PC Building Tips

This section is where I will try to impart some advice on building your own desktop PC. All the desktops I currently own, I have built myself. That's been true for nearly a decade, now. The topics will be limited to desktop PCs, because you really can't build your own laptop. I won't try to cover everything here .. at least not initally. There are a number of good sites containing tutorials and help on building your own desktop PC. I'll stick with a few tips to counter problems I see made when people build their own desktop computers and to help with the selection of components.

Where I Buy Components

There are literally hundreds of web sites with low-cost computer components. The best of these are very, very good. The worst of these are the stuff nightmares are made of. I'm going to list sites here that I purchase from frequently .. or at least consult frequently. If you look at my Current Rig page, you'll see my top two stores are Amazon and Newegg. I also find deals at B&H Photo Video fairly often, but usually usually when I'm in the market for home entertainment components and cameras.

Can I just take a second to say what genius idea the Amazon Prime plan is (in my opinion)? With free two-day shipping, I buy stuff from Amazon I'd never consider otherwise - like tea, light bulbs and dog treats.

I had to do a bit of research to figure out if Amazon or Newegg is my main source for computer components. Before I became an Amazon Prime member, it was clearly Newegg. Since then, it's a least slightly tilted in favor of Amzon. I purchased my first item - a book - from Amazon in 2000 and my first item from Newegg in 2001. However, before Amazon Prime, I bought less than a dozen things from them per year. I'm on track to have at least 60 orders this year. Genius.

Like Newegg, Amazon has fantastic order tracking and a complete, searchable order history of my purchases. If I revisit a product page of an item I've purchased before, Amazon puts a link at the top saying when I bought it with a link to the order. That's something Newegg doesn't do, and it's quite handy. Amazon has reasonable product search functionality, but Newegg has them beat by far. Sorry to say this Newegg, but I often do product research on your site and buy from Amazon. Their prices are usually the same or cheaper, but the free Prime shipping usually tips the scale.

Recently, Amazon started having Sunday delivery in addition to Saturday delivery. On the rare occasion I need it for work on Monday, this is quite handy. I don't know the exact number of orders I have had with Amazon, but it's in the hundreds somewhere. I've returned two items and one item was lost during shipping. I had no hassles getting my money back.

Newegg is still one of my favorite web sites from which to buy computer components. At last check, I have placed over 100 orders with them ranging from $7 to $1400. How do I know this for certain? Like Amazon, every order I've placed with them is available in my account order history on their web site. This includes a complete listing of everything I've purchased and how much I purchased it for. Several times, I've used this to check what products I put in which build. It's quicker to look this up online than to try to look through my files or pop the side off of a machine. It also makes it very easy to buy another of the same item to put in a different machine or recommend it to someone. My first purchase from Newegg was a Leadtek TI200/TDH GeForce3 Ti200 64MB AGP 4X Video Card which I bought in October 2001 for $229. I'm sure it was a bargain at the time.

I don't think I've ever had a computer build that didn't have at least one part from Newegg. In fact, I'm sure it's more than one part per PC, but I don't want to take the time to check. One feature that keeps me going is that finding items on Newegg is wonderful. Their Guided and Advanced Search are both good at whittling down items, but the Power Search is the real winner. I can reduce hundreds or thousands potential components down to the dozen or two one that really fit my build in mere seconds. The number of times I've posted the results from those searches as an answer to some forum post must now number in the hundreds if not thousands. No other site has search capabilities this extensive. You say you want a new, retail version of an Intel LGA-1150 CPU that's at least quad core with a base clock of no less than 3.2 GHz? Go to Newegg's power search with desktop CPUs, check the appropriate boxes and click search. (12 products matched on May 16th 2015.)

Newegg also has daily "Shellshocker" deals that start at midnight PDT. Another deal starts at 10 AM PDT and then 1, 3, and 6PM PDT. That at least gets me to look at the site once a day during the week. (On the weekends, the deals tend to things other than computer-related items.) I've purchased a number of the deals, and they really are good deals. Sometimes fantastic deals. Newegg also has a mobile app that features one special mobile-only deal a day, and that one usually is a very good deal.

I used to be such a Newegg fan I practically shopped nowhere else, however, in the last couple years, there's been a few chinks in the armor. It used to be that all orders I placed with Newegg arrived in two or three days - most of those with free shipping. Newegg has added "Super Saver" and "Standard" shipping options, which are often the only way to get free shipping nowadays. That's fine if the price is really good and/or I'm OK if the item doesn't arrive for five to seven days. They've also started using the US Post Office for the Super Saver shipping. I get complete email tracking of when the order is accepted and charged and another (with tracking numbers) when it is shipped - until the USPS gets it. Then, I often get no tracking info whatsoever until the item is delivered. That, I am not happy with. I generally try to make sure to get the two to three day shipping. If I can't get it that way from Newegg, I generally can get it from Amazon.

