An Advanced Course in PC Hardware: $1,000 Performance PC with Style- Part II

16 10 2012

Last time I ran through the basics of what I need.  Now it’s time to really start picking components to build my system.

Component #1: Processor

I would start picking components with the processor.  This is one of the components that is tougher to upgrade once a machine is built, and you need to make sure you get what you want.  I am going to go with the i5-3450, which Toms Hardware ranked (in September 2012) as the best processor for the $150-$200 price range.  I went with this over a slightly cheaper or more expensive one for a few reasons.  In terms of more expensive options, the next-best choice up is not $40 better on the surface, but when you get into overclocking and things of that ilk.  I have no plans to go there with this rig, so that’s wasted cash basically.  Beyond that, you get to diminishing returns, and to get a modest increase in performance, you could either tune a $240 chip, or buy a $1000 chip. It seems the bottlenecks start to lie else where in the system at that point.  I also generally wouldn’t go to the next tier of processor down, since as I mentioned before, apart from overclocking your processor, you cannot easily upgrade your processor, so spend the cash for quality parts now.

Component #2: Motherboard

Next up is finding the motherboard you need.  It needs to fit the processor you have picked, have expansion room for the graphics/WiFi cards you want now, plus possible expansion, and be able to support the RAM load you will want.  It also needs to have the ports for things like USB’s and HardDrives that you want.  Make sure the connector types you want (USB 3.0, SATA III) are supported.  This is honestly the weakest part of my component understanding, and I tend to really scour NewEgg and Toms Hardware for recommendations, in general, and as a match for my specific processor.

Motherboards are also very important because the motherboard size will determine what case sizes you can use. I managed to find a few Micro ATX boards that should still give pretty great performance, while allowing me to look at a smaller form factor. I went with the GIGABYTE G1.Sniper M3 because it offers a few more connections I was looking for, for not much price increase.

Component #3: Case

This is a tricky pick for very different reasons then the rest of the components.  This is the part that you will be looking at day in, and day out, for the next several years.  Unless you choose a case with a window, you’ll never see the rest of the parts you pick apart from an occasional can-of-air clean out.  You also need it to handle the various parts you want.  Because of this, I went with Fractal Design’s Define Mini.  It has a clean black look, is designed to keep your system quite, but if heat becomes an issue it has openings you can open, allowing more noise out, but more air in, even adding additional fans as needed.

Component #4: RAM

Because the motherboard I selected runs the RAM in dual channel, you want 2 or 4 sticks of RAM in at a time to allow them to run at the fastest speeds possible. I have used Corsair memory a few times, with no complaints, and selected one of their 8Gb packages, the Corsair Vengeance.  It runs at the max speed my motherboard can handle (1600), and would allow me to buy another pair later to up to 16 Gb if I wanted, although that may well not happen unless this turns into more of a 3D graphics rig than it is currently intended to be.

Component #5: Graphics Card

For the graphics card, I am going with a mid-line choice, but that could be run in tandem with a second card to create a workhorse in the future.  One of the best choices according to TomsHardware is the GeForce 560 from NVidia, coming in at “just” $170.  Not only is it a great card on it’s own, but it also got an honorable mention as one of the best cards for ~$330 when run in tandem(called SLI for Nvidia  cards, and Crossfire for ATI cards. There are some differences in how they run, but unless you are going pretty high end, you likely won’t see a huge difference.).  I doubt that will be an option I will go with in the future, but it’s good to plan for it now.  The card is normally $179, but at the time that I’m writing this, there is a $20 mail in rebate. You have to remember to file it, but it’s things like these that REALLY help, as that basically bought you your DVD drive.

Next Time: Components II

An Advanced Course in PC Hardware: $1,000 Performance PC with Style- Part I

9 10 2012

A while back, I started a series on how to build your own PC based on my experience building my own rig.  I’m going to pick that up again, but as my build is a year and a half old at this point, I’ll look at what I would build today, and what I could get off the shelf for the same price.  As I already have my gaming/graphics rig, I’ll be looking at what I would build for my wife, who is also a Landscape Designer/Planner.

