Just a few years back, if a gamer wanted to build a computer system, there would be no question about the form-factor of the machine - desktop. At this point in time, XPCís didnít exist, and virtually all laptops lacked the power to play the latest games, which, of course, is a must for any gamer.
Of course, a desktop is not a bad choice. Even today, most people own a desktop. But, if you have ever taken a desktop to a LAN party, you know what a struggle it can be. Lugging a 50+ pound system around is not fun.
Shuttle revolutionized the computing world by releasing the first ďXPC.Ē The XPC was essentially an entire desktop, inside a box that was approximately one-third the size of an average ATX case. While the XPC was nice, gaming performance just wasnít up to par, due to the lack of an AGP slot, which prevented the upgrade of the integrated graphics. Therefore, this model, and many XPC's to come, were unusable by gamers, and the XPCís sold mainly to people who would just browse the Internet and use word processing software.
This all changed when Shuttle announced an XPC with an AGP slot, meaning gamers could finally adapt to this new form factor. Sales of the little machine skyrocketed. Gamers loved the systems because they offered equal performance as their desktop counterparts, yet were stylish, light, and easy to build.
But, this article is not a history lesson on the XPC; instead, it is a guide on building your own gaming XPC, but spending under $1000. Weíve spent hours researching the best parts for a powerful rig, and weíve put it all together! We then installed Windows, and applied some of our favorite Windows XP tweaks to the system to make it run even faster.
So what XPC should you buy for under $1000? Read on!
Choosing The Parts
A crucial step to the building of the budget gaming XPC is choosing the ideal parts for the machine. This section of the guide will show our recommendations as to what you should buy. Of course, you can adjust our recommendations depending on your preferences,
Iíve long been a fan of Shuttle XPCís, not only because Shuttle revolutionized the XPC, but also because their performance is excellent, and the design is top-notch. However, there are just so many models to choose from. First, you need to decide if you want to go the Intel or AMD route. Iíll discuss the pros and cons of the two later. Once your route is chosen, you have to decide which model you want.
Iím building a P4 system, so I went with the ST61G4L. While performance on this model is slightly lower (about 3 to 5%) then other XPCís, I have always preferred ATI, and since this model has an ATI chipset, I thought this model was best for me. On top of that, I just loved the flashy design and great price. The ST61G4L supports all Intel Celeron, Pentium-4, and Prescott chips, meaning it will work with pretty much any Intel Desktop CPU you throw at it. It also features a 250W power supply, which is huge for an XPC, and the biggest Iíve seen yet, and also features Silent-X technology, to keep the noise down.
If you would rather go for an Intel-based chipset, you canít really go wrong as to which model you choose. I would, however, recommend staying away from the "Zen" line from Shuttle. While they are quiet, and quite nice looking, they simply don't offer enough power for a demanding user, since they use external 180W power supplies.
If you would rather go the AMD route, Iíd grab the SN85G4 (v.2). Itís for the Athlon 64 754-pin socket. This is an aging socket, so you may want to wait until September, when Shuttle will launch their new Socket-939-based XPCís. Alternately, you can go for a different-brand XPC, yet Iíd seriously recommend staying with Shuttle because of their reliability.
As you most likely know, there are two big names in the processor market: AMD and Intel. Which one is faster, do you ask? After extensive testing, AMD usually is a little ahead in games, while Intel is faster in business apps, but it really is about the same either way, so you can confidently go with either AMD or Intel for this XPC. I chose Intel, simply because Iíve been an AMD guy for the past 5 years or so, and I wanted to give Intel a shot. However, if you simply want the fastest processor for gaming, I'd probably lean toward AMD.
When buying a processor for an XPC, I suggest getting an OEM model. Retail models include a heatsink and fan, but this is not needed for the XPC, since you use the included heatpipe instead. However, retail models include a longer warranty, so you need to decide if the longer warranty is worth the extra money. They are about $10-$15 more expensive then the OEM models.
If you go the Intel route, I advise picking up the Intel Pentium 4 3.0GHz C processor. This CPU features an 800MHz FSB, and has Hyperthreading-Enabled. By the time this article is online, you'll be able to get a Shuttle XPC for the new Intel Gransdale and Alderwood processors. I'd advise skipping these chipsets/processors for the time being. They offer no performance increase, and will be much more expensive then the current chipsets and processors. Since we are on a budget, we cannot go this route, nor is it really necessary.