The second chink in the armor is that Newegg now allows other dealers to be listed in their searches and sell products through Newegg. In theory, that should be fine except that (at least for the things I am looking for), the prices of the other dealers are bad. Sometimes to the point of being laughable. The times where their other dealers prices are in line with Newegg (or Amazon) are so few, that I find their addition in the search results to be unwelcome noise. Oddly, having other sources like this is something Amazon has always done, but it doesn't bother me with them. There's several reasons why this is so, but at least, I can check the Amazon Prime checkbox which eliminates anyone that doesn't ship it for free and guarantee two-day shipping.

I've yet for Newegg to get an order wrong, but have had to return a few items I bought, and RMAs are easy to request online. One item was a video capture card that refused to work with one particular motherboard. (I had purchased that video card before and had no issues with it.) I received refunds in about a week to two weeks. They do charge a restocking fee, which I wasn't overly pleased with, but since they would have to sell the card (for less) as an open box item, it was not a great situation for anyone. It's not their fault the card was incompatible. (Not really mine either.)

Even though I might have a couple issues with Newegg, I've still ordered hundreds of items from them since 2001. I wouldn't hesitate to ramp that up to thousands if the need arose. They've yet to make a mistake on an order or to be late on shipping an order. My returns were handled fairly and efficiently. I've recommended Newegg to many friends and those that purchased from them have the same experiences that I have. There are very few companies online or otherwise that run with this sort of quality.

Micro Center is my CPU and motherboard store. ... Next section.

No, really, that pretty much sums it up. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near a Micro Center store, which I do, you can take advantage of their fantastic deals on CPUs. They are consistently $40 - $100 cheaper depending on the model of CPU. If you aren't set on a specific motherboard, you can often get another $40 off a CPU/motherboard bundle. The motherboards offered in the bundle are pretty good ones, too. The catch is that these prices are in-store only; you have to go there and buy them in person. They are, of course, hoping to get you to buy other things (or everything) while in the store. They sometimes succeed, too. You have to pay sales tax, but Amazon now collects that anyway, so that's a not an factor.

For example, in May 2015, an Intel Core i5 4690K is $240 at Newegg and $236 at Amazon. It's $200 at Micro Center. Likewise, an Intel Core i7 4790K is $330 at Newegg and Amazon, but only $280 at Micro Center. If I was forced to "settle" on an Intel 4690K and Gigabyte GA-Z97X-Gaming 7 motherboard, I could get both from Newegg for $425 (with three-day shipping) and Amazon for $418 (but without two-day Prime shipping or $453 with expedited shipping) or I could go to Micro Center and pay $350 (with tax). Every gaming PC I've made in the last 3-4 years has a CPU from Micro Center and often a CPU/Motherboard bundle.

B&H Photo Video is my first thought any time I need audio or video equipment - especially cameras, but also projectors, A/V receivers, speakers and the like. Their catalogs - yes, they still mail out catalogs - are adult toy catalogs. In addition to all things audio and video-related, they also sell computer components. While their prices are generally competitive, their selection is smaller than Amazon or Newegg as components are not their focus. When I recently decided to upgrade to a higher-resolution monitor, I checked at B&H Photo Video since video-editing systems (and therefore monitors) are right up their alley. I found B&H Photo Video had the monitor I was looking for both cheaper than Newegg and Amazon, with free shipping and they don't charge sales tax. They also had the video card I was looking for, again, with no sales tax charged. The sales tax alone was over a $60 difference in the total. The monitor was quite a bit cheaper, too.

If you need heatsinks, fans or cables, this is a great place to get them. In addition to fans for computer cases, video cards, etc., they sell cooling solutions and case modifications like lighting kits. They are also a good source for all those odd fans you may come across like the tiny ones found on some motherboards and video cards. I used to get most of my fans here because they were often cheaper than Newegg when shipping was considered. Newegg often charges as much to ship a fan or cable as the fan or cable itself costs. With Amazon Prime, that's not an issue, but Coolerguys selection is just way more extensive.

