One Person’s Basic Approach to Building a Computer and Overclocking

After reading Ed’s articles, screwed by reviews and, default support solution, I realized how difficult it can be for a New Guy to get started. So, this one is for the New Guys. This is not a how to article; it’s more of a what you can do and pay attention to articles.

There are few numbers and no brand names, with the exception of Duron and some software tools. I developed this approach after years of screwing up and having to learn how to unscrew my mistakes. The road to building computers and overclocking is full of pitfalls and problems. I’ve written this to help you avoid some and deal with others by walking you through my latest project.

How do you pick the best motherboard? The answer is simple – there is no best motherboard.

More than once, I have been sifting through a forum or user review site and seen the comment “this board rocks”. Scrolled down a little further and seen “this board sucks, don’t buy it”. Picking a motherboard is a compromise between overclocking features, benchmarks, stability, and known problems.

Do your homework and decide what is best for you.

If you want to be on the leading edge of technology or close to it, you are going to be a beta tester for the motherboard manufacturers. Accept this and learn to deal with it.

Don’t think you’re going to buy a hundred and fifty dollar mobo and get a hundred dollars of tech service from a reseller. Don’t go running to the nearest forum for advice and try the first thing you read. Truths, more half-truths and outright lies. If you dig in a trash can, you might find some change once in a while. Most of what you find will be trash.

An email to a mobo manufacturer is like calling a doctor and telling him “I’ve got a pain in my side, what’s the problem?” There can be thousands of hardware and software compatibility issues. An OEM manufacturer works issues out before the product hits the shelves. You may get help with some issues. Others you will have to solve yourself. It’s a never ending learning curve. More on research later.

About a month and a half ago, I came to the conclusion DDR boards had a long way to go. I decided the KT133A boards were the best option for my next project. I read every review I could find and studied all the benchmarks; I sorted through all the crap in the forums; I looked at user reviews and made my choice. Even if you do your homework, chances are your going to get a few surprises.

OK, now that I have my motherboard in my hot little hand, what’s the first thing I do?

I spend some time reading the manual. RTFD, you can guess what that means. I familiarize myself with all the BIOS settings and how to clear the CMOS.

Because I’ve done my homework, I already know KT133A boards are a bit quirky, so I start with a minimum of hardware; CDrom, floppy and video card. Stuffing every slot and all the bays with everything you’ve got is just adding to the chance for potential problems. Been there – done that. I use an older OS, again to eliminate potential problems.

The OS starts to load, I get an error message and it locks up. I check the CD for scratches and try again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. It locks up again, so I go into the BIOS. Default setting is optimal. I change it to normal and and no more problems loading. If I hadn’t read the manual, I would not have been aware of the default settings in the BIOS. Starting to get the idea? It pays to read the manual. A later change in RAM solves the problem.

There is no easy way to learn this stuff and I don’t make house calls. A simple problem like above may be easy for me but difficult for you to solve. All too often, a New Guy has a simple problem, runs to the nearest forum, gets bad advice and screws things up worse. Then he comes to the conclusion he has a bad mobo – RMAs the mobo. The reseller checks the mobo tells him there’s nothing wrong with it, charges him for service and ships it back along with shipping charges.

By now the New Guy is feeling like the pissed off Peacekeeper in Kosovo: Tired of being shot at and wanting to kill something. The point is you can’t sit down at a piano and start playing classical music. You have to learn how. More later.

Now I’ve got all my cards in, I’m tweaking my video card and I get a lockup. For whatever reason, it won’t boot back up in safe mode. Stone dead. Black screen. I pull the CMOS battery, short the appropriate points for a few seconds and the BIOS boots up in safe mode. I reenter my BIOS settings and and everything is fine. A one time fluke.

Two points here:

The first is keep notes. Overclocking is more than just voltage and multiplier settings. It’s BIOS tweaks, software tweaks, and monitoring. If you can’t tell where you’ve been you can’t know where to go. I was trying a free video overclocking program and it screwed up my OS and I couldn’t unscrew it. Shame on me. When I formatted and reloaded everything, I couldn’t figure out where my benchmarks went. I had incorporated so many tweaks that I forgot a couple. That’s when I learned to keep notes.

