Daddy's got a brand new ride


— 10:23 AM on April 27, 2012

Man, I cannot wait to get started on my next build. Nearly all the necessary components are already laid out on my workbench. Some were pulled from the parts bin, cast-offs from previous rigs. Others are brand new, still mint in box, awaiting their maiden voyage. Once the last few stragglers arrive, I'll be able to get my hands dirty and put the whole thing together.

As an enthusiast, I've selected all the components carefully, after much research and deliberation. Substitutes won't do, which is why I sit in a frustrating holding pattern waiting for the last crucial pieces. But the wait will be worth it in the end, because the final product will be uniquely my own.

Since you've gotta be curious, my new ride is based on Surly's Disc Trucker frame (which is what's holding up the show, by the way). The wheels are custom-built for heavy touring, with Velocity Dyad rims laced to Shimano XT hubs. For the drivetrain, I've pulled a triple-crank Ultegra gruppo out of my parts bin. The bars, stem, and seatpost are being recycled, as well, but the Crank Bros pedals and Avid disc brakes are new. So is the WTB seat, which was chosen because it perfectly matches the one I love so much on my road bike.

Oh, you thought I was talking about building a computer. I do that, too, and often several times a day when in crunch mode. Those are all test systems, though. Rarely do I take the time to build a new system for myself.

There are a couple of reasons my infrequent PC upgrades. My desktop PC is my primary work system, for example. I can't afford downtime, so once I get a stable config, I'm loathe to mess with it. Then there's the sheer amount of time I spend slapping together parts for the Benchmarking Sweatshop.  When I have a free moment, I want to be doing anything but—like wrenching a new touring bike.

Sticking with the same desktop is surprisingly easy when it's primarily a work machine. The writing, Excel data analysis, photo editing, web surfing, and email that make up the majority of my desktop tasks hardly require potent hardware. Games are more demanding, but I have a dedicated box hooked up to the big screen in the living room and a fleet of test systems that's constantly being refreshed with the latest goodies.

A little while ago, I finally gave in and decided to freshen up my desktop. My old Core 2-based rig was still running strong, but I had just finished a particularly brutal string of reviews, and this was a reward of sorts. Also, Battlefield 3 multiplayer beckoned; it's a lousy experience from across the room on the couch, and playing on my revolving collection of test rigs was becoming more trouble than it's worth.

I had already upgraded various other elements of my workstation, first moving to a mechanical keyboard and then replacing my aging LCDs with a monitor array fit for the Batcave. Now, it was time to tackle the tower lurking under my desk. Off to the parts bin I went.

When you review PC hardware for a living, you end up with one heck of a parts bin. However, when you do as much comparative testing as we do, you also have to leave a lot of cutting-edge hardware on the shelf, lest it be needed down the line. That last thing I want to do is pull apart my work machine to benchmark one of its components. Rebooting is tolerated only for the most critical of Windows updates.

The fastest unneeded CPU on my shelf was a Core i7-870 from the Lynnfield generation. It fit nicely into a Gigabyte P55A-UD6 motherboard, which was chosen primarily for its USB 3.0 ports and the fact that its fan speed control, while extremely limited, works with the three-pin spinners on the Noctua NH-U12P heatsink I'd set aside for the system.

The Noctua cooler was chosen for its low noise levels, as was the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 470 graphics card, which has a quiet three-fan cooler and enough horsepower to maintain smooth frame rates with the detail cranked in Battlefield 3. In keeping with the low-noise theme, I pulled a Seasonic X Series 750W power supply from the pile. I'm not sure I can go back to non-modular PSUs.

8GB of unassuming DDR3 memory came next, followed by a pair of 2TB WD RE4 hard drives. The drives were configured in a mirrored RAID 1 array and paired with an Intel 510 Series 250GB SSD, the newest component in the entire system. That SSD is one of a pair, so I still have a backup ready should the 510 Series be needed again for testing. There's a DVD burner, too, but it was more of an afterthought. Blu-ray is reserved for my home-theater PC, which has a much bigger screen across from a very comfortable couch.

On the audio front, I settled on a Xonar Xense because, well, it's the best sound card I have in-house. The Xense appears to be discontinued, so it has less value as a comparative reference for future reviews, or so I tell myself.

Everything is squeezed into a Corsair Obsidian 650D enclosure, which I've been eying ever since Cyril reviewed it last year. The 650D's smart design made building the new system a painless process. Even tidying the wiring was a breeze. Modern cable management features make it ridiculously easy to assemble a clean-looking system—just don't open the right side panel.

The finished tower was put through a grueling gauntlet of CPU, graphics, and disk stress tests until it proved stable. No overclocking for this machine, though. I've experienced data corruption when turning up clocks in the past, and it's just not worth the risk on my work machine.

Naturally, the new system feels quite a bit faster than the old one. Most of that's down to the solid-state drive, I think, because the difference is most noticeable when loading multiple applications and data at the same time. Window Backup is configured to image the SSD on a nightly basis, lest any flakiness compromises my OS, applications, and critical data.

There's also the graphics card upgrade (from a GeForce 8600 GT), which has allowed me to enjoy a number of quick gaming sessions in the evenings without having to mess with my test rack. Getting to play more often is even better than not having to turn down the graphics detail.

Despite the horsepower upgrade, the new box is delightfully silent, producing little more than a low hum. Having in-line resistors on the CPU and system fans definitely helps. There's audible chatter when the hard drives are seeking, but they're secondary storage and rarely accessed.

The external storage interfaces are surprisingly high on my list of high-impact upgrades. I can't decide which I like more, the front USB 3.0 ports or the top-mounted docking station. I shudder to think of living without either. If only my DSLR had a SuperSpeed USB hookup.

In a lot of ways, my new desktop is exactly like my touring bike. The parts for both were picked to suit my needs—and what I had available already. My hands built the PC, and the same ones will assemble the bike, making both machines uniquely my own.

Sadly, those elements are missing from the portable devices that make up and increasingly prominent part of the computing landscape. Laptops are cutting options as they pursue thinner profiles, it seems, and tablets and smartphones offer little more than custom ROMs to tailor the experience. These new devices are becoming pervasive in our lives, yet they're distinctly less personal than the PCs we piece together ourselves. No wonder I've become so attached to the new tower sitting discreetly under my desk.

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