PC Part Picker is not a place you can buy things from directly as it's not a store. However, it helps put together a list of components with the least cost. The prices it quotes are the lowest of those taken from a number of stores that it knows about. (The user has the choice of the store regardless of the cost.) The downside is that it doesn't have data about every single store. It does have the major ones like Newegg, Amazon, B&H Photo Video and Micro Center among others. It also covers several countries besides the US like the UK, Austrailia, Spain, Germany and Italy. I can't vouch for how good of a job it does for countries other than the US.

PC Part Picker tries very hard to make sure the components you put together when picking the parts for a system build are compatible. If you pick an Intel LGA 1150 socket CPU for example, the only motherboards offered later are those with an LGA 1150 socket. The memory offered will work with the motherboard, etc. It's getting pretty good at cross checking. While picking each component, a number of filters are available that are specific to the component.

Reseller Ratings is also not a store. It's a place where online retailers can be rated by their customers. If you find a price online that seems too good to be true, check with Reseller Ratings, and you may find out why. You might expect Reseller Ratings to degrade into being a general B**chfest, but I don't find that to be the case. Unless I know the reseller well enough to trust them, I won't buy from a retailer that has less than an 8 out of 10 (8/10) or not enough reviews. Amazon's my one big exception. They have a 6.8/10 at the moment, but I personally have not had any issue with Amazon. Newegg.com has a 9.82/10. Micro Center has an 8.5/10, but that likely refers mostly or completely to online orders from their web site.

Keep in mind, Reseller Ratings isn't specifically for computer-related purchases. You can find rathings for Zappos (9.17/10) as well as Kohl's (1.67/10 - ouch). If you want to have some fun, read the entries under the Best and Worst List.

Popular Myths When Choosing Components

I often hear the same rumors or half-truths when helping someone build their first PC. They read X is better than Y in some article or blog, and now, it's stuck in their brain. I do have certain brands I tend to like above others, but I've been building these things long enough now to see trends change. Today's "facts" become tomorrow's untruths on a fairly regular cycle. The following are some things I've heard or discussed directly or through forums with a number of people that are patently wrong. Try to avoid these when putting together the components for your build.

Intel processors are better than AMD processors (for gaming)
I've been building PCs long enough to remember when AMD blindsided Intel with the release of the AMD Athlon K7 in 1999. (At least, it seemed like Intel was caught with its pants down.) AMD's architecture allowed them to perform more processing at the same clock speed, making the K7 the fastest CPU available. The Thunderbird core that followed was faster still and clock speed was no longer the only measure of a CPU's performance. The Athlon 64 that came after that kept AMD in the lead. I built gaming systems on AMD CPUs until Intel released its Core 2 systems in 2006. I keep a tiny light lit hoping it will happen again, but it's getting a bit dim.

This is a rumor that is not completely false. It is true (currently - and for the last five years or so) that at the top end of the cost and performance scale, Intel processors have a measurable advantage over AMD processors. That is, if you're planning on spending at or over $250 for the CPU alone, than one of the Intel Core i5 or i7 processors is the one to pick. However, if you're budget limit for the CPU is around $150, picking Intel or AMD CPU becomes less clear cut. The best approach is to figure out the maximum you're willing to spend and then figure out the best CPU - Intel or AMD - that's within that budget.

Tom's Hardware is one of my favorite sites for doing research when working up the specifications for a new system. Recently, they added a Best Gaming CPU for the Money monthly column. That's a great place to start. Go to the CPUs section of the site and look for the latest column. The CPU dictates what motherboards you can get, so pick that first.

Nvidia graphics cards are better than ATI graphics cards (or vice versa)

This is a rumor that I wish I felt was more of a rumor. In sheer number-crunching, Nvidia and AMD have done a pretty good job of slotting their video cards into a line of price/performance. It should be as simple as figuring out what your budget is and then buying whichever manufacturers card you can get within that range. The truth - for me at least - isn't that simple. For me, if the "correct" choice is an AMD card, I balk. If it's at all possible to bump up to the next highest Nvidia card from that initial choice, I'll take it every time. Why? The answers is video drivers and build quality.

I have had and still have at least one AMD card in my systems. It is not, however a gaming system. It's a Linux box that has an AMD card typically used for home theater PCs. My last "gaming" AMD card was actually an ATI Radeon (R300) 9700 (from 2002). It had to be replaced because of bad capacitors on it resulting in displaying the pink checkerboard of death whenever trying to play a game. I got it direct from ATI, so I had to ship it to Canada for replacement. I remember this because Canada wanted me to pay an import tax for the declared value.