If you go with AMD for your XPC, grab the Athlon 64 3000+. It should compete nicely with the 3.0GHz C Intel processor, and runs for about the same price as well. But, you can change this recommendation based on your price range.
RAM is an essential part of any system, but more so for a gaming system, since newer games are requiring more and more RAM. For cost constraints, Iíve decided to go with only 512MB of PC3200 memory, but if you have a little extra cash, I urge you to go ahead and buy another 512MB stick. Not only will it make your RAM dual-channel, improving the speed quite a bit, 1GB of RAM is excellent in demanding games such as FarCry, as well as pretty much every single MMORPG. On top of that, good RAM can be found for relatively cheap.
For this XPC, due to cash constraints, I decided on a 512MB PC3200 stick of Crucial RAM. Crucial has long been an excellent memory provider, and Iíve always trusted them with my memory needs. On top of being an excellent performer, it is also very inexpensive.
Of course, if you have your own personal RAM favorite, you can substitute the Crucial RAM for it.
Here, it tends to start to vary based on personal preference. I am an ATI fan, so I wanted to go the ATI route. Since my system is under $1000, I couldn't get the top-of-the-line card, such as the X800 Pro, but instead I grabbed the ATi Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB. This can be easily found for around $200, often less then that, which provides an excellent price to performance ratio. If you have another ~$100 to spend, you may want to get the nVidia 6800 video card instead, as it is significantly faster. I did not go this route because of the price constraints, as well as the lack of the availability of the card at the time of purchase. However, it is now easily available from virtually any online store.. If you prefer nVidia, but don't want to spend a lot, you can always grab a GeForce FX 5950 card, which offers similar performance to the 9800 Pro for a similar price.
If you are reading this guide on how to build a gaming XPC but for some reason don't want to game, you can always use the integrated ATI 9100 graphics on the ST61G4, but don't expect high frame rates if you try to play a 3D game.
If you are like me and tend to get the best video card available, even if your system is not top-of-the-line (which is OK as long as your system has fairly speedy parts), I'd grab the GeForce 6800 Ultra card. Yes, it is expensive, but at this point, it will offer you the best performance. As [Hard]OCP tested, nVidia cards clearly beat ATI cards in Doom 3, which, for many, is the most anticipated game of the year. The ATI top-of-the-line cards (such as the X800 and X800PE) are also very fast cards, but they simply get owned by nVidia in Doom 3, which is why I recommend nVidia's solution over ATI's.
I'm sure I'll get tons of hate mail because of the above paragraph, but I'm ready!
Honestly, the kind of Optical Drive you choose for your gaming XPC doesn't really matter. All games at this point in time are released in CD-ROM format, and only a small number of the games on the market are released on DVD-ROM, meaning getting a DVD-ROM drive is not really useful when it comes to games. However, considering the prices of optical drives, you may just want to grab a DVD-ROM/DVD Burner just for multimedia purposes.
For me, I wanted to burn DVD's, play/read DVD's, burn CD's, and read CD's, so I decided that the Lite-On 8X Dual-Format (DVD-R and DVD+R) DVD-+RW drive would be best. It costs just $70 at Newegg, just $30 more then the normal 52x CD-RW drive, and in my opinion, worth that extra cash. I'm now able to make copies of my DVD's for backup, and I'm also able to burn high amounts of data on DVD's for backup - much easier then it was with CD-RW's.
If you want to have a basic optical drive, any recent CD-RW drive will work, but my favorite brand is Lite-On.
Serial ATA is not a very new of a technology anymore, but I still don't think it is ready for the XPC, or most personal computers in that case. It offers a very small performance increase, and to me, the only benefit to SATA are the thin cables, which increase airflow. SATA hard drives cost around the same as a normal IDE hard drive.
Despite this slight advantage, there is one huge problem: almost all SATA chips are not integrated on the southbridge, meaning the BIOS won't see the drive. Neither will Windows setup, unless you make a floppy disk and load the SATA drives at the beginning of the Windows setup. This itself is not hard to do, but it means you'll have to have a floppy drive. This isn't a problem for many people with normal computers, but with XPC's, especially this model (ST61G4), it is a limitation because there is no floppy bay in the XPC! This means you need to connect the drive outside of the case, so whenever you install Windows again, you have to take off the case cover, plug in the floppy connector, plug in the floppy drive, and then install Windows. After, you'd probably want to put the case cover back on, which adds even more time. What Microsoft needs to do is either add SATA support directly into Windows XP, or allow the use of a CD-ROM to load drivers for Windows. This way, the only limitation of SATA would be avoided, and the technology would grow significantly.
