Over this weekend I was asked by a friend about some recommendations for a LAN box he wanted to build for rAge and the local LANs he attended. What wasn’t critical was speed or extreme amounts of storage – he just wanted something neat and light that could work perfectly for him anywhere with the minimum of fuss. I had a look around and this is what I picked out for him – perhaps, if you were looking for one for yourself, this might help you out with your own choices.
LAN boxes are particularly hard to work around because the task of lugging everything to a LAN is actually pretty arduous. Most people envy the laptop gamers who only take the laptop, a mouse and mousepad to the event and set things up within two minutes. Sometimes the rearranging of a mid-tower chassis, screen, mouse and keyboard and possibly even speakers if allowed is already an effort most don’t want to undertake, especially if you’re someone like me that hates setting everything up when it was already perfectly done at home.
That’s why I particularly like the idea of having a second computer just for things like these. Unfortunately for most, having to buy a second computer isn’t something you’d like to put your wallet or credit card through, so you’d naturally have to build things as cheaply as possible. With both size and pricing in mind, there are the components I picked out.
Chipping in at only R400-odd, Intel’s lowly dual-core Celeron chip has enough power to help run most games pretty well at decent settings and a lowered resolution. Previous Celeron chips were great overclockers on the LGA775 platform and unfortunately for bargain-seekers, these chips won’t scale very much beyond 100Mhz in clock speed before the board limits you. But that’s okay, since we’re getting two cores with 1MB of L3 cache each. Games very rarely demand more than 1MB of cache per core, so this is perfect. The low power requirements will help fit the rig into a lower power envelope overall, driving down costs for components like the power supply. The fact that this is also a Sandy Bridge-based chip also promises great performance at a bargain price.
Picking a board for an entry-level rig that performs exactly how you’d want with the options for lots of upgrades in future is a bit of a tricky subject. Some people are perfectly fine with four SATA ports, others prioritise USB 3.0 ports and then there’s those who, like me, like to figure in technologies that you probably won’t realise you need before you realise it further down the road. With the B75 chipset from Intel, you get front-panel USB 3.0 support if you’ve got the proper chassis or 3.5″ adapter, Intel’s RST technology for the use of solid state drives as a cache and even multi-GPU options in the form of Crossfire support. You probably won’t be doing anything like that with a rig like this, but I’m a planner at heart and I like to be prepared.
Picking RAM was easy as there’s quite a few decent single 4GB modules floating around. Since I’m trimming off any niceties and fat where I can with a limited budget, I went for stock RAM at the lower DDR3-1333 frequencies. If it becomes necessary, the board allows for upgrades all the way to 32GB of RAM, so you’re pretty much set for a while.
The Graphics Card
At the low-end its a heated competition for the money of the gamer’s wallet, with the low-end market traditionally being served best by AMD Radeon cards. That’s still the case today, with the competing Geforce GTX550Ti losing out to AMD’s HD7750, especially the Ghz edition card. While it is outperformed by the outgoing HD6770, the higher clockspeed and more efficient architecture on the Ghz edition allows it to draw up nicely alongside its older sibling while using significantly less power to do so. Overclocked, it’d probably overtake even its bigger brother, the HD7770. While its not the fastest card out there, running your games at 720p with medium or even high settings and 2x AA would be a pretty good workload for it, especially since competitive gamers turn down their quality settings for more performance anyway.
The Hard Drive
While hard drive prices are still sky-high, Western Digital’s 750GB Intellipower drive gets things on the same price range they were a year ago, offering less than R10 per GB for the two-year warrantied drive. Its not offering up blazing performance, but its definitely going to get the job done. I would put in a SSD here as well, but I feel that’s a little excessive for a box that will only be playing games and exclusively LAN games at that.
The Optical Drive
Remember those days when a DVD drive, especially those old IDE ones, cost like R800? It was a crazy insane time to be buying one and look now, just over eight years after their initial ontroduction, going for what counts as pocket change for most people. You don’t have to be extravagant here, any cheap modern drive will do. I prefer LG drives over the cheaper Sony models, since there are reports that pop up here and there every few months of DRM issues with new models, necessitating a firmware update. LG drives don’t give a damn what you do to them and that’s why they’re my preferred brand.
I know that for LANs things would be far easier if a ITX chassis was used. The only issue with that is the decent portable ones cost over R1000 and are almost all exclusively made by Lian Li. Looking around, I compromised with Cooler Master’s Elite 360. Now I know that you might wonder where the savings are, really. I mean, its still a ATX chassis, right? Good point, but its one that prefers to be laid flat on your desk, meaning that you can put your monitor on top of it to save space. Consider that normally people going to events like rAge have to conform to size limits of their screens to less than 26″, having your monitor on top of the chassis saves a lot of space and logistical headaches.
Yes, I know that some of you are going to point out that you can just turn your existing chassis sideways anyhow. Good luck with that, since you’ll have to turn your DVD drive upside-down for it to work. And then you’re going to hate it when you return the chassis to the normal position. I’d also like to point out that having your monitor sitting on top of the chassis puts it at eye level, keeping eyestrain to a minimum.
The Power Supply
Sadly, one of the things abut using small chassis like these is that space is limited, very limited. Having a modular power supply helps things a lot and keeps clutter inside to a minimum. Also, since this is the Silent Pro we’re dealing with here, its completely silent when drawing wattages less than 200w. And that means no more noisy damn fans.
Honestly, I’m deaf. I’m deaf enough to have two conversations with the same person at the same time – what I think’s being said and what’s actually being said. And at a LAN, that drone of thousands of high-speed fans drives me INSANE. You’d have to be exhausted to fall asleep at one of these events, which is why I own a pair of earplugs (which I have lost, somewhere).
We’ve ended up with a total of R4570, which isn’t bad for a box that is aimed at gaming at 720p resolutions and fitting into the smallest possible space without suffering too many drawbacks. I’d only enhance the experience by sticking to playing on a 22″ screen and using a wireless mouse and keyboard. Keep everything short and sweet and maybe even find a good pair of wireless headphones. What you’re aiming for is to emulate the same experience laptop users get without the drawbacks when it comes to upgrades.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to start a trend that sees people attending LANs with boxes that take up less space. And use less fans. Honestly, if I’m sitting next to a guy at a LAN and he has something like seven high-speed fans that light up my peripheral vision like a christmas tree in a town square, I will disconnect them all and strange him with the cords.
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