More recently, a friend tried to use an card made by MSI based on an AMD R9 290X GPU. It was the correct card for his budget, and the R9 290X has decent reviews. His first card booted fine, but would lock up whenever he tried a game. Sad, but any manufacturer can have an occasional issue, so he got a replacement. The second one had the same issue. This time, we tried it in my gaming rig thinking it might be some issue specific to his system. It got a little farther, but running 3DMark locked the system up within a minute or so. Eventually, that one died so bad, I couldn't even get back into Windows long enough to uninstall it. The AMD Catalyst drivers are so bad, I blue-screened when I tried to put my actual video card (by Nvidia) back into the system. I had to nuke and pave my OS to get the system working again. This could have been an MSI issue with AMD cards, perhaps. That said, we replaced that card with an MSI card based on the Nvidia 970 GTX. It cost more, but now, there are no problems with it in his system. That leaves me rather soured on AMD cards.

The bottom line is technically, you shouldn't necessarily pick Nvidia or AMD as always being the best. Look and see what makes sense for the budget available. Tom's Hardware also has a GPU section like the CPU section and a publishes similar articles entitled, Best Graphics Cards For The Money for the current month.

Installing a larger power supply means my system will use more power

This is a question I've answered online on more than one occasion. I have taken the liberty of copying myself. I'll sue myself for infringement later.

Computer power supply units (PSUs) are on-demand current draw devices. That is, they only supply as much power on the various voltage lines (3.3 V, 5V, 12V, etc.) as the components in your PC require. As such, if you were to replace your current power supply with a larger rated one (without changing any other components in your system), the difference in the current draw should be negligible. More than that, if you replace an old, poorly-designed 300W PSU with a new, more efficient 550W model, it's even possible the current draw will be decreased not increased due to increased efficiency. Efficiency is the ratio of power consumption from the wall socket compared to the power delivered to the computer components. A loss of efficiency manifests itself as heat generation. A PSU that is 85% efficient wastes less electricity in the form of heat than a 70% efficient PSU.

Power supplies tend to operate most efficiently when they are being driven at 50 - 75% of their rated maximum load. Let's say you've been adding hard drives over time (even external ones if they are powered by the USB port) and have upgraded your video card as well. The 300W power supply was fine when you first got your system, but now, let's say you are using 260W as a worst case. (It won't always draw that much, but when playing a video game that is driving the graphics card and the CPU hard, it may stay at that draw for extended periods of time.) Your 300W PSU is being forced to operate at 87% of its rated max. A 550W PSU on the other hand would only be operating a 47% of its rated max. The 300W power supply - because of the loss in efficiency converting 120V AC current to 3.3V, 5V, 12V, etc. DC current when loaded above 75% - may require more current from the wall to deliver 260W than the 550W supply would require to do the same. (It's more complicated than this in that it matters how much current is needed by each of the voltage "rails" such as 12V compared to 3.3V rather than just the total power. I've also ignored talking about thermal design power altogether.)

That said, it's a good idea to check the output of an existing PSU and upgrade it when adding components with a higher current draw - which is most often a new video card. Some of the very high end graphics cards now require 250W or more when they are running full blast. Put a pair of those in an SLI motherboard and you see why 1000 W supplies are needed. (You are potentially at 50% load of the PSU with the graphics cards alone.) So, if you do upgrade your graphics card, chances are you probably will draw more current from the wall. However, that's not the function of adding a new PSU. If you want to verify or measure this, purchase a cheap Kill-A-Watt power meter and check the amperage used before and after replacing the power supply. The difference should be barely noticeable. Try the same after upgrading a graphics card to one that uses more power, and there will be a difference.

Backups ... Just Do It!

If you are unfamiliar with the terms RAID 1 and RAID 0, don't get too concerned just yet. They will be explained below. For now, just know that RAID 1 is drive mirroring where all data is written to a pair of drives such there are always two copies of every file.

I have used a number of backup schemes over the years. In the not-too-distant past, most of them relied on some form of redundant, automatic backup such as RAID 1 (mirroring) or RAID 0 + 1 (striping plus mirroring). However, a while back, I decided that was not good enough and moved to a scheme of using software - in my case, CrashPlan (Plus) - to back up my desktop, my laptop and my wife's laptop to a separate PC in my house just for that purpose. Additionally, I have CrashPlan back up the same machines (and my backup machine) off site to their servers (called CrashPlan Central). The bottom line is that it's almost a requirement to have some form of active hard drive backup, and the good news is that it's not that hard.

Do Not Trust Your Data to Any Hard Drive Manufacturer
I don't receive any compensation for the hardware or software products mentioned. I may not have even used some of the products mentioned. Those are included only as illustrative examples where needed.

