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There is never a single computer build that will suffice for everybody so I’ll explain each components options and in another tutorial ill build a pretty generic build for 3d work and suggest where tweaks would be needed for certain applications.


There isn’t an order of importance of where to throw your money at however there are 3 areas that you want to focus most of your research on.

-The CPU
-Video Card


Some may say that there is definitely an order of importance, in reality everything relies on the other component, at least in 3d. 
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This knowledge base got REALLY long. Incase you didnt know, most browsers have the ability to search text by hitting the key combo "ctrl+f" and it will bring up a search box. On OS X it's "open apple+f"

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  The CPU - Central Processing Unit (chip)

The CPU is the workhorse of the computer, it’s the main brain and it does all the calculations that you tell it to do via the programs on the computer.  In 3d, rendering is extremely demanding on a CPU.  As of right now there aren’t any “good” renderers that utilize your graphics/video card’s processor thus, everything, as far as final image processing, is left up to the CPU.    Currently the best processor/CPU for the dollar is the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 Kensington.  Its, essentially, two Intel Core 2 Duo Conroe E6600’s jammed onto one circuit, but that’s beside the point.  The Q6600 is currently priced at 189.99 (as of September 30, 2008) and it will probably continue to slowly drop every month as it has been, and all technology does. 

Are there better CPUs out there? Of course, there are always bigger, badder, faster CPUs but most 3d people are forced to either upgrade or replace their computer every 2 years or so because of the stresses that are employed by rendering, so getting the best performance while not spending over a grand for a cpu is important.  And besides, Intel just announced the 6 core processor and according to
Moore’s Law there should be a 16 core processor coming around January of 2009.

There is a ton of information about CPUs and how they work, and in order to ensure you are getting a good processor you should make sure to compare and confirm those settings/features will have a positive effect on your work (they actually mean enough to warrant the price increase.)

A few things to watch out for when choosing a CPU.
Socket Type – This HAS TO MATCH the socket receptacle on the motherboard.  The Q66600 is a socket type: LGA 775.  LGA 775 stands for “Land Grid Array” and all that means for you is that the CPU pins are on the receptacle NOT on the CPU.  Back in the day the CPU itself had all the pins on the little chip.  This was risky when building your own computer as it was easy to bend these pins, and in turn, ruin the CPU.  If you manage to break a CPU pin on the motherboard it’s almost always cheaper to replace the motherboard than the CPU. And CPU returns/RMAs are never easy anyway.

L2 Cache - This is a CPU cache that is used to store repeatedly used data.  This is different from ram.  There is indeed a performance boost when you have a larger L2 cache, HOWEVER, not when rendering 3d.  It sounds weird I know, The CPU has to continuously take in data and output data, having a larger cache should benefit it.  It should, but it doesn’t.  Pretty much everything a CPU has to read and write while rendering is too large or not accessed enough to warrant storing it in the CPU’s cache so it is stored in the ram.  That’s not completely true, some stuff is stored but again, not enough to warrant a performance boost while rendering, the benefits are too insignificant.  Now I’m not saying disregard this statistic because for other processes it does benefit.  Compression, reformatting, CPU aided graphics, etc will be enhanced with this larger cache, just don’t throw a ton of money at a chip with a lot of L2 cache.

FSB- Front Side Bus- Front side bus is the bus (no not the big yellow thing, it’s a piece of hardware that can logically carry data across the same set of wires) that carries data between the CPU and the north bridge.  This is normally measured in MHZ and this number is the “clock frequency.”  It is used to calculate how many data transfers occur per clock cycle.  Basically, every time the CPU makes a calculation; this number represents the amount of data that is transferred as a result.  All in all a higher number is preferred but going overboard is not worth it with 3d.

Northbridge- This is the memory controller hub, it controls the flow of the data between many of the critical processing chips/parts, ie… CPU, RAM, AGP or PCI-E, and the southbridge.

64 Bit support- This feature is CRUCIAL, assuming you’re actually doing any 3d that is even remotely challenging.  I’ll explain more later and will touch on it in the RAM section.

Hyper Threading- This is an Intel exclusive feature.  It was something for Intel to brag about and has now been, for the most part, phased out.  In its simplest, form it allowed data to be sent and received at the same time and that allowed parts of the processor to be used that would otherwise be sitting idle.  It is now only available on the xeon processors used in servers but was in the Pentium 4s and Atom processors.  Many people claim it is highly inefficient, requiring much more power than actually warrants its benefit.  To sum it up- it’s not worth it right now and if you follow my guidelines you’ll get better performance anyway.

Voltage- This is pretty straight forward, it’s how much power the CPU uses during its normal functions, usually the low number is idle and the high number is under full load.  This is a handy number when planning how much power you will need for your computer.

Operating Frequency – Back in the day (the arbitrary day) this number was actually usable when comparing the speed of a processor.  Not so much anymore, if at all.  CPU manufacturers have begun separating these numbers by CPU class, and with a legitimate reason.  As CPUs began taking on multiple cores you couldn’t just double the operating frequency, this number is an actually quantifiable number, it’s the number of clock cycles per second, or the number of calculations performed per second.  Take, for example, the Q6600 vs the E6600.  Both processors have an operating frequency of 2.4 Ghz.  As I stated earlier the Q6600 is essentially two of the E6600’s jammed on one die (socket) and as one would expect, doing the same process on both processors results in the Q6600 performing at TWICE the speed.  And I have both of these processors and have confirmed this, or you can look at benchmarks elsewhere. Either way, take this number however you will, I no longer hold it with much merit as it is only useful for comparison within the same processor class, and those classes are hard to distinguish, unless you’re Intel. 

