Gaming PC Initial Impressions

I’ve had my gaming PC for a few weeks now. Here are my initial impressions.

Build & Shipping Speed

When I originally ordered the machine on Black Friday, it had a ship date of 12/18 and would take 5 – 7 days to ship after that. I wanted it before Christmas so I paid extra for 3-day shipping. Over the weekend they validated my payment info and I was awaiting the beginning of the parts gathering process. I called on Monday to change my motherboard out for one that supported NVIDIA SLI (instead of just AMD Crossfire). This put me back at the initial stage and it took a few days before my payment had been validated and I was once again awaiting parts gathering. By that time an entire week had passed since I initially ordered. My 12/18 ship date was not looking good.

I started to become obsessed with it and tried to figure out what all of the stages were and how long they took. There was parts gathering, assembly, quality control, burn in, packaging, and finally shipping. There were queues to wait on for each of these as well. It seemed impossible that I’d get it by Christmas, but I happened to take a look at their site that week and noticed that they were still guaranteeing Christmas delivery on all orders. It made me feel better but I still found a forum post that outlined how long someone’s order had taken in each stage. I used that info to put together an expected schedule.

Things started progressing exactly according to the other person’s experience. Two days after my payment was approved, materials gathering started. I was expecting to wait four more days before that completed but the process began to accelerate rapidly from there. Within two days it was shipped, six days ahead of my original 12/18 estimate. Overall the entire thing took 2.5 weeks from placing the order to arriving on my doorstep. It’s quite a bit longer than I usually wait for a computer, but not horrible considering it is custom-built.

Packaging & Included Accessories

The system arrived right on schedule in a big heavy box. Inside it was padded with foam and contained the box for the case as well as an accessory box with the keyboard, mouse, and manual. They had packed the assembled computer inside the case box and reused its styrofoam shipping materials. Once I pulled it out there was a paper attached to the side explaining how to remove the foam inside the machine. They insert a cavern-filling foam bag into the inside of the computer to fill all the space. You have to remove two screws to take off the side of the case and then wiggle and compress the foam to get it out. I though it was very nice to have the space filled and packed, however I was concerned about breaking something while I was trying to take the foam out. Once it was out, everything seemed fine. Overall packaging was great.

Initial Impressions & Setup

Once I took the whole thing out of the box I was excited to plug it in and get it loaded up with games. It’s a big tower but it’s white and blends in well with my Apple equipment. It has one exposed window and a few black panels for fans. Overall it looks more like a big white alien than a gaming PC. I planned to use my iMac’s Target Display Mode to make it function as an external display for the PC but immediately met disappointment when the cable provided no sort of video signal to the Mac. I quickly switched over to using Sally’s monitor just to make sure the thing was working. It got worse from there.

After a lengthier-than-expected boot process (it was waiting for network access to time out) I was greeted with a Windows boot screen that quickly became a famous Blue Screen of Death. Well, it’s Windows 8, so it’s more like a Light Blue Screen of Death with a Smiley Face, but same deal. I’d owned a PC for less than 30 minutes and I was already dealing with my own tech support. Gah. I was in a hurry and wasn’t thinking straight so my first instinct was that something got messed up during shipping and that I should reinstall the OS. I took the restore disc from the accessory kit and started the process. After 15 minutes Windows was nearly installed… and then I hit the BSOD again. I tried reinstalling again. 15 minutes, BSOD. Reboot. BSOD. Coincidentally I received the same error every time – ATTEMPTED EXECUTE OF NOEXECUTE MEMORY.

I looked it up and found out that it had to do with a hardware driver, but I couldn’t figure out which hardware driver would be killing it so quickly after boot. Maybe I had a hardware problem. Great. I theorized that I may have disrupted something when I took out the inner foam that had been packed into the case so I took off the side and pushed everything down to make sure it made solid contact. I was concerned that my memory or graphics card may have been damaged during the process. I rebooted and SUCCESS, I saw the Windows setup screens. I filled out my info and started getting excited. Then, for some reason I cannot remember, I rebooted… and hit my favorite BSOD again.

I took out the graphics card. Nope, wasn’t that (at least). I unplugged the meter display on the front of my machine in case that was it. Nope. I ended up disabling one of my fans in the process and it took me 20 minutes to figure out how to get it all working again. I was about to start taking out my memory sticks one-by-one until I noticed an internal USB cable with a little dongle attached to it. It was the wireless dongle that iBP had thrown in for free as part of their Black Friday sale. I popped it out and voila, it booted. As a test to be truly sure that was it I plugged it into the back of the machine after it had booted successfully. A light blinked for a few seconds and BAM, BSOD.

