to work in it every day. 8800's are hot, loud, and consume tremendous amounts of power...almost as much power as the rest of your system combined! They also have trouble going into low-power mode; thus, you'll often draw as many amps while desktop viewing as you would in 3D gaming. Another problem is the fact that its drivers have been so buggy that in some situations you might actually get poor performance. Add to all this is the hefty price tag, which puts it out of the range of our budget build. But if you have cash and electricity to burn, then the 8800s are the way to go (especially as their drivers are improved).