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  RAM - Random Acess Memory

Ram is, more or less, the servant or even servants to the CPU. The acronym R.A.M. stands for ‘Random Access Memory.’  The RAM’s job is to hold temporary data for the CPU, either to process or that it has just finished processing.   I made a pretty simple diagram below that shows the order of data transfer when you request the CPU perform a task.  No matter what you request the CPU to do it has to go through the RAM.


The arrows just indicate the flow of data, that line cant be interrupted, there isn’t any way to just skip the RAM and write directly to disk.  As processors speed up, RAM is often the first component that PC repair guys/gals assume is lacking, and for good reason as it is often overlooked when buying/building a computer.  There are definitely limitations to how much RAM a computer can handle but ill explain that in the things to know about RAM section.  When a request is sent via input device (mouse and keyboard, or touch screen)  the first thing the CPU does is request data that is being stored on the hard drive.  Because the hard drive is not fast enough to read and write to the CPU it hands that data off to the RAM, which in turn, hands a portion of that data or all of it off to the CPU.  Because the CPU can hold a very limited amount of data (anywhere from 1-24 megabytes) it has to keep handing data back and forth to the RAM.  This may seem inefficient but it’s really not all that inefficient with the speeds of the CPUs now.  If you think of the CPU as a small child with hand size respective to their age and the RAM as 3 or 4 servants standing waiting and the hard drive as a filing cabinet.  The child requests something and the servants instantly grab it from the cabinet and hand parts of it to the child, the child can only hold so much and has to begin handing stuff back in order to grab other stuff.  Now multiply that by a few million times a second!  As the CPU finishes calculations it hands it back to the RAM who then tells the hard drive to write that data to storage. RAM can quickly become a bottleneck and it wont even be obvious, you will just think your computer is slowing down because of too many files or a virus or something.  When you run out of available RAM the RAM has to write to a temporary location on the hard drive in order to take more data, when that data it wrote to the hard drive is recalled it has to dump enough of the data it is currently holding to the hard drive so it can pick up the data that is being requested. A general rule of thumb, don’t have less than 1 gig of RAM per core of CPU power.  That being said read the next section about ram as it is VERY important.


Things To Know About RAM.

Windows XP Pro, XP home, Vista Mac OSX 10 Tiger, and before, all ONLY see 3 gigs of ram.  Yea, you’re telling me.  Ok fine, don’t blame the software, blame the developers that figured we would never need more ram than a 32 bit operating system can support.  Any operating system that is 32 bit can only handle 4096 megabytes of RAM.  Yes, that is 4 gigs, so why will it only see 3?  That’s because the normal operation of the hardware in the computer utilizes RAM as well, usually this is somewhere under a gig, leaving, you guessed it, 3 gigs for everything else. 

There is currently one way around this, and one way only.  You must use a 64 bit operating system.  Windows XP Pro x64, Vista x64, OSx Leopard are designed to run on 64 bit architecture (hardware.) ALSO, the programs you use on 32 bit, while they will run (most of them) on 64 bit, they are almost all programmed to not even look for more than 3 gigs of RAM.  If you have a need for more than 3 gigs of ram then they will usually make a 64 bit version of that software, ie… 3D Max 64 bit. Now this doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to put in more than 3.  Say you want to run 3 or 4 processor intensive programs at a time as I often do, ie… Premiere, Photoshop, Max, each of these programs can see 3 gigs, if I have 8 gigs of RAM each program has 2 and 2/3s gigs of its own RAM.  This means much less writing and reading to disk, aka saving time!  Now, onto the technical words to look out for when buying RAM.


RAM is also called Memory, for short.


This is usually a Pin count followed by the common ‘type’ of memory setup. Ie… 240 pin DDR2 SDRAM.  The 240 pin matches the number of receiver pins on the motherboard’s memory recepticles, always look to see what the motherboard manufacturer suggests you use for RAM.  The DDR2 SDRAM is a long term (Double Data Rate two Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) that basically means it is setup to have two (synchronous) data blocks working at the same time, in turn speeding up the processes.  There is SDRAM (DDR2) and the older DRAM (DDR) and there is now DDR3. Most of the motherboards sold now take SDRAM (DDR2.)


Usually presented in a “#GB (# x #GB)” sort of fashion.  This shows the total Gigabytes and then how it is divided between the stick/s.  So if I bought a pair of 2 gigabyte sticks it would be shown as “2GB (2 x 1GB)”  or maybe they would present it as “2GB (2 x 1024MB)” 



This is usually a number that the motherboard requires and dictates.  For example, DDR2 800, the number on this represents the number of data transfers per second, NOT the MHZ.  This is a common misconception, in fact the MHz is ½ of this number, so DDR2 800 would have a clock speed of 400 Mhz.

Cas Latency

Cas is an acronym as well, standing for (at least what I was told) Column Address Strobe, apparently there are other acronyms used.  Either way the acronym isn’t important, the number is.  The number tells you the amount of time (in clock cycles, NOT seconds) it takes from when the memory controller tells the RAM which Column and Row the data it needs is to the time that data hits the pins on the motherboard.  The higher the number the longer the RAM takes to retrieve the requested data.  Do some googling on these numbers as depending on the CPU and RAM type a one number variation can be either huge or tiny in terms of time spent waiting.