The following is my personal experiences with computer storage over the last 30 years or so. Sadly, the necessity of having some backup scheme for my hard disks to guard against hard drive failure increased dramatically for me in the early 2000s. Originally, I would set up a RAID 1 array fully expecting to never replace either disk. The rare occasion when I did have to replace one justified the cost in my mind. I could be quite smug when I slapped in the new replacement disk, chose to rebuild the array, and lost nothing (save the time to rebuild and the cost of the new disk). That fact was that in the early days, the majority of RAID 1 arrays that I set up would go through their entire life with no failures. I know of a couple systems I built running a RAID 1 array that were 4-5 years old and still running on the original drives.

Unfortunately, that changed. By 2005 or so, I set up a RAID 1 array fully expecting it to be necessary. I'm not sure what happened with the hard disk manufacturer's, but reliability just took a dive. I suppose it could be me; I'm using twice as many hard drives in the systems I build, so it follows I would see twice as many failures. I believe, however, that's not entirely the cause. As I mentioned above, my early RAID 1 arrays for the most part ran their entire life without any replacements. In the last few years, more than half of the RAID 1 arrays I've set up have required at least one disk replacement.

This trend doesn't seem to be limited to a particular manufacturer either. I typically use Seagate or Western Digital (WD), but I have occasionally used Samsung and IBM (now Hitachi) drives as well. I don't use the latter two often enough to include those two in the following statement: In my opinion, no hard drives can be trusted. It seems to be Seagate's opinion, too, as they first reduced their warranty from five years to three, and now that warranty is down to two years on standard models. WD has three years on most drives with their premium models at five. What that should mean to anyone with a drive older than three to five years is that it should be expected to fail at any time.

For a long, long time I was an utter Seagate fanboi; it's the only brand of drive I would use in builds. When I first started using RAID 1 arrays, WD had a couple embarrassing manufacturing issues, which they initially denied and eventually acknowledged. I myself wouldn't touch the things. In 2006 or 2007, I built myself a new desktop PC with a RAID 1 array using a pair of Seagate 120GB drives. One of the drives failed fairly quickly. Because I had used so many of their drives over the years with no failures, I figured it was just my time to get a bad one and replaced the drive. Then the other drive failed within a year. Both were covered by the (then five-year) warranty, but that's not the point. Had I not used a RAID 1 (mirroring) setup, data would have been lost. I didn't feel I could trust that particular model and tried my luck with a larger 250GB Seagate. One of those failed just under two years later. Like the others, it was still in warranty, but this was not what I expected from Seagate. RAID 1 was saving the day again and again, but I really wished it wouldn't have had to.

I had a similar experience in a desktop PC I built for my daughter to take to college. One of the 250 GB Seagate drives (in RAID 1) failed after less than two years. During this same time, the company I worked for bought three WD250 GB external USB drives for a few of us working offsite to use for backing up our laptops. All three died; mine lasted the longest - almost two years. In my opinion, all hard drives should be regarded with the belief that they will fail before they are out of warranty, so having a backup is absolutely required. Some time during all of this, I decided to use RAID 0 + 1 in my gaming desktop. That required I add another pair of Seagate 250GB drives in order to effectively get 500 GB of space. Of the four drives in use, I had three failures including one where the replacement for a failed drive also fail. I switched to using Western Digital Black drives, which had (and still have) a five-year warranty.

I now use SSDs (solid state drives) as my main boot and file drives. Their cost is low enough to be viable replacements for HDDs (standard hard disk drives), but still high enough that doubling the number of drives needed (as used in RAID 1 mirroring) is prohibitive. I also have a pair of WD Scorpio Black drives, which have a five-year warranty. Still, I don't have enough faith in any of them not to have a complete backup elsewhere. That is where CrashPlan comes in. In the rest of this article, I'll go through the ways I have (and you can) backup your hard disks.

Approaches I Have Used for Hard Drive Backup

Hopefully, I made a convincing case above that hard drive backup is absolutely essential. It was always a good idea, but with what I'm seeing as the current state of hard drive reliability, it's no longer an option. There are lots of effective ways of maintaining a backup. In the links below, I will go into a number of them that I have used.


RAID 1 - Disk Mirroring

RAID 1, for those who don't know, uses a pair of disks whereby anything written to one disk is also written (i.e., mirrored) in parallel to the other. I used RAID 1 in desktop builds - both for gaming and business use - for over a decade with very good results. On RAID 1's minus side, half the disk space is lost since, for example, two 500GB drives appear as only one 500GB drive. Also, the writes don't occur completely in paralled and the two drives require synchronization to ensure that everything was faithfully copied to both drives. This slows the write speed of a RAID 1 array down to being a bit slower than writing to a single disk.

