A New PC Build

Not long ago, I detailed a way to fix a broken power switch connector on a Mac Mini. That fix got the computer I’ve been running MSTS and Open Rails on for years back to work, but it was clearly time to replace it. I had actually planned a replacement computer build nearly two years ago but it just never got to the top of the priority list in the budget. With the old computer on its last legs, it was time to move ahead.

The last time around I had chosen to dual-boot a Macintosh because at the time (2009) the Mac Mini model was based on midrange standard PC components — just in a very small package. At the time, I did most of my day-to-day work on the Mac OS and the ability to dual-boot the computer in both OS X and Windows was a real value.

Several things made me move away from Apple’s offerings more recently, however. OS X itself has gotten less reliable. Ever since leaving the “Big Cat” name series, more bugs have crept in and made it less stable. Unfortunately, taking the Mac OS from being a powerful, stable (and, honestly, a bit boring) platform for running advanced software and turning it into a hub for cloud services and i-gadgets hasn’t worked out as well as the marketing hype tries to make it. In the meantime, Microsoft has polished the Windows platform to the point that virtually everything that runs on the Mac OS either runs on Windows as well, or has an equally effective Windows alternative. So it’s not terribly difficult to move all my day-to-day work over to Windows. Particularly with Windows 10, I just don’t need a Macintosh any longer. Even my rather large music and media library in iTunes is no problem — iTunes has a Windows version. In fact, I’ve found that the Windows version has been running better in my house for the past year or two than the native Mac version! Ever since I repaired the old Mini, it’s spent most of its time booted into Windows and I’ve been moving my work over to that environment. I’ll be able to back up my user profile easily and copy the essentials over to a new Windows machine with no major hassle.

My yardstick for high-quality computers is still the Macintosh I used prior to the Mini — it was a dual-processor PowerPC G4 machine that lasted (with some upgrades along the way) for ten years. Eventually, when Apple stopped supporting the IBM PowerPC platform with OS and security updates, I had to jump to an Intel platform Mac. The old G4 Mac was built from very high-quality components. Adding memory and larger hard drives, plus the regular OS upgrades kept it running well for a decade. That’s a tough track record to beat. So, the new PC will have to start out its life as cutting-edge as possible, so it can stay relevant as technology inevitably moves on. High-grade components are also important. PC components are often built to be “good enough” to last 4-5 years, on the premise that consumers will want to buy the newest thing long before any problems develop. I prefer to get more of my money’s worth than that, so I’m willing to spend a little more and expect my investment to last for a while.

One place I can save money is by avoiding the very expensive graphics cards that so many PC builders want to sell for gaming. My monitor, which I’m keeping for a while longer, is only capable of 1440×900 resolution. You only need a graphics card powerful enough to support the number of pixels on your screen at a sustained frame rate — and a mid-range card should be more than adequate. So, I’ll be focusing on raw computing performance and only enough graphics power to be up to the task of supporting a monitor that’s considered medium-resolution today.

So, here’s the basic specification and parts list:

  • Intel Core I7-6700K 4GHz processor (”K” series is unlocked to allow overclocking)
    16GB of DDR4-3000 memory
  • ASUS Maximus VIII Hero high performance motherboard
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX960 graphics card with 4GB VRAM
  • Western Digital Black series 7200RPM hard drives, one 1TB drive for Windows and regular applications, and one 2TB drive for performance-intensive applications, like MSTS / Open Rails, flight simulators and games.

You might wonder why I haven’t added any SSDs (Solid State Drives). Aside from the prices which are still high compared to mechanical hard drives, they’re still proving themselves over time for long-term reliability and data integrity. Separating the OS drive from the read-intensive data still offers a performance improvement, and the motherboard has additional disk-to-RAM caching capability if necessary. There’s ample memory to play with on a 16GB system.

In an earlier version of my specs, I had stayed with a traditional fan-cooled heatsink on the processor. That was, until the new “Skylake” series CPUs came out. These new processors are built on a thinner circuit board substrate, and reports are coming in already of some processors being damaged by having their circuit boards bent under the pressure of large heatsink clamps. I really don’t want to damage a CPU that costs nearly $400 US! So I’m changing over to a sealed all-in-one water cooling system. The motherboard has a control header assigned for controlling the water pump, with water-cooling-specific features in the BIOS and support software drivers. This should make water cooling technology a better fit that was previously possible. Now there’s no requirement to run additional drivers for the water cooler or make the board treat the water pump like another cooling fan instead.

Coming soon, I’ll lay out the full specifications and go through the build process in a detailed posting in the “Tech” section.

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