These numbers, displayed in a 4 number sequence, each represent a certain timed process that the ram performs.  One of these numbers is the CAS latency as just covered.  As a side note you need to watch out that the ram isn’t listed as a say, CAS Latency 4 but all the other timings are 5 and the last is 15, They are just charging you more for the faster CAS latency but the ram isn’t any significant amount faster.  Anyway, the numbers, if you really wanna know what they stand for, they are; tCAS – CAS Latency, tRCD -RAS to CAS Delay, tRP - RAS Precharge, tRAS.  If you have some crazy hankerin to know exactly what each one stands for, google it!  Each one is so specific it would take its own page to explain.  The jist is – the lower the numbers the faster the ram.


This is the amount of power each stick requires in order to perform at the advertised speeds.  This is helpful in calculating for a power supply and also must be known when setting up your computer.  Some motherboards require a certain voltage or cant handle above a certain voltage so it is important to look at the motherboard manufacturers numbers first.

Heat Spreader

This just indicates if it has a heat spreader of any sort to radiate heat.  As is with all electronics, the cooler you can get them to run the better and faster they can perform.  (If you ever get bored and wanna see what some people do to get their CPUs cooled so they can overclock them search for “CPU Liquid Nitrogen” its pretty cool!)


Most RAM makers offer a limited lifetime warranty.  You usually wont need this but I strongly encourage you to get RAM that has it anyway, the price difference is usually miniscule compared to the cost of the RAM.  I had to use my warranty just a couple weeks ago and lemme say corsair was VERY good about replacing it no questions asked, they also have a great troubleshooting forum and customer support. (Not to slam other memory makers, I just have a lot of corsair that has been very good to me!)
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  The Video Card (GPU)

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is quite important when doing 3d creation or image manipulation or gaming, among a few other things. 

Don’t think having a 2000 dollar SLI’d GPU setup will make your rendering AWESOMELY fast, it wont.  (SLI I’ll explain later if I confused you.)

When working in 3D the GPU is used for real-time presentation of the workspace.  So when you’re toolin around your model that’s 4 million polys and it starts to lag, that’s your GPU hitting its limit.  Think about everything it’s doing, it’s calculating and sending data to be displayed at the fastest rate it can.  It has to figure out anti aliasing on all the 3d objects, calculate the wires in the wireframe mode, output the software’s GUI, calculate some sort of crude lighting that most 3d packages have setup.  (You can get better performance out of your current gpu by turning down viewport anti aliasing and having it display textures at a lower resolution, all should be controllable within your CG package’s  display settings.)   

If it wasn’t obvious yet, the GPU does a lot to make everything look purty for you while you’re working.  The good news, as of late (the past year or so), the price of desktop GPUs has come way down and the performance has exploded upwards.  As a comparison, my current video card cost me about 160 bucks a few months ago and handles 6 million polys in my viewport like a champ.  My school had 1500 dollar cards that were 2, or so, years old……. Opening a scene with a little over a million polys could take quite a while, and good luck navigating it! 

Before you go a drop a grand or more on a video card because you think you need it check out some 3d specific benchmarks, theyre all over the place.  (Sorry if that sounded mean, I know too many people who have spent more on their video cards than they do on their processors and they will never utilize that GPU’s power!  If you are one of them, shame on you.)


Things to look for in a Video Card

As a beginning note I need to mention, Video cards can be manufactured by different companies and still utilize the same chip, for example, the 8800 GT (my card) is made by BFG, PNY, Asus, etc.  The chip itself is manufactured by NVIDIA, to their specs, and is then placed on a board with circuitry manufactured by the card maker company.  Think of the chip like the CPU of the computer and the manufacturers board like the motherboard of the CPU, now miniaturize it and dedicate it to graphics display.



There are 2 different interfaces, PCI Express (aka PCI-E) and VGA (aka VGA.)  PCI Express is the newer of the 2 and has, for the most part, much better performance for a significant price decrease.  You CANNOT interchange the two and NO, you CANNOT use a PCI Express video card in a PCI slot, it has to be a PCI Express Slot.  This interface is specific to the motherboard; check which receptacle the motherboard has, though I strongly suggest you get a mobo (motherboard) with a PCI-E slot.

Chipset Manufacturer

This tells you who made the Video Processor chip.  I have used both NVIDIA and ATI, as a blatant slap to ATI’s face, I will NOT use their product anymore.  Their Driver support is terrible and I have spent too much time rolling back drivers than would ever make the decreased price worth it.  But that’s my opinion; take it for what you will.  Should I hear they are supporting their drivers better maybe ill try them someday again, but that day is far away.


This is the graphics processing unit, its often used as a synonym for video card, as you have seen me do.  This is, in reality, the chip that does almost all the processing of the graphics data.

Core Clock

This is the speed of the GPU.  Measured the same way the CPU core clock is. (Higher = faster)

Stream Processors

This number represents the number of stream processors.  Stream Processing is relatively new (in execution, though its long been theorized) and allows for the GPU to be used for general computing.  It used to be that the GPU was solely used for graphics, with stream processing the GPU can be used for specific applications upon which a GPU can be utilizes, at times performing MUCH faster than any available CPU could.  Folding@Home, a volunteer program that makes your computer available for calculations for protein folding whenever it goes idle, utilizes the GPU.  Maybe you’ve seen the option on your PS3, maybe not.  It’s a pretty cool idea and program.