This means there are a few key differences in what I’ll be getting.  For my machine, I bought one of the largest towers I could find to get the best cooling, and expansion potential, possible.  Amy doesn’t want a box that is 22″x22″x9″ sitting on her desk, so I will be looking a bit more compact.  She also doesn’t do as much 3D work as I do, so I might go a little lighter on the graphics card than I might for mine.  The first step is to set a budget.  I’ll look at a budget a bit smaller than the $1,500 I used for my build: $1,000.

Protip: Wait for sales.  I saved around $300 on my build by putting trackers on items I was looking at on  I got a package with almost the exact RAM I was looking for for free with the exact motherboard I wanted, just by waiting a couple weeks.  Which brings me to my other tip: is your friend.

Right off the bat, as a windows family, $140 is gone to pay for Windows 7 Professional (64 bit) from NewEgg (Windows 8 has not been released at the time of the writing of this).  Its important if you are building a new PC at this point to get a 64-bit OS.  Among other things, it allows you to use more than roughly 3.5 Gb or RAM, which is the most a 32-bit system can see.

Now, if you just dive into shopping and try to buy a bunch of things, you’re going to get scared, and hide; unless you are a total hardware guru, at which point I am flattered that you are reading this, but it probably won’t help you a ton.  Along with NewEgg, I am also a huge fan of  They do a series called “System Builder Marathon” where they do something similar to this, at three different price levels, roughly every 6 months. They also have very good, in-depth reviews of much of the best hardware around.  The trick is, they may have done their latest builds 4-5 months ago, with budgets that bracket what you have, and that are designed to do something else.  It can be tricky to navigate a $2,400 Gaming rig and a $1000 Media server if you have $1,500 for Photoshop and CAD.  They however, are great places to start, and to make sure you don’t forget some vital piece of hardware.

There are two places you can start looking at your build: guts, and Case.  If exterior style is the most important thing, and you don’t care if it has much power, start with the case (as would be the case if you were building a Home Theater PC that just serves to play music and movies).  You could find a tiny case, or one that is small and brushed steel if that’s your style, but it may not fit components you otherwise need. I need this machine to do some decent work however, so I’m looking first at things on the inside first.

What do I need on the inside of this?

  • Looking through reviews, I really am liking the sound of the Intel i5-34xx series (part of the new “Ivy Bridge” line), so that gives me a starting point for the CPU.
  • It will also start to point me towards and away from certain motherboards based on compatibility. Motherboard size is one thing which will determine what cases I can use.
  • I will need at least one graphics card, so I’ll need a case with a decent amount of space, and a Mother Board that has at least a few PCIe slots.
  • I have software on disk, so I need at least a DVD burner.
  • At least 1 Harddrive.  It would be nice to do two, one large traditional drive, where GB are cheap, and one smaller Sold State boot drive to speed up everything, where GB are expensive. (Would love one huge Solid state, but as even a 240 Gb drive would cost in the $200 range, I’m out of luck)
  • Oh, I need RAM and a Power Supply, but those have little effect on the case.

So I need at least 3 drive bays, and room for 2 PCIe slots for a large graphics card, plus it would be nice to have an extra PCI for a WiFi card.

Next time: Choosing Components I

The Dark Knight takes New York

29 03 2012

This fall, I went into Manhattan to see the 9/11 memorial.  As a Landscape Architect(ish) it was something that I thought was important to see, and while I was no where near New York in 2001, I still vividly remember the day, as I’m sure many do.  It was a pretty great space, though it probably would have been better, IMO, if the design stayed more true to the original ideas, and wasn’t pared down via Design-By-Committee.

While that was a pretty good experience, Something else caught my eye that day.  Walking down through Wall Street, a few streets were blocked off. I thought that was a little odd, but kept moving as it was towards the end of the Occupy push, so I figured it was for that.  Then I saw a pickup with a machine gun mounted in the back parked across the street form the stock exchange(!).

Then I saw it.


Then I saw the fake snow, and signs pointing past the fences to the set.  After a bit of walking, I found more GPD cars, and a crowd of people.  Then, about two blocks away I saw a crowd of people in front of at William and Wall (About a block from Federal Hall, site of the famous Metal Gear Solid 2 ending).

