BBAMF64 - Big, Bold, Agile, and Massively Fun
What, you thought that a four-letter word for intercourse wasn't "talk"?
I thought I'd share a small arc about what it is to build not just a computer, but the perfect PC. A lot of IT professionals and computer enthusiasts build their own computers and there are a lot of build guides out there. Repeating less well what others have done is not what I want to try and do. My goals are going to be different and I'm going to share a lot of really fine detail that others most often leave out.
I'm going to begin where I think enthusiasts should start and that is in determining what would make a PC perfect. Obviously what makes a PC perfect to me may differ from what makes a PC perfect for someone else - so what I want to start with is how an enthusiast might develop requirements that help formulate objectives that translate into design considerations that ultimately drive what component parts to source and assemble. This is the same Requirements Analysis and Needs Assessment process we expose customers to and in this form, the process is executed as an interview - a conversation with oneself. Rather than simply source the hottest parts and assess various QVL lists to see which components are compatible with one another and bounce that off of price lists according to what is cheapest, requirements analysis helps enthusiasts understand their own needs better and offers a better chance to achieve success and produce a system that not only satisfies objectives, but delights the user for years to come.
At the beginning of this process I share a saying with customers: "Anyone can put a big enough engine on a brick and make it fly, but that does not mean it's controlled-flight" Most simply, throwing an unlimited budget at any project doesn't guarantee success and it doesn't necessarily produce a perfect PC, or even one computer that is "smooth." Regardless of other requirements and needs, a perfect PC is smooth and by that I mean the computer always responds to user input instantly and it does so parallel to all else the user is doing. It is much like bridge building where different designs are used for different purposes and how the bridge is used determines what kind of bridge is built. Regardless of type, moving across the bridge within its design limitations is always the same and certainly never scary, or fraught with unexpected events. No matter what other requirements emerge, building a computer that is smooth is always at the top of the list and best reflects a balance that is often hardest to achieve alongside other needs.
When I sat down as I had many times before and began the analysis of my own requirements, one stood out above all others: I wanted to build a computer for under two-thousand dollars (USD) that met and or exceeded the Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.9 - presently the highest rating possible for a Windows Vista based computer. Before I go further, I want to stress that price was not so much of a consideration as my initial requirements might suggest. The real goal was to see if it would be possible to build a PC that met my performance requirements with a WEI of 5.9, but achieve that goal within a specific budget - more of an engineering challenge than it would be any reflection of a cost / performance ratio. I wanted many enthusiasts to be able to adapt the design and achieve the same performance rating.
As one can see from the image below, the objective was met and it was met under budget and without sacrificing system stability. (in parts 2 and 3 I'll share how it was designed, built, configured and why selections were made)
Since the computer I would be replacing was nearly seven years old (running Windows Vista Ultimate 32 bit with a WEI of 3.6), the only way to properly look at costs would be to assess what the PC cost me each day. Amortized over the number of years I would likely use the machine, the actual daily costs associated with even a very high-end PC are quite low. While I certainly don't expect to keep the new computer as my primary home workstation for quite as long, I do assess that keeping it as my primary home system for four years without any hardware upgrades would be reasonable (the same standard and period applied to the computer it would replace). Some quick math: two grand over four years works out to 1.37 cents (US) a day. Cheaper than a 20 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola Cherry Zero, or one very bad cup of coffee. Since I would be transferring most of my software licenses, less the operating system, which I included in the cost analysis, the new computer would be a great bargain.
With the basics out of the way, it was time to begin to ask myself some questions. I've presented them below as I would ask them of any customer, colleague or friend. I've provided only a few basic answers, which are designed to help enthusiasts begin to visualize the process and I have intentionally seeded answers with elements that reflect some of my own needs. One thing to remember, let the subject talk - let them explain their responses if they choose. In the same light, give yourself time to evaluate your own answers and write them down to review them later. As you explore your own requirements and learn of customers' requirements use the experience to help you. Importantly, ask seemingly unrelated questions; like, what are your favorite colors?. It can help identify and reveal some surprising considerations and help you formulate design constraints when the inevitable process of deciding what to compromise on begins. Remember, the goal is to align requirements, needs, and desires with capabilities and most often, tight budgets without sacrificing the smooth factor at the head of any design. Don't be afraid to ask customers questions they may not understand fully - they create opportunities to help explore what people might use a computer for that they may not have considered. Treat yourself the same way and then research and study answers to your own questions.