Memory Clock

This is the clock speed of the memory on the video card.

Memory Size

As it is named, this is the size of the memory installed on the video card.

Memory Type
This is the type of the memory, GDDR2 GDDR3 etc.  These acronyms correspond to the memory classifications just like with the RAM.  GDDR3 is the newest and fastest


This just tells you if it works with microsofts Directx and to which version.  The current version, as of this writing, is 10.

Indicates if it is OpenGL compatible.  Any card should be, almost all 3d programs use OpenGL so you need to make sure this supports OpenGL.

This lists all the ports/connections that are on the external interface of the card.  If you want to run dual monitors you have to have 2 ports, preferably DVI.

Max Resolution
Max resolution is the largest (or smallest rather) resolution that this video card can output.  If you want to run a 30 inch monitor those usually require certain video cards.  Most current, decent, video cards can output to 2560x1600, and that’s per monitor/output.  1080p HD TV is 1920x1080.

SLI Supported
SLI is a “Scalable Link Interface’ and that means you can hook up two identical cards that can be utilized as one.  This boosts performance for applications and games that can utilize more power.  If you want to do dual monitors and SLI it isn’t possible at this time.  SLI requires a capable motherboard and a rather large power supply, as video cards demand the most power after the CPU (unless you have a crazy amount of fans or hard drives.)

SLI isn’t something I “endorse” right now.  It used to be the only way to get the performance needed in order to play certain games at full resolution and to maximize their capabilities, however, lately the video cards have become extremely powerful and I feel that its too hard to justify the cost of upgrading everything just to have an SLI setup.  And besides, if you’re doing 3D work you should have 2 monitors; it’s the greatest thing ever.


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  What does Dan do?- 12-11-08

Here is my response to the “what I do,” (in regards to 3D production) question; for all those that understand the lingo.


I graduated college with a heavy modeling, texturing, and rendering focus.  While I still love those three areas, I have branched out and feel it has undoubtedly evolved my work for the better.


The term “scene assembler” has been used more frequently, as of late, and I find myself fitting that mold more and more, most likely due to the demands from freelancing. 

Scene assembler, as I interpret it, usually consists of:


Detailed hard surface modeling (my favorite)
Simple hard surface modeling
Initial scene setup
Lighting – All aspects of lighting
Shaders/Textures – I usually set them up and paint all the custom maps
Background particles and FX – I often do FumeFX setup and sims
Render Prep- I’m usually the only person to setup and prep the final files for
renders.  I test times and quality and ensure to not exceed computer limits
Break renders into the necessary passes
Submit the renders
Composite – Using Shake or Fusion- I assemble and tweak anything and         
everything that needs to be.  Also I usually add any post fx at this stage.


I definitely do more than this, I often animate and and help setup simple rigs and things, this list is just what Ii do most often.

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  Currently Reading - 12-10-08

        I enjoy learning and I do a lot of it every day. People often ask "what are you reading," and since it seems like a common question I figured there are other people out there that may wonder it but don't ever ask, or don't see me reading so don't think to ask.

        Also, I'll review each book as I finish it incase you want to buy it or just want to know if it's good!


C++ From the Ground Up - ISBN-0078824052
       Personal Reading. Scripting helps tremendously in 3D production, I learned some C++ back in high school but need to freshen up my skills.


Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X - ISBN- 9780201726831
       Although I use windows most of the time I own a number of Macs and enjoy the interface and design enough that I would like to know how to code for it.


Learning ActionScript 3.0 - ISBN-9780596527877
       Picked this up to use as a reference for a project, It's a well written book and I am enjoying it so I keep reading it!

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  Pesky Max - 12-04-2008

        I feel I have to make this public knowledge. I spent the better part of 2 hours trying to figure out why, anytime I was in Editable Poly mode and I hit the alt key it would execute the traditional windows alt function and not the max defined alt function. Maybe it's clearer to say, when I hit alt+r while in editable poly mode, I would get the render dialogue box instead of selecting an edge ring. As you may or may not understand, selecting edge rings is pivotal to modeling.

        The solution: You have to delete the 3ds max user profile so max will create a new one. In order to get to this file you have to turn on the "show hidden files and folders" in windows. This file is stored in "C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\Local Settings\Application Data\Autodesk\3dsmax\9 - 64bit\enu" fun, no?! Go ahead and add the extension ".bak" onto the 3dsmax.ini and restart max, when max opens it will automatically create a new one and now you can reapply all your UI settings! (Adding the .bak just allows you to revert back to the old .ini should it not fix your problem for whatever reason by just deleting the newly created .ini and then removing ".bak" from the original)

TADA. Everything should be fixed, though, the entire UI is reset, a small price to pay to get work done.

It looks like if you're running Max 2009 the 3dsmax.ini is stored in the root directory. AKA - "C:\Program Files\Autodesk\3ds Max 2009"

Hope this saves someone a few hours of searching for a resolution to a problem that doesn't have an obvious solution at first glance.

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Finding References - 12-02-2008

        I thought I would start off my thoughts page with proof that it’s not a blog, at least in my mind.  I’ve got a little tip/helper that I consider to be too small to be a full tutorial but is still rich with experience and help. 