If you decided to go with a RAID array, consider purchasing the hard disks from two different sources. (Make sure the model number is the same, however.) Doing so decreases the likelihood of getting two faulty drives from the same "bad" batch.

On the plus side, is that in the event either one of the two disks fails, no data is lost. That's the big plus that saved me from data loss a number of times. Also, when reading files from disk, the RAID 1 array can read alternate blocks of a file from both drives simultaneously to nearly double the read speed. (This is similar to how RAID 0 striping works all the time. See below.) In a gaming system, significantly more time is spent reading from the disks than writing, so RAID 0 gave me a noticeable increase in speed when booting, loading games initially, switching maps/level, etc. When and if a disk fails, that boost in read performance (and the security on having a constant backup) is lost until a replacement is installed and the files are copied from the remaining drive to the new drive. (This is called rebuilding the RAID array, and while this is in progress, it's a very good idea not to use the system. It's going to be really slow anyway, so just give it the necessary time to finish.)

A RAID 1 array can be build as a "hardware" or "software" array. Hardware arrays are those that use a motherboard with a chipset that supports RAID. Most current motherboards, even lower-end ones, support some form of hardware RAID. Sometimes, it's only RAID 0 and 1. (More on RAID 0 in a bit.) Optionally, we can to buy a RAID controller add-in card to create a hardware RAID 1 array. The higher-priced add-in cards are often faster than the RAID solutions found on motherboards, so it's a good alternative. Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 also support creating RAID arrays though the operating system software. I personally have not used a software RAID, and it wasn't clear from what I read if a software RAID can be used as the boot drive. I know a hardware RAID array can be the boot drive as that's pretty much the only way I have done it.

The second thing we need is a matched pair of disks. Technically, the disks don't have to be the same, but it's more efficient that they are. If a 1.5 TB drive is paired with a 2 TB drive, the resulting RAID 1 array will be 1.5 TB with the extra 500GB of space on the 2 TB drive wasted. If the two drives have a significantly different write times, the effective write time is that of the slower drive (plus the overhead for synchronization). This would waste the potential speed of the (presumably more expensive) faster drive. Typically, I just get a matched pair of drives from the outset. That said, it's a good idea to get each drive from a different source. That way, if the vendor happened to be the unlucky recipient of a bad batch of drives, the system we build with them won't inherit all the same bad luck.

When installing the disks, it is best to leave airspace between the drives if possible. If the drive cage has a fan that moves air across the drives, that's even better. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way as much as possible. The picture below shows a pair of drives with a fan in front of them that draws cool air in from the front of the case. (The case is an Antec Nine Hundred.)

RAID 1 drives installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb

Setting up a hardware RAID array varies by motherboard, but the basics tend to be the same. Rather than write my own instructions here, I'll just point to one of the many references I found on the subject at PCWorld. Really, the main trick for setting up a hardware RAID in Windows is having the correct drivers onhand (on a USB stick, CD or DVD) during the Windows installation process. For an example of setting up a software RAID array, this article at Overclockers seems to be pretty complete. It's not something I have done, myself.

Although RAID 1 has saved my hide on a number of occasions, it's only part of a good backup scheme. For example, RAID 1 won't protect against accidental deletion of (irreplaceable) files. Nor does it protect against viruses. Therefore, it's still a good idea to perform periodic backup of critical files to CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, an external disk, a spare internal disk, another computer, a network file server or a backup server on the Internet. This need not be a backup of everything on the disk (like RAID 1 does), but it should be those documents, audio files, pictures, and movies that you yourself have created and would not be able to replace. Several of the following sections talk about these alternatives.

RAID 0 (Striping) Plus a Backup Drive

RAID 0 is the preferred hard disk solution for the fastest disk access possible and is very popular in gaming desktops (and some laptops). With RAID 0, files over a certain size - called the stripe size - are broken into "stripes" and the stripes are written to alternating disks. Generally, the number of hard disks in a RAID 0 array is two, but it can be more. If it is two, the first stripe-sized block of a file is written to one disk and the second is written to the second disk. The third stripe is written to the first disk, and so on. The stripes can be fed to the two disks in parallel nearly doubling both their read and write speed.