The other is that it’s easy to clear your CMOS. I was sifting though all the crap in a forum looking for a few tidbits when a New Guy asked how to clear his CMOS. A senior member told him to pull the battery put a paper clip across the short points and leave it sit over night. Jeeeezz!!!!! Where do they get this stuff?

on to page 2…

Part II: Burn-in and Case Cooling

I always burn in a new computer for at least a week. I leave it on all the time when I’m home. Electronic components usually fail early on. By burning in the computer, I am reasonably sure I’ve got a good mobo and CPU – one less variable to worry about.

While you’re burning in your computer, there are two thing you can do: Work on case cooling and do some research.

Whats the best case?

HeHeHeH – You’ll get a lot of opinions on that one. You could buy yourself a custom case with a lot of mods for a couple of hundred bucks plus shipping, or you could learn how to do some stuff yourself. Most New Guys blow a bunch of cfm in one side and suck a bunch of cfm out the other side. It’s not that simple.

The inside of a computer case is an aerodynamic nightmare; square corners in the case, cards sticking up, cables and wires all over the place, all kinds of turbulence to deal with. Plus places for pockets of heat to build up. The best way to describe it is learning to make the best of a bad situation.

Now is the time to download some software tools if you don’t have them. Wcpuid, Sisoft Sandra, and a Motherboard Monitor are a good start. I always hear someone arguing about the accuracy of this or that and I really don’t care, because all I’m looking for is a consistent reference point to gauge my progress. Now is when I start to monitor CPU and mobo temps to see how well I’m progressing. Don’t forget the ambient room temp.

Round HD and floppy cables?

They may look kewl, but there are technical reasons for not doing this. Ground wires are run alongside data wires to eliminate noise. If you roll a cable, you could be placing data wire against data wire. There are some who say they smooth air flow and work great. To me, it’s just another variable to deal with. Take the time and care to dress your cables and wires.

Air in and air out?

Again, not that simple. If you have more air in than out, you could be creating a slight positive pressure. Heat and positive air pressure do not get along. Total your cfm in and out. You should have more out than in. How much is a point for argument – a rule of thumb I use is fifteen or twenty percent.

This is the reason for taking notes when monitoring. You can see if you’re doing any good or at a point of no return. When monitoring, give the case and components some time to stabilize. You may not see an instant change. This is when you can be taking some time to educate yourself. Surf the tech sites; besides Overclockers, Anandtech and Hardocp are a good start. Read all the articles you can find that might have something to do with the components in your computer. You might be surprised what you find and how handy it might be.

Jeeezz!!! If the PITA level is going up for you, just remember

if you want to have a computer that operates at a level of excellence, it’s the details that get you.

If you think your case is as cool as you can get it, take the sides off. Wait a while. If you get a significant drop in temps you’ve got more work to do. You never know what’s going to work. Too many variables inside the case. One time I upgraded the fan in my power supply. I got a small drop in CPU temp (I’ll take what ever I can get) and a significant drop in mobo temp. Another time I put a slot cooler above my AGP card and got a significant drop in CPU temp.

Innovation is a part of building computers and overclocking. You may spend a lot of time working on a project and get zero for your efforts. Getting your computer to work at a level of excellence is a time consuming step by step exercise in patience.

I’m trying something new – a small tower case. No holes in the sides. Lower volume, better cooling? Air in at the front, top and bottom. Air out at the back half way up, three quarters up, and top. Upgraded fan in the power supply. I bought a hard drive cooler for the grill. I took out the three lee-flow 40 mm fans. With a little creative engineering, I managed to get two high-flow 50 mm fans in.

I’m also cooling the back side of the mobo. I didn’t want to cut a hole in the case and screw up my experiment of air straight in, straight out. Not much space, so I made an adaptor with four 40 mm fans. I wasn’t sure it would work – not much space to suck air in or blow it out. I could write another page on what it took to do it. So far, the best mobo temps I’ve ever had. Another drop in CPU temp.