        We (3D people) often need reference images for whatever the reason is, and for many of us, our first instinct is to go to google images and search.  While this can, and often does, turn up decent results, they usually aren’t as elaborate as we had hoped for. Alas, a solution.

Use popular, community embraced, photo sharing web sites.  Google doesn’t search flickr when you type in “Office Building,” it just searches web sites and image names.  So if someone puts an image up on their site and doesn’t name it with a description of what the image is (who would do that? Cough cough… shifty eyes) google will not return with that image.  Tags, which are what flickr and many other popular photosharing sites use, are human entered keywords that are used to return results when you use the search function.

The consumer cameras are now at a point where they shoot 10, 12, 14 mega pixel images which is usually plenty for personal reference. The community doesn't worry about how many images of something are already online, they will take a photo anyway. This awesome attribute of humans allows us to pick and choose from the best photos. Light too washed out on that one? Not enough detail on that one? No worries, click the next page and 10 more versions of that photo will show up!

        Now here’s the real tip- and I am not condoning illegal use of these community posted images, but many of the images on said photosharing sites are blocked by the dreaded spaceball.gif.  Within firefox there are ways around this, yes there are programs and other tools out there that will download a “hidden” image but I find this to be simple and quick and you can do it on a computer that you don't have authorized access to install software. Go to Tools>Page Info and then click the “Media” tab and then highlight an image name in the list and just scroll through the list while watching the preview window.  Once you get to the image you want just click “Save as” in the corner and you’re home free.

I suggest doing this, not as a way to break any copyright rules or anything, but more of a way to free up bandwidth and save on many resources.  Not having to be on the internet all the time saves a lot of wasted energy on the use of servers and switching hubs and all that jazz.  Also, you may work without an internet connection on so viewing those images would be impossible while offline.  Again, these are for personal use, produce your own stuff to sell if that’s what you’re after.

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The Motherboard (Mobo)

The motherboard (aka mobo) is the highway for data to flow.  It connects all the components and ensures that everything is able to talk to everything else.  There are quite a few major things to pay attention to when choosing a mobo.  EVERYTHING has to match the mobo.  CPU, RAM, power supply, hard drives, disk drives, video card, EVERYTHING.

I use Intel processors so I know much more about the Intel setups than AMD, not to say I can’t talk about AMD, I just am more familiar with the way Intel systems are setup and operate. 

Motherboards vary in price greatly depending on the features you are looking for.  I usually go for something with a good front side bus and then I add my own wireless card later.  Built-on wireless is usually a premium that’s more money than a cheap wifi card.


CPU Socket Type

This tells you what socket type the CPU receptacle is meant for.  There are too many socket types to list here, ill just say my most common socket type is LGA 775.  This socket type has to match that of the CPU.

CPU Type

This tells you all the types of different CPUs this mobo can handle.  It is important to note, especially with LGA 775, not every mobo that is LGA 775 can handle a Core 2 Quad processor even though the Core 2 Quad is an LGA 775 socket type.  Other types that may be listed are Core 2 extreme, Core 2 Duo, Core Duo, Pentium, Centrino etc.


A full explanation of what FSB (front side bus) would be the length of a novel and can easily be found elsewhere so I don’t have to spend 2 hours re writing what someone else has already written, and in more comprehendible terms.  

I will say this though, FSB is the  maximum bandwidth that data can be transferred between the Northbridge and the CPU.  The higher the number the faster more data you can get to the CPU from the ram.  When overclocking this number is important.

North Bridge

The Northbridge is the memory controller hub.  The Northbridge controls any communication between the CPU, RAM,  video card and southbridge.  For the most part the northbridges on any motherboard that can handle a high end CPU required for 3D is going to be a good one.

South Bridge

Even less emphasis is put on the southbridge than the northbrigde.  The southbridge handles all the data flow for the PCI, power management, USB, and other, smaller items.  Again, any mobo that can handle a high-end proc will have a decent southbridge.

Number of Memory Slots

This is the number of physical slots on the motherboard of which memory/RAM sticks can be inserted.  This is important because it is often cheaper to go with  a higher number of sticks of lower capacity than to go with fewer sticks of higher capacity.  For example the price of 4 two-gigabyte sticks, to total 8 gigabytes of ram, has been hovering around 120 dollars where as to get 2 four-gigabyte sticks can push the prices up to 200 dollars easily.  Always remember to plan for future expansion, if you get a mobo with 4 slots and plan to add more RAM later don’t go filling all the slots now unless you wanna buy 4 sticks twice.

Memory Standard

This is the type of memory that the motherboard manufacturer suggests using with this mobo.  Usually slightly slower RAM will work but I would check reviews and such first as if you don’t follow suggestions by the manufacturer you can void your warranty in some cases when using incorrect RAM.

Maximum Memory Supported

This is the amount of storage the motherboard will recognize of the installed ram.  Its important to note that just because your motherboard has 4 slots for memory does NOT mean it can instantly take 8 or 16 gigs of RAM.  If it says it has a max acceptance of 4 gigs and has 4 memory slots there is no point in purchasing 4 two-gig sticks to install, the motherboard wont recognize them and most likely will have errors or will BSOD very often, not to mention you’ll most likely fry the RAM or the motherboard or both because of mismatched voltage issues.