Requirements Analysis Survey
In your own words, what do you use a computer for?
High Definition video editing, Green and Blue Screen keying and post processing, Personal Productivity within complex Office documents, Outlook Anywhere (which is always open), IM, which includes Office Communicator, Video and Voice Conferencing, Server and Client OS Virtualization, Remote Access, Print Server Services, Media Sharing, Web Development, SharePoint Development and Administration, Experimentation and Testing, IIS, High Definition Media Playback (Blu-Ray), Gaming and Game Testing. Research and Legal Expert Witness Testimony, Relatively light web-surfing, Demonstration Media Capture and Editing (Video Screen Captures), network drawings, PowerPoint Presentations.
What software are you currently using?
Windows Vista Ultimate, MS Office 2007 Ultimate, Visual Studio 2005, Expression Web, Expression Blend, SharePoint Designer, Visio 2007, SQL Server 2005 Express, Virtual PC 2007, Serious Magic Ultra 2, Pinnacle Studio Ultimate, Ovation, Smart Sounds, Cyberlink Power DVD Ultra, Camtasia Studio 5, TechSmith SnagIt 8, Fluke Networks.
What peripherals do you currently have connected to your computer?
HP Photosmart 3210 all-in-one Series Network Printer, Microsoft Habu Mouse, Microsoft Reclusa Keyboard, Logitech QuickCam Ultra Vision SE, Klipsch ProMedia Speakers.
Since your computer is a workstation and you do not travel with it, are there ever any instances when you do transport it?
No, that would be impractical; it is too heavy.
Are you an avid gamer, or a casual gamer?
That is hard to answer easily. I love games and gamers and I think they are an innovative and driving force in our industry, so I run and test virtually every popular PC game, but I am not good at playing many of them. I do like shooters and MS Flight Simulator and do well in such games, but I need a joystick and a mouse and keyboard, because I could never get used to controllers like those used on consoles. I really try and test to the fullest all popular games and I am especially interested in playing DX10 games at 1920 x 1080P.
Do you enjoy and listen to music?
No. Not at all. It hurts my head and I find very little of it tolerable. I do maintain Zune software on my computer for some of my kids and I help them manage their music collections. The Zune II has been perfect for that.
Do you have and make many digital photos?
No, but many others in my family do. I haven't, because stuffing, or having a camera stuffed in one's face seems to take away a lot from any situation, so it is just not something I have picked up. I do have a great deal of HD video footage, but it is almost all work related.
Do you edit video frequently?
Yes, at least weekly and especially screen captures I use to help customers. It just became easier to record how things were done and share small videos with customers rather than write long emails and conduct longer voice mails. While remote PC access is used and possible, I found that customers really were interested in how things work and they wanted a means to learn. Capturing and sending edited how-to videos became very important and enabled me to do that easily. Customers love it and Camtasia studio has been a great tool for that.
Do you socialize on the web?
Not really. I like face to face exchanges for that. We do use IM for corporate communications via Office Communicator and I do use Live Messenger for chats with distant friends. I also contribute to a few message boards and forums, but that participation is more professional than it is social. I do blog, but that is more about building a help library for people and a reference of articles I can use in support of customers. I've looked at all the social network sites and find all of them a boring waste of time.
Do you like to read?
Yes, I read every day - many hours a day - six or more.
Where do you use your computer?
I have a home office, which is more of a home activity center. Many of my family members use computers in a large media room nearby. I sit at a large wooden desk surrounded by bookshelves overlooking the length of the room which is intentionally darkened so input devices are lighted.
Do you use more than one computer?
Yes, I use nine to eleven computers throughout the day and have one or more near me most of the time. Many are very small and discrete. Others are specifically configured to mirror what different customers use which is important when assisting them over the phone when I am away from our centers and offices.
Since you use many computers, why is one, perhaps more powerful computer, important to you?
As a technology business owner, I learned quickly that one was never entirely away from work and I need a computer that can handle many tasks at once, but since nearly all of my documents and data are stored in our servers at our offices, it is easier to synchronize things among all of them. For example, we have our own Exchange Servers and SharePoint Servers, so Outlook is always the same no matter what computer I am on. The same is true of my documents and screen captures.
You mentioned Exchange and Outlook, how important is messaging and email to you?