I also took the fan off the northbridge and installed a higher flow fan and heatsink – with silver paste of course.

I’m not telling you to do what I do. I just want to give you an idea of the kind of work it takes sometimes to achieve good results. Some overclockers border on the edge of sanity. I’m one of them. It’s fun. I love it.

With all the fans, it’s time to think about power supply. Two hundred and fifty watts may not do the job. You can upgrade easily enough. When you add fans, monitor voltage; if you start to see a drop, you’re sucking too hard on the supply. Low voltage can cause instability. Details, details, details.

A word of caution:

Always work with the power plug disconnected.

Always touch the metal part of the case before you touch anything inside. Careful, careful, careful.

on to page 3…

Part III: Almost There

I read a two hundred page book “Overclocking on a Budget”. One hundred and ninety eight pages were blank. Don’t get discouraged. You can make some gains with what you’ve got. When you get a couple of bucks, you can add some stuff, good thermal paste, better heatsink, upgrade fans, better RAM.

RAM? CAS2. You gotta’ have it to get the best results. I stick with the major brands. I’ve seen some claims of excellent results with generic and lesser know names. After some digging, I also found a comparison of a lesser known PC150 compared to name brand PC133 CAS2. Both at 150 FSB with the name brand set to CAS3. Guess which one won? To me it’s just another variable to deal with. I’ll pay the premium for the name brand. You can do what you want.

CPU cooling. I’m not about to hang over a pound of copper on my CPU. I’ll leave that to the Top Guns along with water cooled peltiers. If you want to do it, get some experience with air cooling first. This is an area where you really have to know what you’re doing.

Thermal paste. Silver is the best. There are two brands on the market. Take your pick – they are both good.

Heat sinks. There are all the reviews you can read. Lots of choices with better ones popping up all the time. Take your pick. Sometimes a mediocre sink does well with a fan upgrade. Just remember it has to fit your board. More homework. More details.

My mobo has enough room to put just about anything on it, so I got a BIG ONE. I wasn’t very happy with the machining marks, so I lapped it. Again do your homework. There are a number of articles on how to do this. You want to take marks out, not put them in. If you’ve never done this, you have to be careful about how you apply pressure. If you wind up with a convex surface, you’ll be worse off than if you had left it alone.

First I tried it with the screamer fan that it came with; took some notes of course. Then I took an old, low flow, 60 mm fan. I carefully cut the fan out and then sawed off the flange. No small accomplishment, I might add. Can you guess where this is going?

I went down to the shopping center where there were a couple of stores with housewares. I started measuring plastic funnels. A clerk approached and asked if she could help. I told her I was making an 80 mm to 60 mm adapter for my heatsink. Blank stare – HeHeHeH. She turned and walked away without saying a word. I found one on the second try.

A quick trip to the hobby store for some hobby poxy and I had cool looking adapter. The plastic was just soft enough so I could deform it to fit. I epoxyed the funnel to the flange and the fan to the funnel.

One minor problem: The funnel flare prevented me from screwing it on to the heatsink.

No problem. A quick trip to the local auto supply and I had a small screw driver with a flexible shaft. I used a high flow case fan. Another significant drop in CPU temp. Yeah, I’m DA MAN. Sometimes that is. You can buy these adapters if you can find one. About thirty bucks plus shipping. I couldn’t find one so I built one for less than half the cost.

A few words about BIOS.

I never flash BIOS unless I get an improvement in performance or a fix for a problem. Flashing BIOS is something not to be taken lightly. If you screw up the EPROM, you’re going to be one sorry ass. It’s going to take a while to get a new one. I always check the mobo tech site to see what a new BIOS does. If I don’t know what it does I don’t do it.

I’ve seen too many times when a new BIOS fixed one problem and created another. There is always some brave soul (or what ever you want to call him) that will jump on the newest BIOS. You can call me whatever names you want. Better safe than sorry. I have a soft BIOS that reverts back to default settings after a lockup. I could use a boot BIOS flash disk but I don’t. I take the time to re-enter the settings.

on to page 4…

Part IV: Final Words

You may need an attitude adjustment. Are you into instant gratification? Do you get discouraged easily? Do you get angry when something doesn’t work? If you have any of these problems, you’re not going to make a good overclocker. Haste is the enemy. Time and patience are allies.