Expansion Slots

This is the list of types of expansion cards that this mobo can take.  Usually there are PCI Express X1 slots and PCI slots while mobos that use PCI Express video cards will contain a PCI express x16 slot.  Most motherboards wont have both a AGP and PCI express slot, though I have been seeing a rise in popularity with them as of late.

PCI Express 2.0 x16

This is the input for a video card of this connection type.  If this motherboard accepts this type of video card it will indicate it has one of these ports.  Most of the better performing desktop/gaming cards are a PCI Express X16 connection type while it seems the workstation cards are split between AGP and PCI-e X16.

PCI Express x1

This is for connecting PCI cards that perform faster than standard PCI devices yet aren’t requiring the speed of an x16 slot.  Many different things can be plugged in here, RAID cards, sound cards, debug cards, network cards, TV tuner cards, pretty much any PCI card.

PCI Slots

These are the old-as-computers expansion slots.  This is for adding aftermarket plug in cards to expand the capabilities of your computer.  Much like the PCI Express X1 slot it can handle network cards, USB cards, firewire connections, and all sorts of goodies.


PATA stands for Parallel ATA.  This type of connection was very very popular for hard drives, optical drives, and other storage devices.  It was more commonly known as IDE or ATA  until SATA came around.  If you’re using anything with an IDE connection you will need to have at least one PATA connection on your motherboard.

SATA 3Gb/s

SATA is a serial ATA connection.  It’s the smaller plug instead of the massive IDE cable with all the prongs/pins.  SATA has a transfer speed capability much higher than that of the old IDE/PATA connection and I strongly suggest you use this connection for anything you can.  In fact, if you choose IDE over SATA quit reading this, you’re not understanding the need for faster processing hardware when rendering.


This indicates whether or not this motherboard can accept a group of hard drives and set them up as a RAID, or Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.  RAIDS can get confusing quick so ill just say this, if you want faster performance than a 7200 rpm hard drive but don’t want to pay the premium for a 10k RPM drive I would strongly suggest investigating a RAID setup.  Most of the time a 7200 RPM raid will outperform a single 10k rpm hard drive and will come in MUCH cheaper in terms of gigs/dollar.

Audio Chipset

Some people utilize hardware or software that only works with certain audio chipsets, this lists the audio chipset used on this motherboard.  For most everybody else the audio chipset doesn’t matter much as long as it has some sort of audio output connection.

Audio Channels

This just tells the number of separate audio channel outputs this motherboard has. Its different for every motherboard and every audio chipset, as an example mine has 8 audio channels, I use the headphone output. Yay.

LAN Chipset

This lists the type of chip used for the LAN connection.  Again this may matter to some, to me, I just wanna know the speed of my LAN connection which is often listed here.

Second LAN Chipset

Yes, this is the same as the previous LAN chipset except this is if it has a second.  There are many reasons someone may want 2 LAN connections and there are many reasons you don’t need a second LAN connection.  I wont get into the details, if you don’t know if you need a second LAN connection, theres are 99.9% chance you don’t need it.


Most every computer has 2 of these connections, they’re the old, pronged keyboard and mouse connection types, not your Playstation 2 connection.


# of USB connections.

IEE 1394

This indicates whether or not the motherboard has any way of connecting a Firewire connection.  You should be careful with this one as some motherboards say they have one of these connections but you need to buy a firewire pci card to plug into it while other mobo makers mark it as the firewire connection on the back input panel of the mobo.  Take a look at the pictures of the motherboard to determine which type of firewire input the motherboard has.


S/PDIF is the type of connection used to connect most high end audio devices, sometime called a digital audio connection (though that’s not completely accurate as there are multiple digital audio connection types.)  This connection usually uses the fiber optic cable type, very common in home theater applications.

Audio Ports

This should give you a break down of all the audio ports. There are too many combinations to list here. Or if the manufacturer is lazy they’ll just put a number here, for the sake of my fingers we will pretend they put a number here so I can not explain it further!

Onboard USB

This is pretty clear I think.  Tells you how many on-the-mobo USB connection ports there are and it usually gives you the number that each connection can branch off to and support.

Onboard 1394

Much like the onboard USB this just lists the number of onboard Firewire connection connectors there are on the mobo itself.  This is where the mobo maker SHOULD list the firewire connection numbers for onboard yet sometimes they still list them under the IEE 1394 section for whatever reason.

Form Factor

This is the “shape” of the mobo.  Maybe layout would be a better word.  This indicates what type of case should be used to house this mobo.  ATX is a standard desktop size mobo form factor but there are Micro ATX which is common for home theater PCs and there is also uATX.  The big momma is the server size form factor; this will hardly ever fit in an ATX style case unless it is specially noted.  Usually a case that accepts ATX will also take the smaller sizes with no problems, however it doesn’t work the other way.


These are the outside dimensions of the motherboard.  If you’re using any size other than a standard ATX, these measurements should be noted.  Even some ATX cases are a bit on the snug side for some of the larger ATX motherboards, though I have never run into a case where I could not get the motherboard in.   If you are unsure if your motherboard will fit or not I suggest you google for some reviews or find a forum and ask if it will fit, nearly every configuration has been tried so someone will know.

Power Pins

Ill warn you of this up front- if you are using a quad core processor you need a 24 pin connection PLUS the +12 volt (CPU power 4 pin) plug OR the CPU 8 pin connector, depending on the type and size of the processor.  Whatever is listed here must be matched to the power supply.  Most of the current configurations require a 20+4 pin (aka 24 pin) as well as the 4 pin CPU plug. 