The first and major plus as mentioned is the greatly improved read and write speed. Also on the plus side, unlike with RAID 1, no disk space is lost in RAID 0. Two 2 TB drives would appear as a single 4 TB drive. On RAID 0's minus side, if either disk fails, all files over the stripe size are effectively lost since half of a file (assuming a two disk raid) is little better than no file. One way to resolve this problem is to have a third non-RAID disk that matches the size of the RAID 0 array (or larger). This drive will be used to contain one or more more backups of the RAID 0 array. Some form of backup software such as Acronis True Image Home 2015 would then be installed and configured to perform backups on a regular - typically nightly - basis.

Acronis True Image has a feature named Acronis Nonstop Backup that automatically creates incremental backups of files and folders (or even partitions) every five minutes allowing users to roll back their system, files, and folders to a point in time in the past. While this sounds good, it may well defeat the purpose of a RAID 0 drive or at least reduce it. There would need to be some sort of synchronization or checking of the backup in real time that would slow down the RAID array. Since it's incremental, it may not be much in reality. Acronis also has a powerful scheduler to make the backup at some time when you are not on the computer. This would not interfere with the computer while it's in use, but the risk is losing any data created since the last backup is run.

Acronis is not the only backup program to consider. Macrium (Reflect) and Paragon (Hard Disk Manager) are also quite popular. At various times, various releases of one or the other products have had issues. I currently use CrashPlan, which could be used for a backup scheme like the one above, but it really meant for backing up one computer's files to another (which could be a local PC, a friend's PC over the Internet, or even CrashPlan's own servers).

From a build point of view, for hardware RAID, we need a motherboard that supports RAID or we need to buy a RAID controller add-in card as before. For software RAID, we need an operating system that supports that feature (also as for RAID 1). The second thing we need is a matched pair of disks and a third disk that's approximately the size of the RAID array. The disks to be used in the array don't have to be the same, but the array is generally more stable if they are. If a 1 TB drive is paired with a  1.5 TB drive, the resulting RAID 0 array will be twice the size of the 1 TB drive or  2 TB with the 500 GB of extra space on the 1.5 TB drive wasted. If the two drives have a significantly different write times, the effective write time is that of the slower drive. This would waste the potential speed of the (presumably more expensive) faster drive.

As for the backup drive, it may either be external or internal. If using an external, try to use USB 3.0 (or above) or an eSATA connection. Disks are installed using the same rules of thumb as with RAID 1. Leave airspace between the drives if possible and use or install fans for the drive cage, if possible. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way if possible. The picture below shows a pair of drives used for RAID 0 and a third, larger drive used for backup. (The case is an Antec Nine Hundred.)

RAID 0 drives and backup drive installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb

As before, rather than giving instructions for setting up a RAID system here, please refer to the list of guides found on the Internet such as those listed in the first section.

RAID 10 (1+0) - Mirroring and Striping

In the RAID 1 (mirroring) discussion, it was mentioned that the write speed of such an array is slightly slower than writing to a single disk. On the other hand, RAID 0 yields a write speed that is nearly double that of a single disk (because it involves writing simultaneously to two disks). What would be ideal is to have the continuous backup that RAID 1 affords while somehow keeping the write speed of a RAID 0 array.

Somewhere along the line, somebody realized that if we had a pair of identical RAID 1 arrays, we could write to those using the striping technique of RAID 0 and let the RAID array perform the mirroring as time permits. This is the essence of the solution provided by RAID 1+0, which is also known as RAID 10. It is almost always written as RAID 10. Essentially a pair of RAID 1 arrays is used in a RAID 0 array, which makes it a stripe of mirrors. This gives us (nearly) the speed of a RAID 0 array with the data redundancy and security of a RAID 1 array. A RAID 10 array requires (a minimum of) four hard disks and like a RAID 1 array, only half the total disk space is accessible. However the write speed to that array is essentially the same as that of a RAID 0 array. Even better, the read speed is double that of a RAID 0 array. For a gaming system, which tends to do a lot of burst reading (when switching levels or areas for example), this can make quite a difference.

The first and major plus of RAID 10, which was already mentioned, is the combination of the advantages of RAID 0 speed and RAID 1 security. If any single disk fails, no data is lost. The failed disk can be replaced and the RAID rebuilt from the remaining disks. In theory, two drives can fail so long as they do not both contain the same mirrored stripe. In general though, we are trying to guard against a single disk failure while maintaining RAID 0 (or better) performance.

From a build point of view, we need the motherboard support for RAID 10 or an add-in card that supports RAID 10. This time, however we need a set of four matched disks. The same caveats about disk size and speed apply as in RAID 0 and RAID 1. One additional factor in the mix is that you need a case that hold four internal hard disks and still have decent air flow. Leave airspace between the drives if possible and use or install fans for the drive cage, if possible. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way. The picture below shows four drives in RAID 10.