Unfortunately, I bought a SATA drive before thinking about this big limitation (Maxtor 80GB). When I was putting the computer together, I realized my mistake, and decided to use a Hitachi 40GB ATA/133 drive that I had laying around in my previous system. This got rid of the problem, and made the entire Windows install much easier to complete. I'd advise for the time being (until Windows gets SATA drivers built-in, or until the SATA chip is integrated into the Southbridge) and stick with ATA/133. I personally like Maxtor. 80GB is a great size for a gaming PC, but adjust this based on your personal preference. You can take a look at some of our previous hard drive reviews to see what model would be right for you.
The keyboard and mouse are often overlooked when building a new system. I didn't include them in the final computer budget because most people already have keyboards and mice, but just in case, here are my recommendations.
Instead of getting both a keyboard and mouse, a set is always nice. Wireless is even better. But, wireless mice tend to not offer the performance gamers are looking for. This changed with the MX700, which offered equal performance to their wired counterparts in a wireless form. Therefore, I recommend the Logitech MX Duo, which includes both the MX700 mouse and a matching keyboard.
Speakers are also very important to have when gaming. Yet again, I decided not to include speakers in the final price for similar reasons as above. In addition, you can always use just headphones, which cost much less. Nevertheless, I do recommend the Logitech Z-680 or Klipsch Ultra 5.1 speakers as top-of-the-line offerings. In the middle, you should grab the Logitech Z-5300's. You can find them for about $100, are 5.1, and are THX certified. You can't get much better then that for the price. If you are looking for something cheaper, just head to your local CompUSA and test out speakers in your price range. Don't expect anything too good though.
If you are looking for the best prices for all of your XPC parts, you can go to pricegrabber or pricewatch.com to get the absolute lowest price for the parts. However, this can lead to buying things from multiple stores, which adds up the shipping costs, which isn't a good move because you may end up paying more. My suggestion is to get everything from Newegg,com, which is considered the best online store for computer parts, and considering my past experiences with them, I agree with this. Be prepared to pay tax if you live in California, Tennessee, or New Jersey, so if you do live in one of these three states, you may want to purchase elsewhere.
Putting It Together
Shuttle includes a rather poor manual with their XPC systems, so we have decided to go through the building process here. Of course, each XPC's setup slightly varies, so the guide below may not fit your XPC exactly. However, it does suit as a good general guide to the installation, and virtually all setup steps are the same on all XPC's, with the exception of the CPU installation. The guide itself is pretty straight-forward. It is organized in easy-to-follow steps, and important things you need to read are in red and italicized.
With that said, lets begin!
1). Unpacking Everything, and Opening the Case
First things first; it is reccomnded to take all the parts of your XPC system out of their boxes and lay them out somewhere. It should go without saying that you should build this system in a static-free area. Once this is done, you need to remove the case from your XPC. It's extremely easy to do this when using a Shuttle XPC. There are three thumb screws on the back of the system, one on each side, left, right, and top. Unscrewing this loosens the case, allowing you to slide it back and up, removing it entirely, revealing the internals of the system.
2). Removing the Heatpipe
Next, you'll need to remove the heat pipe. If you are dealing with an Intel system, you'll notice a heat SHIM on top of the heat pipe. This needs to be removed prior to removing the cooling device. It took me a while to get it off, not sure if I was just being stupid, but it isn't easy to do. you need to press down hard on the two outer tips, which then lets the clips come loose. It's hard to explain, but the actual concept should be pretty obvious when actually building the system.
Once this annoying little piece is off, the rest is pretty easy. Unscrew the four thumbscrews on the back of the system, which lets the fan slide up, and lets you lift up the heatpipe, and remove it from the system. You're now ready to proceed on.