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The Power Supply (PSU)

The power supply is something that can’t be an afterthought but has to be thought about after the other components are selected.  There are a number of specifications you must pay attention to when deciding on what power supply you want to buy.

Most people assume they need a whole ton of power to run their high end setup and that’s just not true.  There are a number of free wattage calculators out there if you just search for one.  You can plug in your specific hardware and it will tell you exactly how much power you need.  For most of my builds I settle around 500 watts, rarely going lower than that.  I use one video card, up to 3 hard drives and 2 optical drives, 8 gigs of ram and a quad core CPU and I have had no issues what so ever with my power supplies.



This is the form factor of the power supply.  Much like the cases and motherboard you want this to match whatever you will be mounting it in. There are a variety of different sizes, ATX and micro atx and server being the most common.

Maximum Power

Usually measured in Watts, this is the maximum this power supply will output.  You have to be careful when reading this spec though, some power supplies have different wattages at different load ratings which may affect the way your hardware performs.  Usually this number is within 40 watts of the total output so it isn’t a huge deal unless you’re running a massively expensive setup with sli and all that good jazz in which case I doubt you would be reading this.


This is the number of fans within the power supply.  I haven’t ever seen a fanless power supply that puts out more that 500 watts but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there, should you find it I would advise you against it.  You need the fans.  The more fans the more airflow, the cooler your computer runs, in theory.  At the same time, the more fans usually mean more noise.  With a little searching you can usually find reviews or decibel specs that will tell you how loud the fans are.


PFC stands for power factor correction.  In short it shifts power to where its needed in order to optimize efficiency.  There are two types of PFC, Active and Passive.  Active is the PFC of choice since it uses a circuit to determine the incoming power and correct accordingly.  Active also is a bit safer for your hardware since it essentially suppresses some of the normal power spikes (within reason, its not a power cleaner) but it also helps diminish a lot of the vibration and other nonsense that comes in play when dealing with increasing power.  Passive is the more common and cheaper version.  Passive doesn’t have all the fancy shenanigans and you have to set your input voltage with a switch on the back of the power supply but all in all its not a big deal.  Components are so cheap that paying an extra hundred bucks for an active pfc power supply is hard to justify, that could be spent on 8 gigs of ram at its current price.

Main Connector

This is how the main motherboard connection is setup.  Usually as a 20+4 pin or 24 pin connection.  If you have a motherboard that only needs a 20 pin then you obviously don’t want a 24 pin but you could use a 20+4 pin and just leave the 4 pin disconnected.

+12V Rails

A +12v Rail will be found on nearly every power supply nowdays.  Theyre additional power techniques that were implemented due to demand with higher power processors and video cards.  When you have more than one rail you help to alleviate risk of a fire.  Each wire is limited to how much power can be sent over it, should the power demand increase beyond this safe level the power will automatically “jump the rail” and the power supply will shut down instead of sending the power requested and melting the shielding on the wire.  Of course it gets more complicated than this but that is a simple explanation.  As power supplies increase in maximum power it becomes standard to have more than one rail as there is an increased potential for too much power to be requested by the system.


PCI-E Connectors

This is the number of PCI Express connectors the power supply comes with.  If you are running a PCI express video card it is best/safest to use a power supply with a PCI-E connector  You can get a peripheral-to-pci-e adapter that will convert two peripheral plugs to one PCI-E plug but that can become troublesome for a variety of reasons.  If you want to use a high end PCI-E video card its worth the extra 5 bucks to buy a power supply that is made to support it.


Crossfire is ATI’s dual video card setup.  If the power supply supports it, it will be noted here and will have two connectors for it.


SLI is a scalable link interface.  Its Nvidias way of connecting two video cards together in order to harness the power and output it to a single monitor.  If the power supply supports it it will be noted here and will have two power connectors for it.


Modular means that all the wires disconnect at the power supply.  This is very nice if you have a windowed case and want to keep everything clean looking.  You only plug in the wires you need so you don’t have to zip tie a buncha wires out of the way.


This is how much of the power coming into the power supply is actually put to use.  The higher this number is the lower your electrical bill should be.

Over Voltage Protection

This is pretty standard on modern power supplies and works like it sounds.  Should the computer request too much power and push the power supply into a dangerous level of operation it will switch the power supply off.

Input Voltage

This should match whatever your wall plug outputs.  In the US 115 volt, elsewhere in the world they use 230 volt, most power supplies have a switch, some don’t so make sure the power supply you choose matches what you need.

Input Current

This tells you the amperage draw at the specified maximum output.  Most US households built before 2000 use a standard 15 amp breaker, newer houses or homes with dedicated computer receptacles will use 20 amp circuits.


This should be a list of all the connectors the power supply has.  Usually consists of Main, SATA, floppy, peripheral, PCI-E, and a 12v P4 connector.


Additional bonus features will be listed here, ball bearing fans and such.

