Do yourself a Favor - Do it Yourself

Face it–you want it, you dream about it, you really really need it. It's time to upgrade to a new computer. But what's the best way to go about it? By doing it yourself, of course.

The continuing march of new computing technology, whether it's the arrival of the latest whiz-bang hardware or the hottest new editing or authoring program that requires the aforementioned hot hardware, means that we all will consider upgrading our computers sooner or later. It's one of the cruel truths of being a computer user. While you may be satisfied with your current computer now, it's inevitable that you won't always be.

As we see it, there are basically three ways to get the new computer of your dreams:

  • Order a new system from a dealer, whether local or mail-order. This is by far the easiest way to get your spiffy new system, but it's also the most expensive.
  • Upgrade parts that get outdated. This is a noble goal, but it's not always possible or practical to actually do this. Take video cards as an example: all of the hottest new graphics chipsets won't work in an older AGP slot because the design is for the PCI Express bus. A lot of video card manufacturers are beginning to phase out their old AGP cards and we expect that they will become difficult to find by year-end. And if you've got an ancient computer with a standard PCI (as opposed to PCI Express) video card, forget it–it'll be pretty much impossible to find a new graphics card.
  • Finally, your third option: build your new computer completely from scratch. This gives you the flexibility to get precisely the system you are looking for.

The last two methods do require knowledge of the interconnectivity of your computer parts, but it's not nearly as complex as you might think.

First Things First

Before you purchase anything, there are several different system form factors (sizes and layouts of motherboards and cases) to consider. ATX is the most common. It is a relatively large form factor, but one which provides for a great deal of expandability. MicroATX is a miniature version of ATX which provides a maximum of four slots on the motherboard as opposed to ATX's seven. Most full ATX cases can accept Micro ATX motherboards.

Another form factor is BTX, which moves components around a bit to try to get better airflow and more efficient cooling for hotter processors. There are a few subsets of BTX as well.

What Makes It Tick?

The first thing your computer needs is a case. This is the most visible component of your system and the first component most people seeing your system will look at, so it's a place to put in some individuality. If you're a utilitarian, you can go for something practical. On the other extreme, you can go for a gaming case with windows, cold-cathode fluorescent tubes and multi-colored LEDs to dress up your machine.

Typically most computer cases come with a pre-installed power supply. This supply converts power from the wall current into types of power that your computer needs in order to operate. While the power supplies provided with most cases are adequate, many feel the need to upgrade to something more substantial. If you do, we'd recommend at least a 400W unit. Also, make sure to see what connections you need for your motherboard. The main power connector may have either 20 or 24 pins, and the ancillary power connector will have either 4 or 8 pins. Don't forget to look for the "RU" logo, which means that you have a component recognized by Underwriters Laboratories. Also–NEVER, EVER open your power supply. The gigantic capacitors onboard can store enough power–even if unplugged–to kill you. We're not kidding about this. Note, however, that this is the only part of your computer that can possibly hurt you.

Everything in your system will connect to your motherboard. This is the main circuit board in your system. The primary differentiating features of a motherboard are its form factor and the type of processor it can accommodate. Contained on the motherboard are slots, USB ports and connections for drives (ATA, and increasingly SATA).

The processor has to match the motherboard by socket type, but other considerations are: whether the processor has one or two cores (some video-related software is optimized for dual-core processors); the clock speed and front-side bus speed of the processor (faster is better); and the cache sizes on the processor (more is better). Consider, however, that there are some dependencies between processors and motherboards either at hardware or software (BIOS) level–be sure to check your motherboard manufacturer's support site before you pull out the credit card. Unless you have special needs, to eliminate the concern for matching motherboard and CPU, many people opt to purchase both as a unit.

As for memory, the absolute minimum you'd want is 512MB. 1GB is much better, though, especially if you plan to do anything more complex than simple cuts. Your memory also has to match what your motherboard and processor can support. Two things to look out for are whether the memory is DDR or DDR2, and the speed of the memory that you need.

There's no reason to be shy about getting a big hard drive or two, especially if the price is right on a cost per GB basis. Serial ATA is rapidly becoming the standard for newer machines, which we're happy to see. There are currently two variants of Serial ATA: 1.5Gbps and 3Gbps. The 3Gbps flavor isn't quite as standardized yet, but we haven't seen any problems with using the faster drives. ATA (sometimes called Parallel ATA, PATA, IDE or EIDE) is still out there and still provides very good performance at low prices.

Optical drives will be evolving a little more over the next few years with the introductions of Blu-ray and HD-DVD. But for now, you'll be able to get any flavor of DVD burner you like. The vast majority of drives uses the ATAPI interface (which plugs into standard ATA connections on your motherboard), although there is a smattering of SATA drives available.

Audio, LAN, FireWire and video might be in different locations on your system, depending on how you want to configure it. Pretty much all motherboards include onboard audio these days, but serious audiophiles will generally opt to use PCI or USB sound devices instead, as they pick up less interference from other devices on the electrically-active motherboard. Onboard LAN ports are also extremely common, but you might find yourself wanting to add another network interface or a Wi-Fi card. Any motherboard worth considering for video editing applications will include at least one FireWire port (note that we've constrained our manufacturer listing to include only manufacturers who offer at least one FireWire-equipped motherboard in their product lineup).

As for video, most bargain motherboards include onboard video that provides acceptable performance at the expense of a few MB of system memory. However, if you're serious about your video or you're planning to do any compositing work or 3D graphics, you'll want to use a PCI Express video card. Some esoteric gaming configurations have multiple video cards, but this seems like overkill to us–just one should be plenty.

The Leg Bone's Connected to the…

If you still hyperventilate whenever you open your system's case, just take a deep breath, grab your screwdriver, and look closer. Notice all of the colors and unique connectors. All of these features are designed to guide you to the places you need to go. Most connections you will come across will fit only one way, whether it is a shrouded connection (e.g. drive connections), a connection marked for Pin #1 (e.g. front panel connections), or a keyed connector (e.g. power supply connections). All of the manuals that ship with the parts that you buy will also help guide you to how the parts will interconnect.

More Resources

We hope we've brought down your anxiety level a bit with this article and motivated you to do that upgrade or even build your own system. If you are ready to build your system, there are many great resources on the Web. The best place we can recommend for beginners is www.mysuperpc.com, a very thorough and motivational Web site that gets you through all of the steps.

If you're looking for more advice on exactly what to buy, be sure to visit some of the hardware enthusiast sites on the Web, including www.tomshardware.com, www.anandtech.com and www.hardwarezone.com.

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Charles Fulton is Videomaker's Associate Editor.

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