Initiate zoom lens:



After that things were much less exciting.  Some smoke and snow started to be blown around, and we saw flashes of a massive fistfight, but that was it.  Still, seeing six GPD cars, and a FEW Batmobiles is never a bad day.

Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 3

20 04 2011

This week was busier than I would have liked, what with tax day and Portal 2.  I did want to give you a quick progress update however.

I tweaked some of the major areas in my deck and public turf area, refining shapes, and moving the parking slightly.  The combination of the changes create spaces that are more vibrant, draw your eye towards the areas you want to look, and have good spaces created for gardening and herbs (Sea Foam Green).

I then set about working on the back yard area.  I knew I wanted a path leading out to my private space and to the river edge.  I also wanted to include screening and a place for flood water to be cleaned, infiltrated, or at least slowed down.  I also wanted it to be something visually striking.  I have created a raised decking path and small deck area, above what is essentially an infiltration basin.  It would be planted with drought tolerant plants  in higher, normally feet-dry areas, and wetland plants in feet wet areas near the bottom.  What really sets it apart, however, is a small detention basin at the base of the wild area.  This should remain filled most of the year, and is edged by stone, creating the look of a rectilinear pond in a biomorphic wetland.

What you end up with is a geomorphic series of spaces for people, witch overlap with biomorphic and rectilinear in areas where the human space interacts the most with the “natural” areas.

This is still all conceptual, including the rough sections, so for next week I am hoping to get down to brass tacks and start doing the detailed design work.

Until next week.

Patapon 3: a Pre-Review

12 04 2011

I was one of the lucky few selected to play Patapon 3 with Mr. Greg Miller from this weekend to help him with his review.  I can’t nail down an absolute score yet in part because I am at best 25% into the story mode at this point.

What I can tell you is this: Patapon 3 is an amazing game.  It is one of the most enjoyable single player experiences for the system, as well as a game with depth you would be thrilled to find on a PS3 game.  There is a great mix of guys you can absolutely trash, and guys who you really need to work to beat.  No bosses are really all that cheap, but you have to play levels a few times to beat them, if nothing else to learn the moves and tells of different enemies.

I might like the game’s single player more then some because as I think about it, Patapon 3 doesn’t play like a modern game in many ways.  It plays like an old school NES/SNES game.  You need to study your enemy, try different tactics, and be prepared to fail.  The thing Patapon 3 is so great at however, is keeping you interested even after getting walloped 4-5 times by the same boss.

Part of the way it stays fresh is with loot drops and character building/equipping.  You start the game with the choice of being and archer, a spearman, or a shield holder.  Within each of these classes there are 8 sub-classes you can evolve into, and if you level the base character far enough you then unlock the other class trees as well.  This gives the opportunity, when deeper into the game, to have a team with you being an archer, and 3 shield-men protecting you and you’re flag holder, or three archers raining down fire with one shield protecting. Along with this each sub-class has multiple weapon and armor types, each of which you can find with fire, ice, poison, or lighting power imbued.  Part of the challenge of Patapon 3 is finding the right combination if you are going to face an ice boss, but you’re ice crossbow is level 15, and your fire longbow is only level 3.

Where this game really took a surprising turn for me was with multiplayer.  Basically you take you’re hero, and go hang out with up to 3 other Heros, and run normal missions as well as Verses challenges.  I haven’t had a chance to play Vs. yet (as the servers were empty), but the missions were amazing.  Your hero always has a bit better attacks than the AI helpers you have, so seeing 2 archers raining fire, a sorcerer launching meteorites, and a knight charging forward with flames coming off of him like a rocket is amazingly intense.  It also gives you the ability to use a bit more strategy- if you have a healer you can have him hang back by half a screen, well out of harms way, just continually casting heal spells, or you can have a knight charge far forward as a scout and to push back any small time guys to protect archers from close quarters combat.

