Everybody uses computers these days, unless they work with their hands, making things out of wood, or ride a horse as they bring a herd of cattle from dusty Texas to the stockyards of Kansas City with only a harmonica and a fifth of Jim Beam for entertainment.
And all of us who use PC’s–or bang on a keyboard connected to a Mac, which cost more than many automobiles I have owned–encounter the Slowness.Maybe when you’re surfing the web. Maybe when you’re opening applications, or editing photos. And if you try to edit audio or video, God help you, the Slowness will drive you to dark thoughts and homicide.
So: this thing will have TWO PARTS.
In Part 1, this here post will go into how to do the blueprints and pick the parts for a Black Box of Doom, one that lets you design a robot army to crank out with 3D printers in your garage.
Then in Part 2: The Reckoning, we will dive into actually putting the parts together. But first you have to use the Series of Tubes to order such parts, and give your friendly and competent unionized U.S. Postal Worker a nod and a wave and a smile as he or she delivers all these boxes to your front porch with gentle care. Some private companies tend to chuck boxes, which will ruin the precious, fragile, and expensive things you paid for with real monies. I will not name these companies. You know the deal. Try to get this stuff delivered by your postal worker, especially if they know your name and go to the same church on Sunday, or drink coffee at the same diner. Better yet, try to marry a postal worker before you start this journey. They look amazing in shorts, right? Because they walk all day. Public servants, too–god bless ’em.
Why building an Evil Supercomputer is better than buying some boring pre-built box at Best Buy or whatever
Buying a pre-built thing, something that can actually blow through the Slowness, will cost you far more than Any Old Thing that Will Surf the Web and Run MS Word.
Building your own evil supercomputer, now, is far, far cheaper. Crazily so. Plus, who wants to own a pre-built computer where some corporate person decided what you wanted and needed, when they don’t even know you, and five million other people have the same exact thing on their desk?
So yes, build one if you can.
Hear me know and believe me later in the week: I am the perfect person to talk you through this, standing before you not as a total expert who’s built zillions of computers, a gear-head who will make you all confused with jargon, skipping basic steps you ARE SUPPOSED TO KNOW while expecting you to spend $5,000 on a liquid-cooled, overclocked monster with LED lights. No. I’ve done this three times now, and therefore have hit the sweet spot where (a) I know enough to be dangerous while (b) still happily making common mistakes, the same mistakes you will, and therefore (c) know how to solve some common stupid mistakes.
And no, it’s not completely easy. There are tricky bits. But nothing worth doing is easy.
How to pick the components of your own Black Box of Doom
Do not jump on over to amazon.gov.com.org or whatever to start ordering parts based on how cheap they are. That will not work. There are crazy technical reasons for that.
It could also take you days, or weeks, to sort through which CPU’s are compatible with which motherboards and memory sticks and such. You will go insane and I will not visit you at the mental hospital, because we may be internet friends, even good ones, yet driving 1,500 miles during this apocalypse to show up and sign a visitor log is not going to happen. My wife will wonder where I went, and why our VISA has charges at gas stations from here to Kansas.
The way to avoid wasting all sorts of hours doing research online, then learning Japanese to read the technical manual, is simple: hop on over to a site like pcpartpicker.com, which is what I did.
First thing: Choose your CPU, which is the most important decision, I kid you not. If you’re a creative type like me and want to edit photos, edit video, and do cool stuff with Adobe Creative Suite, the CPU is everything.
I know, that seems weird. My previous Supercomputer had 32 gigs of RAM and a solid-state drive (way faster than your traditional Hard Drive, which spins around), yet the CPU was about five years old and Adobe did not give one single tiny poop about how much RAM was there, or how fast the hard drive was, or whether my graphics card could render five billion triangles per second or whatever.
Adobe only cared about the CPU, and told me Adobe Premiere would not render more than one frame per century until I got a new one. Maybe there’s some kind of dark alliance between Adobe, Intel, and AMD, or the graphics card people totally hit on Adobe’s girlfriend at that wine tasting last month, the one where Tyler thought he was being funny for bringing boxed wine and everyone told him that joke hasn’t been funny for years, please buy a real bottle, twist-offs are fine, and bringing a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos also does not make you a comedian, either, it just means you are cheap bastard who spent zero time on this while Heather over here baked a pecan pie from scratch and brought a bottle of sake she picked up in Tokyo and saved for this very night, you nitwit.
So: the CPU is everything.
Also, you don’t need to spend time researching the best CPUs, because I found folks who ran tests on video editing, using all sorts of the latest AMD and Intel CPUs at various price points. IT WAS EDUCATIONAL. Go read it.
The TL;DR of those tests is pretty damn simple. Yes, if I was a Hollywood film editor, it would be worth the extra $1,500 to splurge for the top chip and another $1,000 the Largest SSD on Planet Earch plus $1,600 for a graphics card that weighs more than my house. Yet spending way, way less–$339 on an AMD Ryzen 7 3800X–would totally do the job.
Say goodbye to those old spinny hard drives
Physical hard drives that spin aren’t really the thing anymore. They’re not quite eight-tracks, but getting there.