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Hard Drive

The hard drive is where all your precious data is stored when the computer is shut off.  As processors have gotten faster the hard drive has quickly become the bottle neck in PCs.  There are a number of different options available in order to correct this problem, many are just to long to explain here so feel free to search for them to learn more.  The most simple and straight forward workaround is to buy a drive that performs at faster speeds.  Otherwise you can buy a standard speed drive and increase the amount of RAM the computer has, in turn allowing the hard drive more time to write the data while the CPU can still perform calculations with the data held in the RAM.  The last and far more complex option is to set up a RAID.  A RAID is a redundant array of inexpensive disks that perform as one drive.  There are a number of different ways you can setup a RAID, which I wont go into, but the important note is that with multiple disks each one can write bits of information to each individual disk and then tell the computer where to find it later.  As each drive holds a small piece it only has to write a small piece of the data which means it can be done quicker, thusly making the computer perform faster.

There are a few things to look for, all resulting in a cost benefit analysis.



This specifies how the hard drive connects with the motherboard.  For pretty much every computer being built I would suggest a SATA 3.0 Gb/s connection.  If you have an older computer and are looking to upgrade you may need an IDE or PATA connection.  IDE and PATA have the pins in two rows, the SATA connection is a small plug with just an L shaped hole on the end.


This is usually measured in gigabytes or terabytes.  The amount of information the drive can hold.


As the name says is Revolutions Per Minute and that translates (indirectly) to the speed of the drive.  The standard speeds are: 5400 (laptops and old hard drives,) 7200, 10000, and 15000.  Most modern drives are 7200 though I should warn you a lot of external hard drive manufacturers get away with selling the drive cheaper by using a 5400 rpm drive inside the case instead of a 7200.  The price points for 10000 and 15000 rpm drives usually more than double the prices of a 7200 drive in terms of dollar per gigabyte.


This is how much internal, temporary, memory the drive has.  The more it has the less it has to wait for the drive to read and write. The usual increments are 8, 16 and 32.

Form Factor

This is the size of the drive in inches.  Drives come in a 2.5” and 3.5” size though I must note that not all 2.5” drives are the same size.  If you’re looking to upgrade or replace your laptop hard drive make sure the new drive isn’t thicker than the one you’re replacing, this number shows the width not the height.  Desktops use 3.5” drives.

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Optical Drives

An opticaldrive is your DVD, CD, Blu ray, or HD DVD drive.  Its called an optical drive because there is actually an “eye” that slides along a track and reads the data that is reflected from a laser that is shot at the disk.

Access Time

Access time is the amount of time it takes the head of the disc to acquire the data off the disk and is measured from the time the data reaches the drive to the time the data reaches the exit path/circuit of the drive.  Its measured in milliseconds.


This is the amount of onboard memory the drive has available to temporarily store data while it reads and/or writes.


Write speeds are listed here for all the write functions.  The number of functions will depend on the drive.  Any write speed will be measured in the format of a “numberX” so a 35X write speed would be a possibility.  This number and X stands for the number of times faster it is at writing than it is at standard 1:1 playback.  So if a song takes 1 minute to play back, a burner that could burn it at 35X would burn that 1 minute song 35 times faster, in theory it would take 1.7 seconds, though the software usually takes a few seconds longer to respond and send the data.

READ Speed

Read speeds are listed here and have the same measurements as the write speeds listed above.

Form Factor

Form factor is usually listed as a measurement in inches, the most common being 5.25” however, a laptop drive will be a smaller size.  Desktops are built to accept a 5.25” drive.

Load Type

The load type will be either tray or slot. Obviously the tray version will have a tray that ejects out and the slot will only accept/eject the disk by itself.


The interface of an optiocal drive will be a SATA or IDE setup. This is the connection used when connecting to the motherboard.

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The Case

The case is a pretty essential part of the computer unless you feel like mounting your motherboard to something else and risk short circuiting it and frying all your components.  Cases can be found in every style imaginable, and I mean every style.

A lot of the specs on a case are pretty self explanatory so I may just touch on a few of them.



Type is the style or layout.  If you are using an ATX form factor motherboard you want an ATX type of case.


This is NOT the color of the case. I’m kidding; Maybe.

Case Material

This is just what the case is made of.  Metal or Plastic or Acrylic etc…

Power Supply

Some cases come with a built in power supply.  Im not usually a big fan of these as the power supplies are usually cheap inexpensive ones thrown in to appeal to some extreme budget builders. Though, if you are looking for a backup it may not be so terrible to order one with a built in power supply and keep it incase your nicer one fries itself.

Motherboard Compatibility

This lists the different styles of motherboard that this case is setup to accept.  If the form factor of your motherboard isn’t listed here it wont fit.  The cases have to have holes drilled and tapped in the right places for the motherboard risers, if it says they didn’t drill those holes for that style mobo then they didn’t do it.

With Side Panel Window

If it has a window on the side of it.


This lists all the different expansion slots available, it will usually have a couple optical drive slots and a few 3.5” hard drive receptacles, maybe a floppy holder or two, you get the point.

Front Ports       

This just lists whatever ports are available on the front of the case, usually cases have a USB, Audio, IEEE 1394, and/or e-SATA.

Cooling System

This is where the fan sizes and quantity will be listed.  Remember to look at CFM when looking into fans.  Just because it has a 120mm fan doesn’t mean it can move as much air as a quieter, 80mm fan. (CFM stands for Cubic Feet per Minute)

Dimensions  & Weight

The outside dimensions and the empty weight of the case.

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The Monitor

I forgot to write up a section on monitors, Im workin on getting some stuff up for this one, give me a bit.

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To continue to the assembly tutorial click this.

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This was a lot of typing, if theres a typo or something please forgive me and email me to make me aware of it.

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