It does have its limitations, mostly due to the limits of the system itself.  The chat system used is pre-canned phrases.  As Greg said in his running-review, once your group gets a feel for each other, you could probably live with just those, but you cannot really lay down a strategy, or apologize for setting the grass on fire, which in turn burned your other archer to a crisp.  I understand why they went this route, as allowing text input on the psp would really bog things down.  But having the option in the hideout at least would have been a welcome addition.  As it was, our group used skype chat to communicate, and it made the multiplayer a revelation.  If you plan on playing with people on a regular basis, get to know them, and, whenever possible, use skype, or AIM, or tinychat, or something to keep in touch.

As it stands now, I have a tough time nailing down a score for this game.  Its definitely more than an 8.5 in my book, but it is also not a 10.  It really could range anywhere from a  9 to a 9.5, but that could move depending on how the rest of the story mode goes, and how vs multiplayer feels.

I again want to thank Greg, and IGN for this.  It really was amazing to get a glimpse into his day to day of having games before anyone else, and having a job where at least one component of it is making great friends while trying to slay dragons.

Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 2

11 04 2011

Now that I have a site and a client, the first thing to do is to walk the site, and create a site analysis based on what the client needs and what the site and borrowed landscape provides.  My first cut at the site analysis stayed at a large scale and was somewhat bold.

This analysis was made with Sharpies on a trace sheet laid over the base map, and serves as a first step to get the big issues onto the page.  I then stepped down to a more detailed analysis using a wacom tablet on my PC.  This allowed me to work on top of both the base map, satellite photo, and my first analysis map, all with variable opacity, while still having the control/feel of a pen.

This analysis map is what I used for my conceptual design phase on a site scale.    This would still be for internal use in general, and would be supplemented by fine detail analysis maps if needed.  The text is also a good indicator of my current skill with a tablet, as I do not have the best handwriting, but the wacom only makes it look worse at this point.

Now that I have a working analysis map, I’m going to work on programming of the site, and conceptual designs.  The program I came up with preliminarily was to have a large space for entertaining that would also function as a semi-public space, like traditional shared backyards. In most of the concepts I also looked at more of a private outdoor space, both as more of a contemplative area, and as an area for small gatherings/date nights.  I wanted to include a small garden for both vegetable and herbs for cooking, and at least one turf area for any future kids/dogs.  I also wanted to make sure I included an area for infiltration and slowing of any flooding behind the garage. Once I had these basic building blocks, I started the conceptual phase with a method one of my professors was a huge fan of: 10 conceptual designs in 10 minutes.  Admittedly, I took more like 20 minutes, but I still got good results.

This method forces you to rethink ideas you already had in your mind.  To come up with 10 distinct ideas in a short amount of time you are forced to think about things in new, and a more instinctual way.  Also, after five or six conservative concepts, its gets easier to go nuts and do something a little more off the wall.  I took these concepts, and decided I wanted to explore the idea of a raised deck as the private space in the rear (from Concept 4), and the idea of a deck with planters built in for shading and easy herb access (Concept 5).  I also wanted to look into making the “party parking” into grass-pavers, which would increase my usable turf space greatly in the narrow yard.

On a technology side-note: I was somewhat surprised with how well the Wacom worked for this process.  In some ways I had no real hope for it replication the  experience of pen on paper, but it actually did a good job.  There are some drawbacks- fine pen control is tougher and requires another level of hand-eye coordination that even my gaming-trained mind does not quite have, and unless you buy an expensive model, you are drawing on a smallish 5″x8″ area instead of a sheet of trace the size of your table.  However, there are some benefits as well.  You can easily make a pallet of pen colors based on what the program is, and have more options than Sharpies would give you, with quicker color switches.  You can also either draw everything on one layer, or each part on a different layer, so if you like one part of a concept, you can just edit other layers, leaving you favorite untouched.  You also have the power of a perfect eraser and undo, so anytime you draw a bad line, with a single click it is completely gone.


Back to the design, I then pulled the two pieces I liked into a single file, giving me an idea of roughly what the two part would look like.  I then started by rough blocking the rear deck and the infiltration area in the rear, before moving to the house, and tweaking the deck slightly, moving the stairs, realigning the driveway/parking, and trying out routes for a path to the basement door.