I thought SSD’s were still the king, since they’re tiny and way faster than traditional hard drives with spinning disks and such.
HOWEVER: the breaking news is SSD’s are old and busted. The new hotness are itty bitty drives that attach directly to the motherboard. These suckers are so new, nobody has figured out a single name for them. You might hear them referred to as M2’s or NVME internal drives. And yes, you gotta have a motherboard (I can’t say mobo more than once, too weird) that can get hitched to a fancy M2, which are little sticks.
You would think these suckers would be expensive. Not really. I bought a 1TB shebang for $99, and though it’s not as fast as more expensive ones, this thing will talk to the CPU and transfer data up to 2 gigs per second.
Is that fast?
OMGWTFBBQ, you have no idea. If you’ve ever copied a ton of files, like photos and video, you’ve seen Windows tell you it’s gonna be five hours with that little chart showing how many megabytes per second are getting copied. Just did that last night before building the new Evil Supercomputer, and my old hard drives were averaging maaaaybe 100 megs a second. Even the SSD one.
Two gigs a second is so fast is should be illegal.
Which means you MUST pick a CPU and motherboard than can use these beasts. Not doing so is malpractice.
Fire up pcpartspicker or whatever. If your CPU and motherboard can’t do M.2 drives, choose a different kind. It may be an Intel vs AMD thing, and that used to matter. Since AMD chips are better at editing video, I divorced Intel this time and have no regrets.
You can, and should, think about a super M2 drive with a cheap sidekick, maybe an old obsolete 4TB spinny hard drive that costs you tiny amounts of paper decorated with dead presidents. That’s smart. Run everything from the M2 superdrive and use that big, old, slow fellow as your sidekick and backup drive. Stick your docs, photos, music, and videos on that sucker.
I sorta did this on steroids by re-using my old case along with four drives: the optical drive, an SSD, and two spinny hard drives with lots of space. This was both brilliant (saving tons of money!) and stupid, since it upped the difficulty, which I’ll get into in the next post, Part 2: The Reckoning.
The RAM, it is important
You can never have too much memory.
It’s pretty standard to have at least 8 gigs these days, and 16 gigs for higher end, and 32 gigs if your going all muscle car with flames on the sides.
So I went with 64 gigs, because I plan on keeping this thing running for years and absolutely hate opening it up and doing open heart surgery, seeing how things can go wrong, and wires can get knocked loose, making you spend hours trying to connect some tiny cable back to the motherboard except you put it in backwards because you can’t see a thing in there. My hands are big, and the space is small, and the pain is real.
Graphics cards are meh
Sure, they matter if you want to play Call of Duty on a 4k monitor at 140 frames a second or whatever. Not interested in that. If you’re a creative type like me, and are looking at editing photos and video and such, the graphics card doesn’t mean much. Get something, sure, but don’t break the bank. There are tons of good options. TONS.
I did a Radeon 570 with 8 gigs of RAM that was $160, and I probably could have done way cheaper without Adobe looking sideways at me–unless I was running After Effects, which will use your graphics card some. Might be some other apps that tap the graphics card. Be safe on this one. And don’t listen to anyone who tries to talk you into the latest, greatest graphics cards, which can cost more than what I spent on this entire Evil Supercomputer and require adding extra concrete under your house to handle the weight and cooling demands.
Everything else is up to you
Once you pick a CPU, motherboard, RAM, drives, and graphics card, everything else is pretty basic and a matter of taste, as long as pcpartpicker or whatever says it’s all compatible.
A few tips:
- Get a full-size case. Itty bitty cases would be a pain, because it’s hard enough to do all the wires and such in a big case. Don’t go for one of those cases with transparent panels or whatever, since despite your best intentions, the cables will not look nice and neat, and your Black Box of Doom will not get its own centerfold in Custom Computers Monthly. You will be thrilled–THRILLED–if all the cables are plugged into the right spots and this thing works. Save the cable management OCD for your second or third shebang.
- If you’re not sure about a certain random items–cooling fans, power supplies, and such–look for one that has tons of positive reviews and doesn’t cost much.
- Splurge on some extra fans. They’re super quiet these days, and modern motherboards let you control the fans if you do it right. I got two extra fans (case already had two) which means there are four case fans, a power supply fan, a CPU fan and fans on the graphics card. Not gonna count those up because you and I know that’s a lot of fans. Expected it to be crazy loud. Nope. Quiet as a mouse.
There will be blood
Maybe not literal blood, though you can cut yourself on the inside of the case and such. But you will run into problems, and frustrations, and want to smash things.
I will not lie to you and say actually taking all these parts out of the box and making your first Evil Supercomputer is no big deal.
Read all the instructions. Twice.
Then read them again.
Keep a phone or laptop handy to look up things online, including YouTube videos on how to do certain parts. Because it is not abnormal, especially on your first try, to have a shiny and freshly built computer not turn on and work.
There will be a plug that you knocked loose, or a part that isn’t fully seated in the motherboard. Something won’t be right.
And that’s the joy of doing this. It isn’t successful right off. You have to learn to do it, and figure out how to fix problems.
Next post: actually building an Evil Supercomputer, and then finding out, Will it turn on?