After reinstalling the OS 3 times, unplugging and replugging in a bunch of components, and getting extremely frustrated for 2 hours, I finally had a machine that worked. I ended up looking for a driver on the iBP website for the wireless dongle and once installed, everything was fine. I still don’t understand how my system passed Quality Assurance and a “Burn In” test with a BSOD at boot. I understand that I wiped out the driver when I reinstalled Windows, but it should have been there in the original install, which didn’t work either.

I’ve installed and played about 400 GB of games on it and its working without issues. I ordered another Mini Display Port to Display Port cable from Amazon Prime as well. It arrived Sunday and I’m happy to report that I can use my iMac as a screen now. It’s awesome!

Gaming

I’ve purchased a ton of titles over the past month from Steam, spread out between their November sale and yearly end-of-the-year sale. Titles range from 2009 – 2014 and require varying levels of graphical power. So far, my card has been able to play them all at 1440p (2560 x 1440) at the highest settings. This includes Assassin’s Creed III, DiRT 3, Red Faction Guerrilla, Star Wars the Force Unleashed II, and Far Cry 3. Everything has been well-detailed and fluid. I don’t measure frame rates, but everything looks smooth to me.

I was concerned that such a large machine would generate lots of heat and sound like a wind tunnel, but that is not the case. The enclosure is large enough that it provides plenty of air flow. It has a fan in the front for the system itself, a fan in the back for the CPU liquid-cooler, and another fan on the graphics card. The case also has a space for a fan in the bottom and two on the top. Even after playing graphically intensive games for hours I barely hear a whisper. It’s quieter than my iMac was during a gaming session.

Windows 8.1

Windows 8 was an attempt by Microsoft to deliver one operating system that offered the best of both worlds: rich support of touch and full desktop compatibility. The result is a jack of all trades, master of none, especially for a desktop computer. Like Vista before it, Windows 8 is so controversial that many companies allow buyers to downgrade to Windows 7 when purchasing a new system, though that will not be available soon. My new PC includes Windows 8.1, so how do I feel about it?

My use case is limited as I only use it to start up games and perform occasional web browsing, but overall I’m not a huge fan. The Metro-style apps screen is annoying, the charms bar is… annoying and difficult to access, and the layout of settings is confusing. Some are located in the metro-style full screen section (lock screen, login options, certain personalization options), while others are located in the traditional desktop control panel (display settings, hardware settings). It’s odd. Also, the Shut Down command is in the charms bar under settings, which feels odd, though having it under “Start” in previous versions of Windows doesn’t make much sense either.

There are some nice things – boot up is fast, the interface is bright, and compatibility seems to be decent.

The Quirks of Windows Hardware

I haven’t owned a Windows machine for nearly 10 years so I haven’t had to deal with hardware compatibility issues. Everything generally just worked under Boot Camp on my Mac; things have not been quite so perfect for this gaming PC. First off, I ran into some issues with the settings on my motherboard. I used the “EZ Overclocking” wizard to over clock the CPU and memory for better performance. As soon as I did it, I couldn’t get my iMac to recognize the PC as a video input device unless I hard-rebooted it 2 or 3 times. Returning the settings to the defaults fixed that.

I also had a really, really, really annoying issue with my keyboard and a USB hub that I had connected. The mouse cable isn’t quite long enough to reach the tower comfortably from my desk so I grabbed a small USB hub that I used to use and plugged the mouse and keyboard into that. I started playing a few new games and noticed that the controls would stop working every 60 seconds or so. If the character was moving in a certain direction they would continue moving in that direction unless I paused the game. I originally thought it was a game issue but noticed that there was a beep noise every time it happened. I had to go through the Sound control panel and listen to every single system sound to find out that it was the “device disconnected” sound. For some reason, when connected to the hub, my keyboard would disconnect and reconnect itself. Plugging it directly in resolved the problem. I’ve never had this issue with a Mac. Welcome back to PCs!

Conclusion

Overall I’m very satisfied with my machine. Other than the wireless dongle issue, iBuyPower was fine. I could have saved myself some effort if I had put my head on straight and done a little bit of research before trying to just smash a reinstall of Windows on three times. I considered calling and complaining but it’s just not worth my time; I’d rather be playing games. The system is fast, games run well on high settings, it works with my iMac, and it fits in with the other stuff in the office. It also has plenty of space – I’ve installed about 40 games and still have about 60% of its capacity left. There is plenty of room for expansion too. If I see 256 GB or larger SSD drive on sale for under $100 at some point I’ll install it to get a boost in storage performance. In a few years I’ll probably pick up another GeForce GTX 970 (when they aren’t $350) and setup SLI. Overall I think this one’s a keeper 🙂

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