Don’t be too quick to plug in a voltage and multiplier setting you read somewhere. I always see how far I can go with default voltage and move in the smallest possible increments. Increased voltage equals increased heat, something you want to keep to a minimum. When you start to max out, you will get BSODs, lockups, and with soft BIOS you may get the dreaded black screen when you reboot. I find where the system is stable and then back off a tick more. You can do what you want.

Unlocking Durons

The number of ways to unlock a Duron seems to be growing every day. You can use a pencil, conductive ink, conductive paint, conductive paste, and you can buy conductive strips with adhesive. You can place a small wire across the bridge and solder it. It’s very permanent. Unless you have had considerable experience working a pencil iron soldering electronic components, forget about it. I have, and I can tell you I needed Paxil (it’s a tranquilizer) after the job was done.

Joe has written a good article and Anandtech has another. The problem with the pencil job is it can wear off. Some have had no problems but others have. The wrong lead or a poor job can cause problems later; BSODs, lockups and, other nasty stuff. New Guys often blame the mobo.

If you are nervous about unlocking a CPU and have good RAM, you can overclock with FSB alone. I have and the results surprised me. Just don’t get carried away. Raise the FSB a tick at a time.

I almost forgot this one:

Remember when you overclock, you can be overclocking all your hardware.

Always check you PCI speed. On some mobos you can change ratios. I told you – read the manual. When you’re overclocking, you never know what’s going to give out first. This is why you have to monitor everything.

Reseller story

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know a reseller who owns a small store. I asked him if he gets many defective motherboards. These are his words:

“A few years back when someone would come in and say they had a bad motherboard, I would take them back in the shop and let them watch me test it. ‘See’, I would tell them, ‘there is nothing wrong with your motherboard. It works for me. You’ve got other problems’. Almost always, I would get a phone call later and spend fifteen or twenty minutes talking them through their problems.

Now every dumb kid and his cousin wants to build a computer and overclock it so he can squeeze out the last frame for games. Now I tell them ‘If I test your motherboard and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s going to cost you thirty five bucks to get it back. And, if you’re still having problems, you can bring your stuff down here and pay me my hourly rate to solve your problems.’

Some of them really get pissed off. I wouldn’t be in business long if all I did was spend ten hours a day testing motherboards and giving free tech service. Occasionally I get a bad board. Mostly I get dumb kids.”

Level of Excellence

You may be able to squeeze a bunch of MHz out of your CPU but, that isn’t going to do you much good if the rest of your system is crap. Getting your computer to operate at a level of excellence is more than just CPU speed. Software tweaks, like changing from desktop to network server, will get you a bit of OS speed.

Proper sizing of vcache in system.ini can improve disk performance, as can proper AGP aperture size. A fixed, virtual memory sized according to your RAM; Defrag before you set it. How many little thingys are sitting in your tray eating up cycles? I have nothing in my Start Menu. If you have a lot, all you’re doing is running stuff that will slow your computer.

A 128 MB stick of RAM may work well. If you up it to 256, you can get up to thirty percent improvement in system performance. Going to 384 approaches the point of no return. Anything over is useful only in high end applications.

Video cards are a world of their own: Proper cooling, picking the right driver, running bench marks. You can be CPU limited. I know a New Guy who overclocked an older system. He bought a four hundred buck video card and couldn’t figure out why he hardly got an improvement in frame rate. He would have been better off getting a Geforce 2MX with a new mobo and faster CPU.

The list is endless. Constant research and be aware of what’s going on in the industry. Use a meta search engine to look up stuff you don’t understand – you might be surprised what you find. Don’t come to conclusions based on insufficient data. I worked in an R&D lab and it’s a lesson I learned the hard way.

I started to write this and scrapped the first two rough drafts before I got the idea to walk you through my latest project. I’ve tried to give you information along the way.

Welcome to my world,

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply