The Wizard’s latest build

Many of you may wonder exactly what PC Tech Wizard does with its vast profits. Well, except for what I have hidden in various offshore and Swiss bank accounts, PCTW profits are rolled back into the business to keep my equipment up to date.

It’s been over six years since I last rebuilt my main PC. In that time I’ve built a Media Center PC for the living room, which I’ve used as a test bed for Windows Vista, and which helped me decide that Vista would never find a home on my main system.

I’ve learned over the years that Windows systems get slower and slower over time as “cruft” accumulates from normal usage and the installation/uninstallation of programs. Windows security updates also have a negative effect on performance over time. The experts recommend that you wipe out and rebuild your system from scratch every couple of years to address this. I absolutely refuse to do this. It’s become a matter of pride that my current software installation has been upgraded from DOS 5 to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 to Windows 98 to Windows Me to Windows XP Professional, and I have never once reloaded from scratch. I just upgrade the hardware and migrate my disk image over.

But my trusty old Athlon XP processor is long in the tooth, and it’s well past time to move on. Whenever I build a new system, I spend weeks (or months) researching individual components to get the absolute best bang for my buck, and to future-proof the system as much as possible (which is why I got six years out of my old system). I rely on Internet sites such as Tom’s Hardware, and find a lot of good information in Maximum PC magazine. When it comes time to buy, I order nearly everything online from, which is nearly unbeatable for the combination of competitive prices, fast (and inexpensive) shipping, and no sales tax. The only downside to Newegg is that they charge a restocking fee on returns, so I better be damn sure the components I’m ordering will work together. (I have made mistakes in the past, especially when choosing memory.) Newegg’s customer reviews are among the best I’ve seen, and can make or break a decision for me.

I also made a few purchases at the Micro Center on Elston in Chicago, one of the few remaining examples of the brick and mortar computer wonderlands that once included CompUSA and Elek-Tek. We also have a Fry’s in Downers Grove which has an amazing assortment of merchandise, but it’s a long drive from here, and the checkout line is an intimidating gauntlet that always makes me feel that I’m considered a shoplifter unless proven otherwise.

Although I’m planning to migrate my existing Windows XP installation to the new system, the hardware is all Windows 7 compatible. Currently, there is no direct upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 7, but I was planning to wait a while anyway. We’ll see if Microsoft finally does manage to force me into a scratch reinstall.

So, if you’re inclined to geek out with me, here’s an overview of the Wizard’s new flagship PC.


Are those USB ports, or is it smiling?


The case I selected is the Cooler Master Sileo 500. I’m exceptionally picky about cases. My systems are utilitarian, so I don’t need whizbang neon lights and side windows that show off my crappy wire management. The PC will be in a slot under my desk anyway, so all anyone will see is the front. I also don’t want decorative front panels that hide the drive bays from view – it’s just something to push out of the way. The Sileo was the right size, well-laid out internally for ease of installation, and contains noise-dampening baffles on the top, bottom, and side door. I do occasional voice work and don’t want my PC’s fan noise picked up by the microphone. $68 at Micro Center.

The front panel features two Samsung SATA DVD burners, one of which has LightScribe capability (which can burn a label image onto the face of a disk). Each was about $30.

The 3.5” bays contain a memory card reader ($35, Newegg) and a 4-port USB hub ($8, Newegg). The memory card reader was on the pricey side but it’s a professional model meant for photo-printing kiosks, so it should read just about anything. Combined, these two units give me five USB ports on the front, which should be more than I’ll ever need.

Kindly ignore the rat’s nest of wiring stuffed into the drive bays. This is why I don’t have windows on my cases.


Turning to the inside, we have an ASRock X58 Extreme motherboard ($170, Newegg) with an Intel Core i7 920 processor that Micro Center was selling for $200, ($80 less than Newegg). These are my two biggest scores in terms of price/performance. The ASRock motherboard was so popular that I had to wait about two weeks before Newegg got it back in stock. I have never overclocked any of my systems, but I have it on good authority that this combination overclocks easily and reliably, so I’ll have to experiment. Memory is three 1GB sticks of Kingston HyperX DDR3 2000 ($130, Newegg.) That’s a bit more than I wanted to spend on memory, but after being burned in the past, I went out of my way to order something from the ASRock QVL list for this motherboard, which means the vendor has tested and certified this exact combination. This is much faster memory than I need, but again, there’s headroom for overclocking. And I have three DIMM slots left over to upgrade to 6GB later.