Like many people, I live in my email client and it is open on multiple computers throughout the day - so as I move around it all stays sync'd up and I have access to important communications.
Do you have a mobile phone and do you use mobile email?
Yes, I use Windows Mobile 6 on the Motorola Q 9m and Exchange ActiveSync to manage mobile email, contacts, calendar items and tasks. It is configured for Direct-Push email and it is one of the most important tools I have. I have it sync'd up with our company SUV's via Bluetooth, which makes things both safer and far easier on the road.
Do you have a portable media player?
Yes, I have a Zune II that I use for podcasts I like. I use it in our trucks on long drives throughout our market. It is a great way to consume industry and related educational content.
You have a Zune, but are you aware that the Zune does not currently have support for audible books?
Yes, but audible books are not reading to me, so that was not a factor. I know many people like audible books I'm just not one of them. While I read online, I prefer the feel of a book - there is something about how a book feels and how it smells that adds to the experience of reading. Just as with radio as opposed to television, reading a book is a different and more personal experience.
If you had to make a choice and you could choose only one, which would you choose, television or radio?
Definitely radio. One can create a far more vivid image in one's mind than they can hope to see on television.
Given your answer above, do you like movies and do you consume HD movie content and if so, by what methods?
Oh my, yes. We have a large movie collection - not series so much, but feature films. We have many HD DVD's and a stand-alone HD DVD player, that is of course now of less value due to Blu-Ray's win in the format war. We also have a PS3 for Blu-Ray movie playback and selected it, because it is the only BD player with network connectivity that we could find and as the Blu-Ray specification evolves, we wanted to make sure we could move with it. We have several hundred SD DVD's and the Toshiba HD DVD player is ideal for up-converting those titles. We also have Xbox 360 and we use the marketplace to rent HD movies that we aren't sure we want to buy and add to our collection. We also have four HD receivers in our home. One of them is a PVR-DVR where we store a lot of our HD favorites. Perhaps oddly, the sound is often muted unless we are watching a film. It's hard to beat some of the natural science and travel HD programs visually.
Given what appears to be something of a passion for HD content, is HD / Blu-Ray playback important to you in your new computer?
Yes, but more to see if BD playback can be achieved technically and prove to be as reliable and easy to use as a stand-alone player.
You mentioned BD play-back being easy and as easy as using a stand-alone player. Is it important to you that you be able to switch your computer on and off as easily and quickly?
Yes, definitely! Not only that, but I want my computer to be as green as possible and I want it to sip power when it is not needed. I want it to turn on and off as easily as a television and I want it to idle down quickly and use little to no power when not in use.
Do you use head phones at any time?
Yes, a few times a week - when I need to concentrate on weekends and many people are present, I use a set of Bose noise-cancelling on ear headphones to temper ambient noise. I also use them so as not to disturb others when they are playing games, etc...
Do you like air-conditioning and fans?
Are you, kidding? YES! We live in Alabama and aside from four or five minutes in fall and spring, the rest of the year is very hot and humid. I also like the sound of a fan turning at slow speed, but not the high-pitched whine of small fans - more like white-noise, which helps soften other sounds. It helps me concentrate and relax at the same time.
Where you use your computer, do you have carpeting or some other type of flooring?
We have wood floors, but there are area carpets in some places.
Is there a lot of dust where you live?
Yes, we have many trees and there is a lot of natural dust in the air.
Are you sensitive to light and sounds?
Yes, to both. I prefer darkened rooms and low frequency sounds - any higher pitched sound is annoying.
Do you like a lot of bass in movies you watch?
No. Some is okay, but any over-driven amount is not acceptable.
Do you have, or have you considered using dual monitors?
I have been using dual monitors since the 70's when some terminals had dual green screens and on PC's for nearly ten years - since it was first supported in Windows 98. I've always had and advocated the use of dual screens, but recently, with the advent of lower cost large flat panels, that may change for me in certain cases - not all, but in some. Regardless, I want multiple displays as an option - at least two.
In your home network do you have wired and or wireless?
We have both, but I only use wireless where I don't have access to a wire. I would never use wireless on my primary workstation.
Do you have, or use any legacy devices like serial and or parallel devices?
No, not in a long time, BUT I still use a floppy drive and like having that option, because in some cases (fewer these days) updating firmware is easier if one can boot from a floppy disc. While none of our machines at home would require this, customer owned systems might and being able to produce the right kind of disk is still necessary for me ( and I dislike the clutter of external drives ).