RAID 10 drives installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb

Note that I did not talk about software RAID in the last paragraph. As far as I can tell, Windows 7 does not support RAID 10 directly, so a hardware RAID is the only option. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 support a newer concept called Storage Spaces. Storage Spaces don't provide an exact equivalent to RAID 10, although they do have support configurations with similar goals. However, that's not something I have used (and a bit beyond the scope I was trying to cover here).

Also note that I only discussed RAID 10 and not RAID 01 (also known as RAID 0+1). While RAID 10 is known as a stripe of mirrors, RAID 01 is known as a mirror of stripes. Most motherboards only support RAID 10 and not RAID 01. RAID 10 and RAID 01 require the same resources and yield the same performance benefits. The devil in the details is more involved than I want to get into here, but suffice it to say that RAID 10 is inherently more stable than RAID 01 when a drive failure occurs. A good article on why this is so can be found at The Geek Stuff.

As before, rather than giving instructions for setting up a RAID system here, please refer to the list of guides found on the Internet such as those listed in the first section.


My Current Backup Approach

Although I have used RAID 1 and RAID 10 in the past - even occasionally RAID 0, I am not currently using any of those approaches to maintaining my backups. In fact, I don't even have a RAID setup in my current desktop even though it's perfectly capable of supporting one. I even have a pair of matched hard drives.

Recently, I've switched to using Solid State Drives (SSDs( in place of HDDs. My system boots lightning fast and games load almost too fast. However, when it comes to RAID systems, the cost of SSDs makes raid a bit prohibitive. I have a 256GB SSD and 500 GB SSD and when I bought them, the cost of a pair of 500 GB SSDs like the one I have would have been nearly quadruple what the cost of a pair of 1 TB HDDs. That's not the cast any more as the drive has dropped from nearly $300 when I bought it to $178. That's the quote I got today from Newegg, and though it's a sale price, it's not much off the regular price. I probably could set up a RAID system if I wanted to, now, but I'm happy with the solution I have.

I have switched to using CrashPlan Home from Code42.com, which is backup software that lets me pick the files and folders I want to back up and copies those to another system. CrashPlan is available as both a free version and a subscription version. The free version of the software supports backing up to an external disk, another computer in your house and even a friend's computer (you can "barter" to back up each other's files). The backup files are encrypted, so nosey people can't poke around in your offsite backups.

I used the free version to back up my desktop, laptop and another laptop for about a year. I never once got hassled to sign up for the subscription plan. CrashPlan Free worked well and transparently. There were just several advantages to the subscription plan that I decided I really wanted. The first was having offsite backups to Code42's CrashPlan Central servers. The free version has daily scheduled backup (although I seem to recall being able to kick off an manual backup anytime I liked), whereas the subscription version has "continuous" backup. It's not absolutely keystroke-by-keystroke continuous, but it's within minutes of a file being changed. CrashPlan also has a mobile app that lets me access any file backed up to CrashPlan Central from anywhere. Both versions allow you to restore deleted files, but the subscription allows file versioning with - as far as I can tell - unlimited backup versions of a file. I am using the family plan which allows me to backup up to 10 computers with no data limits.

A couple of extra-cost services that I Code42 offers, which I have not used but am glad are available are the Seeded Backup service and the Restore-to-Door service. The Seeded Backup service exists to help get you going with offsite backup to CrashPlan Central. A drive is shipped to you and you backup to that drive. Then the drive is shipped to CrashPlan (shipping included in the cost) and they seed your cloud backup from there. I have a really good Internet connection, and it still took days to get my initial backups established on CrashPlan Central. If you have a slower Internet connection and lots of data to backup, this service is probably worth it.

The Restore-to-Door service is the opposite of the Seeded Backup service. If you had a catatrophic loss of data - say due to fire, flood or theft - that left you without a local copy of your data, you can have a disk with your last backup sent to you and you can restore it back to the same or another system. Once you are done restoring your files, you use the included return label to send it back.

I also find the CrashPlan support site to be be helpful and well done. There were some tips there that I had not even considered, one of which was the Gamer's Guide to CrashPlan. Since CrashPlan maintains multiple copies of changed files - including saved game files - I can always get back a previous game save (assuming I know where to find it) even if the game doesn't keep multiple saves. Most of the games I have nowadays were purchased from Steam. Getting the game files back is straightforward enough. However game saves is another matter. Some games synchronize the saves to the cloud (which has occasionally caused its own issues), but others don't. A way to be sure is to stick them on CrashPlan Central along with everything else.