3). Installing the Optical Drive
Luckily, my Lite-On DVD burner is pretty short in length, which comes in handy when building XPC's. But, virtually any drive should work in an XPC. To install it, you'll need to remove the drive cage from the system. It is secured by a few screws. These are not thumbscrews, so at this point, you'll need a screwdriver, and an electric one is always nice. Once your drive cage is out, using the screwdriver, remove the front bezel of the 5.25" bay.
Next, place the optical drive in the bay, lining it up with the edge of the drive bay so it looks good when installed, and screw it in. Make sure it isn't upside down! Don't put the drive cage back in just yet, as you need to install the hard drive.
4). Installing the Hard Drive
Installing the hard drive is very similar to the installation of the optical drive, which is explained above. Place the hard drive (with the label up) in the bottom drive bay. You should not have to remove any bezels since Shuttle leaves one bay open for the hard drive. From here, just screw it in. Make sure the ports are facing toward the back, and not toward the front! Set the drive cage aside for now.
5). Installing RAM
Now would be a good time to install the RAM. RAM is most likely the easiest component to install in this, or any system. First, locate the DIMM slots, and press out the little white tabs on both sides of the slot(s). Then, take the RAM stick, and press one side into the slot. Then, press in the other side, until you hear it click. If it does not click, it is backwards, and you'll need to turn it around. Do not force the RAM in the slot. If it does not go fully in, flip it around and it should go in easily. Forcing it in may break both the slots and the RAM stick.
6). Installing the CPU, Heat Pipe, and Fan
Upfront, this the hardest and most complicated installation of the system. That being said, it's not that hard. First things first, lift the little lever to "open" the socket. Next, take the CPU, and with the pins down, place it in the socket, with the little arrow on the chip being placed at the top right of the socket. It should easily go into place. If it doesn't, keep on rotating it until it fits. Make sure that it is fully into place before continuing. You can now push the little lever back into place.
Now, you'll have to apply thermal grease on the CPU die. Take the thermal, and spread it all over the CPU die (the little part of the CPU that is metal, if you are using an Athlon 64, spread it on the entire CPU). Make sure it is all covered, but don't put an excess amount. Just use good judgment.
Next, take the Heat Pipe (without the fan), and gently put it on the CPU, so it slides into place. Try not to move it around a lot so the thermal doesn't spread around. Once this is done, take the fan and slide it down the vertical portion of the heat pipe. Do not forget to plug the CPU fan into the little place on the motherboard that says CPU-Fan (that is very close to the CPU socket area). Forgetting to do this could burn out your CPU. Once this is done, the CPU installation is done! Congratulations! The rest should be smooth sailing.
7). Setting Up the Cabling
One of the last steps is the cabling, simply because when setting up important components such as the CPU, cables can easily get in the way. But now that most of the installation is done, it's a good time to cable the system. This will vary if you are using SATA instead of IDE, so keep this in mind.
Take the IDE cable labeled "Hard Drive" on the little blue tab, and plug it in the motherboard. The IDE port is located in the front of the system. You want to put it in the blue IDE port. Then, take the other end of the cable, and just place it on the top of the heat pipe for now.
Next, take the other IDE cable labeled "Optical Drive" and plug it in the remaining IDE port. Then, take your drive cage, and plug the other end in the optical drive in the 5.25" bay. While you are at it, take the end of the "Hard Drive" IDE cable, and plug it in the hard drive. Then, take the nearest power cables (which should have already been wired when you received the system) and plug them into the devices as well.
From here, you can put the drive cage back in the system, and screw it back in.
8). Installing PCI and AGP Cards
Ah, we have come to the last component installation in our XPC gaming PC, and it just could be the most important part of any gaming computer, the video card. Also included in this section is installation for a PCI card, though I don't see why you need one in an XPC system.
On the back of the computer, you'll have unscrew both screws that are on the PCI and AGP slots (even if you are installing a card in just one of the slots, you need to unscrew both). Now, you'll be able to easily install the cards. First install the PCI card (if you have one), then do the AGP card. If you don't know how to install a PCI card, well, you should not be doing this project.
When proceeding to install the graphics card, make sure you push down the little lever on the end of the card. Just push it in and you are ready to go. If you need to plug in a molex connector, go ahead and do this now.
Screw both screws back in the back of the computer, and you're ready to go.