Speaking of external drives, do you have one, or do you plan to use one for any purpose, like backups?
No. External drives have some uses, but not in my home. They have not proven to be very reliable and I don't like the added clutter. For backups I use internal drives and drives throughout our wired network. I am interested in deploying a Windows Home Server, but only after they create a suitable x64 bit client for Windows Vista. Right now Windows Home Server only supports 32 bit based systems.
What are your favorite colors?
Black and green and certain shades of blue.
What are your least favorite colors?
Red and white.
Do you like to build your own computers, or have them built for you?
I like to build them with my Son, Chris and most especially when we work with Corey - another of our engineers. We've been building systems with one another for a very long time and it is always a welcome event when we are able to build one for one or the other. We build a lot of machines for customers and they are great designs, but when we build with and for one another, it is a totally different process. The flow of ideas is great and it's just a good time.
With so many computers at home how is any of them personal and why invest in a personal computer?
A personal computer is the most intensely personal device a man has. A PC houses so much of what is important to a person and like a fine car, an enthusiasts rig is an expression of the person. Few objects carry that kind of personal attachment. This is especially relevant to IT/MIS professionals. Frankly, one of the interview questions we ask of prospective hires is what kind of PC they use. If they say they run a Dell, or an HP, chances are that they won't be a good fit with us. If however, the hire goes into great detail about his or her rig and recounts every component in it, then they are most likely to be a good candidate to work with us.
With build-to-order companies out there, like Dell, why not just order a custom computer from one of them; why build your own, or work with a custom builder?
There are many reasons why. Dell and others like them can make great machines and they do. They can offer them for a lot less than a small custom builder can in many cases; however, when you call Dell, or HP who are you to them really? Do they know you and what you do? Do they understand your requirements? NO! They don't. When one needs support, or repairs, what then? Out-sourced tech-support? Not for me and not for many people. I want to be able to call the man that built my computer with his bare hands - in my case that will be myself and my sons and I have their numbers saved in my phone. The point is, the things that matter most aren't being delivered by the large OEM's. Also, with a custom builder I know that I'll get a complete system up front - all the services and software will be baked in and I'll have a complete turn-key solution. The large OEM's aren't in that business. We are and other custom builders and solid industry partners are. Finally, there is the element of control and having an open platform. I can build, or buy from a custom builder a system that can easily be added to, and modified to suite changing needs. Four years from now when I am looking for an upgrade, I want to be able to go out to the entire community - and not just the OEM I bought the PC from. The bottom line is that I want it to be a personal computer - not an appliance.
Do you sit or stand when you work on your computer?
Both. I stand a lot and think better when I move around.
Do you remotely access your computer and if yes, how?
Yes. I use the Remote Desktop Protocol and the Microsoft Terminal Services Advanced Client 6.x
What do you like most about computers and the idea of new more powerful computer?
The potential for doing so much good with them.
What do you dislike most about moving to a new computer?
Setting up all the very fine details that make my computer personal and missing my old rig. Despite its age and slower pace, it has been a loyal and dependable companion. Weird as it may sound, I will miss the original BBAMF quite a lot. A lot of people who care for me helped me build her and keep her running well. I intend to keep her safely stored as a keepsake - after all, she helped me build a company and care for my family.
Armed with the answers to the questions above, it's time to begin the analysis and start the process of designing the perfect PC. Requirements Analysis is hard work. No one requirement can be treated in isolation and dependencies have to be identified. Two things stand out right away and based upon the example requirements and survey responses, it is clear that an HDCP capable machine is going to be required and against the budget allocated, it also means that a capable processor will likely have to be over-clocked to haul the mail. That means that stock air cooling is out and an airy case is going to be a certainty.
In part 2 of this arc I'll present the design considerations based upon the answers provided and the share how the research was conducted. I'll also share the parts list, costs and factors driving the build.
In part 3 I'll discuss the build and share specific settings used to pull the system up from a respectable mid 5's WEI to its rock solid and perfect 5.9
Until then, all I can say is that the new rig, "BBAMF64" is everything I designed it to be and while we have thrown enough money at other builds to match its performance, none of them comes close to how this new computer feels under the mouse and keyboard.
@Chris, "Thanks for the inspiration, Son!"