I went with this deck shape because not only would it would allow for some elevated views to the creek to the south, but it would also pull your eyes in that direction. The plantings would be a mix of herbs and grasses, providing the deck with slight screening, and easy access to the herbs from the kitchen.  In my next edit I tried running the path through the grass paved area, providing the path for when cars are not parked there, and also act as stepping stones out of the parked cars.

I then tried re-aligning the sidewalk under the deck to avoid the intersection being directly at the base of the steps.  This was made very easy because my sidewalk was on its own layer, so I was able to completely change the sidewalk layout without having to touch the things I liked, like the driveway/grass pave arrangement.



I then realized that with the path going through the grass area, when people were over there was no choice but to walk through the grass.  I moved the path to become a border for the parking, and added a flagstone-ish path to the rear to get it down on “paper”.

I then decided to take a step back, and take another look at the deck shape.  I did a quick viewshed/privacy analysis from deck level, noted in hot-pink.  The tough call area to the right is because there are new neighbors, and which the yard is a beautiful wildflower garden at the moment, that may quick, and dramatically change this summer.

I then went back and re-looked at the deck, moving the stairs back to the driveway side, and had a path running to the side of the house from under the deck.

This is where I stand as of now:  I am still tweaking the deck, but also looking at the turf area, so I can make them play off each-other.  This is a good look at the kind of work you can do with the wacom too.  I’ve only used it a few hours, mostly for this project, and I’m amazed at how quickly you can try and retry things, which is so important when working with things like geo-morphic shapes.  This is after many iterations of the turf area, but because I am using the wacom instead of trace, its still readable.

This week I plan to be at 80% site planned.  I should have a few rough sections, and be to the point of detailed design.  Let me know what you think, both of the blog series, and the design!

Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 1

4 04 2011

Recently, as I have continued my search for full-time employment, I’ve forced myself to take another look at myself in terms of what I can do to improve my chances in the hyper-competitive job market of today.  Without boring you with the full list, I’ll just say that I figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Starting today, I am going to run my own design studios.  I’m going to run it similar to how some of my MLA studios were.  I have 6 weeks to go from site visit to presentation.  The presentation style will vary with the project, from Competition Boards to small presentations for home owners.  I will always assume an unlimited budget.  If there is interest, I may ask readers to act as clients, giving the basic programmatic desires, etc.  I’ll be making weekly progress blogs as the project continues, culminating with the posting of my presentation graphics.  And lastly, if anyone desires, I encourage other to take part, and post your own progress blogs.

Project 1: Connecticut Residence

My first project is a private residence near the coast of Connecticut.  I will be presenting the design here on May 13th.  As it is a private residence it will consist of a few small boards, and maybe a simple powerpoint.

The owners are newlyweds who just purchased the house.  They are fond of arts-and-crafts style design as well as elements of prairie and modern design.  They don’t have any kids, but would like to have a couple in the future.  They enjoy spending time outside, and would not mind a garden that would benefit from some basic attention.  They are both ecologically minded people, and would like a plan designed with sustainability in mind.

The clients are happy with the front yard, which has a blue-stone walk leading to the porch.  They also like the color from the large Japanese maple, and the Vinca that is the ground cover for much of the yard.

There is a grade change of about twelve feet from the front to the back yard, with the driveway on the north side of the house, and a Vinca planted slope on the south.  The backyard has a small deck that the clients would like to redesign for small parties and a barbecue.  There is a two car garage, along with paved room for two additional cars to be parked with no one being boxed in, which they would like to keep for entertaining, but they are not in need of most times.

Just over 100′ from the back of the garage is a small river.  Along with the challenges this poses in terms of protected buffer zones, it also is an issue because it floods badly some years, sometimes jumping its banks at bend in the river from when it was a mill run, down a street, and behind the garage, at times dumping gravel for driveways along the way.

Neighbors downstream have yards that are mostly turf up to the river bank. Upstream there is a house that is in mediocre condition near the river bank, well within the 100′ buffer line.  This yard has a wooded area along the river.

I’ll post the site analysis with rough topography soon, along with the first conceptual designs next week.