9). Testing It Out
Before putting the case back on, its a good idea to turn on the system and make sure it actually works. So plug everything in (keyboard, mouse, display, and power for now), and turn on the system. If you get a boot screen with no errors, congrats! If you have some sort of error, try to diagnose it, and if you can't find out the problem, feel free to e-mail me. From here, you can put the case back on and get ready to install Windows (or whatever OS you'll be using, but since this is for a gaming XPC, I assume you will be using Windows).
You may have installed Windows yourself in the past, but many reader's haven't, and it doesn't hurt to go over it. You'll first need to put the CD in the optical drive (duh). Then, get into the BIOS and make sure CD-ROM is set to boot first. Once this is set, save the changes and restart. Doing this will take you into Windows Setup. Once it is fully loaded, just press next, F8, and then create a new partition(s). I'd recommend one partition for the entire hard drive, but do as you please. Once this is done, continue and wait for the XP setup to complete. In less then 45 minutes, you should be in the familiar Windows XP environment.
Congratulations! You have set up your very own portable gaming machine! Read on to learn how to install drivers and tweak Windows, as well as our official benchmarks from our system!
Installing Drivers and Updates
Many times, people forget to do this crucial step. Driver and Windows Update installation are extremely important steps in the building process, and can greatly effect performance. It is also important you do this before doing anything else.
Chances are, when you start up IE to download drivers/updates, your internet won't work. This is because we don't have the network drivers installed. Since the only way we can get them is from the CD that came with your XPC, put it in your optical drive and install the network drivers only (nothing else!). Once this is done, restart, and you should be able to access the internet.
The first thing you want to do is download Windows XP Service Pack 1 (Service Pack 2 will be released in a few months, if it's already out by the time you are reading this, download that) and install it. It is a huge download (multiple hundred megabytes), but is is extremely important to the speed, security, and stability of your system. At this time, don't download any other updates. Once it completes, restart, and continue.
First driver we should install are the chipset drivers. Since I have an ATI chipset, I need to head over to ATI.com and download the chipset drivers there. Don't use the ones on the CD, as those are not the latest versions. Since I'm already at the ATI site, I decided to grab the display drivers as well (you can do the same if you have different chipsets/graphics cards).
Install the chipset drivers now. It should be straight-forward. Don't restart just yet though. You can install the graphics drivers now. Restart after these are done installing.
At this point, you can install anything left, such as audio drivers, or anything else you may have installed that is not yet installed. You should also download all updates on the Windows Update website to make sure your computer has the latest patches.
From here, you can start installing games, programs, and your anti-virus. Read on for a few tweaks in Windows to speed things up a bit.
Windows Tweaks That You Should Use
The first thing you should do is disable Messenger service. This is by far the most annoying part of Windows, and personally drives me crazy when it is enabled. Keep in mind that I am not talking about Windows Messenger (the IM client) but a service called Messenger that is supposed to be used for network messages, but is actually used for spam. To disable, follow the below steps:
1). Press Start, Run. Type in Services.msc.
2). Find the Messenger service in the list and double click it. Set it to off, and then to Manual. Press OK.
Next, you'll probably want to set your default programs. You can find this in the Add/Remove Applications window. Set your default internet client (mine is Firefox), E-Mail program, IM client, and Media Player here. While you are in this window, go to Add/Remove Windows Components, and get rid of MSN Explorer.
Windows XP uses tons of visual styles that can reduce performance. Though it doesn't slow it down much, if you want the fastest system you can get, you may want to disable them, so Windows XP looks like the 98 desktop. To do so, press Start and right click My Computer. Select Properties. From here, go to Advanced and select VISUAL PERFORMANCE and choose "set for best performance." Press OK and you'll see the most-likely familiar Windows 98-style desktop.
Of course, there are tons of Windows tips that can speed up your system, so search around Google for some other good ones, though these are the only ones I use.
So there you have it. If all went well, you should have had your new XPC system running within a few hours, ready to game! Not only did you save a ton of money compared to buying a SFF-PC already-built from a vendor, you were able to fully customize the parts, as well as tweak and optimize it yourself. Hopefully, you also learned something from the experience. The SFF is a incredibly powerful machine, and is probably under-estimated by many. However, it is fully functional as a powerful gaming machine, and it'll be able to run the latest games (such as Doom 3) quite decently! Congratulations on your new system!
As always, if you have any problems, need advice, or want to send a comment my way, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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