Wrapping things up, we have a 500GB Western Digital Caviar Black SATA hard drive ($70, Newegg), and a Corsair 750W power supply ($120, Newegg), which should provide sufficient juice to run everything here.

I was putting the finishing touches on this system when, on October 1, ATI introduced the Radeon HD 5870 and 5850 video cards. It was very fortuitous timing, as these models virtually upset the video card market with one stroke. The 5870 became the fastest single video card on the planet, and the 5850 was only slightly less powerful for half the price. I’d already purchased an Nvidia GTX 260 card from Micro Center for $220. I had not yet opened the box and quickly returned it to get a 5850 from Newegg for $260 – forty bucks more for a card that performs 30% better. The HD 5850 is the new price/performance champ among video cards and I was fortunate to get one for this rig. Just as significantly, the card supports Microsoft DirectX 11 and is Windows 7-ready out of the box.

So, after exhausting myself with all this research, I decided to reward myself with one small indulgence – to completely ignore the budget on one single “luxury” item.

I spent $70 on a keyboard.

The Unicomp Spacesaver keyboard (intrusive cat not included)


Let me explain. My first exposure to computers was in 1980, when my high school purchased an IBM System/34 midrange computer. At the time, terminals (or in IBM lingo, “display stations”) were just then gaining momentum over punch cards and keypunch terminals. Our terminals were the first-generation 5250-type display stations. The keyboards weighed sixteen pounds and had mechanical key action that simulated the old keypunch machines. Pressing a key caused a satisfying “thunk” that would vibrate right through the desk.

This is what I cut my teeth on. And for many years after, IBM continued to make PC and terminal keyboards that featured mechanical touch, using buckling springs under each key that would “snap” when pressed.

But as with all good things, keyboards became commodity items and were made more and more cheaply, and tactile feedback became a thing of the past. IBM spun off their printer and keyboard business, creating a new company named Lexmark. For a while, Lexmark continued to make the old-style IBM keyboards, but then got out of that business and focused exclusively on printers. And after a decade or so of using mushy, responseless PC keyboards, I presumed that I had no other choice.

In the course of my research, I discovered Das Keyboard, a German make that still had the mechanical feedback of the old IBM Model M. They looked great, even at $129. But their keyboards have only USB connections, and I read some complaints online that they had a habit of interfering with other USB components.

Then I found a company in Lexington, KY called Unicomp. It turns out that Unicomp bought the IBM keyboard business from Lexmark in 1996, and they still manufacture the buckling spring keyboards, right there in Lexington. I ordered the Spacesaver model (with PS/2 interface) in black and grey for $69 plus shipping, and I’m happy to say it’s the real deal. Yes, I know you can buy a keyboard for $4. But you get a $4 keyboard. My coworkers think I’m crazy, but consider this – out of all the components on your PC, which ones do you interface with directly? The display, keyboard, and mouse, in that order. If you’re not happy with those parts, you will come to hate your PC, no matter how well-built. So those are not the components to skimp on.

I’m reusing the display, mouse, external hard drive, and sound card from my old system, as well as the Windows XP license. Excluding those, the total cost of my new system (minus shipping charges) comes to just over $1200. Here is a complete component list for reference:

  • Cooler Master Sileo 500 midtower case
  • Samsung SH-S223B SATA DVD burner
  • Samsung SH-S223L SATA DVD burner (LightScribe support)
  • AFT XM-35U USB 2.0 Kiosk card reader
  • SYBA SD-U2HUB-4 USB 2.0 4-port hub
  • ASRock X58 Extreme LGA 1366 motherboard
  • Intel Core i7 920 processor (quad core, 2.66 GHz, D0 stepping)
  • Kingston HyperX DDR3 2000 3GB (3 x 1GB DIMM) memory
  • Corsair CMPSU-750TX 750W power supply
  • Western Digital Caviar Black WD5001AALS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0 internal hard drive
  • Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 1GB PCI Express 2.0 x16 video card
  • Unicomp Spacesaver keyboard
  • Samsung SyncMaster 940BX monitor (existing)
  • Logitech MX310 mouse (existing)
  • Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro sound card (existing)
  • Cavalry CAXM37500 500GB External USB 2.0/eSATA hard drive (existing backup drive)

Do you think you could have done better for the price? Discuss. And leave the keyboard out of it.