In Part 1, I explained my motivation for deciding to build a new PC for use at home.  In this post, I will be a little more specific about what type of PC I am looking for, and the methods behind my hardware selection process.

The market for home builders remains robust, and I find it has never been easier.  For research, there are numerous fine news and review sites such as Ars Technica, AnandTech, Tom’s Hardware, Hard OCP, and Silent PC Review.  To buy, the options are again numerous and you’ll find just about everything between Newegg and Amazon.

Before making any premature decisions about what parts to buy, one should always begin with a clear assessment of requirements.  What is the intended purpose of the machine?  What differentiates it from a generic consumer purchase?  Think of this like a mission statement that directs your shopping.

Objective:  a compact but upgradeable, powerful but efficient, headless linux development workstation.

Requirements: adequate but not overwhelming compute power; a two-tiered disk subsystem with SSD for primary use alongside traditional HDD for bulk storage; wifi so I can stick the box in any random corner as long as an AC outlet is nearby; mini-itx form factor so it can be as small and unobtrusive as possible.

I’ve been eyeing the mini-itx form factor for some time.  Even a micro-ATX motherboard seems excessive when I can’t recall the last time I used one PCI expansion slot let alone four of them.  If our expectations of the power of personal computers haven’t changed much in the past ten years, shouldn’t we at least deserve a little bit of miniaturization?  [four diminutive allusions in that sentence, wow!]

Until very recently, mini-itx solutions have been relegated in the marketplace to low-powered Atom systems for use in kiosks or custom industrial or embedded applications.  SFF aficionados, hitherto catered to largely by white-box vendors like Shuttle, began to demand a little more flexibility from their HTPC boxes, especially as onboard graphics became good enough to handle HD video.  But it wasn’t until new motherboard maker Zotac began offering fully featured mini-itx boards for use with the latest processors and targeted at gamers that the mini-itx form factor began to come into its own.  Today, many of the major motherboard manufacturers have a mini-itx board available with chipsets supporting the newest desktop Intel and AMD processors.

Despite the fact that motherboard selection has improved, another serious challenge facing the would-be mini-itx system builder is the selection of a case.  Most cases designed for the HTPC market assume low power and fanless operation.  Many are too small to handle decent video cards, standard ATX sized power supplies, or adequate airflow to guarantee the necessary cooling space for a desktop processor.

For me the moment of change came when I first saw the Lian-Li PC-Q11.  Once I saw it I knew this would be the home of my next system.  In my opinion, they’ve made all the right trade-offs to enable building a full-featured desktop system with a very small footprint.  For a long list of additional testimonials and ideas for your next system, see the Q11 thread on Hard Forum.

My rule of thumb for buying a CPU in a home computer is to buy the cheapest of the newest processor line.  This gives you the longest shelf life with the latest technology, but without paying a premium for the higher-clocked “luxury” models.  I’ve leaned toward Intel ever since the Core 2 Duo and the introduction of Sandy Bridge has reinforced their lead.  My choice is the i3-2100 which gives you an amazing amount of processing power for barely more than $100.  Having a 65W TDP is also attractive as it will help keep the heat down in this small case (but note that people have had no problems running the i5 and even the i7 in this case).  Some of you may have requirements for a more powerful CPU, and the i5 Passmark score is significantly higher than the i3.  But the i3 more than supplies enough CPU for my work, I highly doubt I would notice the difference.

Time has taught me that the most important component in a computer isn’t the processor or even the motherboard, it’s the power supply.  Most consumers couldn’t care less about PSUs which is why the market is flooded with cheap low-quality units that fail at dangerously high rates and when they do they have a good chance of taking out many of the components attached to them.  JonnyGuru and SPCR are excellent resources for researching power supplies.  The SeaSonic brand is arguably the best in the world and not priced much more than the cheap ones.  For their dependability alone I’d pay twice as much without blinking.

I was able to spec out my new system build for a total cost of about $800.  You could probably configure a similar pre-built model from a vendor for somewhat less, but you would lose the ability to carefully choose each component.  When you build your own system, you have to be prepared for failures which you will have to handle yourself.  A vendor will offer you a warranty, which I would strongly advise buying especially since you can’t vouch for the quality of any of the underlying parts.

The process of building your own computer may be time-consuming, but you will also learn a great deal and in the end you will have a machine that you know well and can truly call your own.