ATHENA II - building my new custom PC.

Skye McDavid, April 3, 2024

Intel Core i7-14700 CPU installed inthe socket of an Aorus Z790 Motherboard. Photo by Skye McDavid

A bit of a deviation of my usual posts about paleontology and adjacent subjects, but computer hardware is another one of my interests, and has been since the day I got my first computer, an iMac G4. 

Many of my friends and social media followers have heard my seemingly incessant complaints about my aging computer. My partner has probably heard me rant about it more than anyone. I built it in December 2016 with a platform that was already last-generation at the time, since I was cannibalizing most of the parts from a different small form factor system that I had built the previous year. It was relatively powerful at the time, with an Intel Core i7-6700. This was the most powerful non-overclockable mainstream chip Intel was offering for the Skylake (6th) generation. Originally, this was paired with an nvidia GeForce GTX 960, a capable mid-range GPU of the time, a Gigabyte H170 motherboard and a one terabyte SATA SSD. (High capacity NVMe drives were prohibitively expensive at the time.) I soon upgraded the GPU to the GTX 1060, on an aesthetically pleasing and well-cooled card from EVGA. (F in the chat for EVGA's graphics card division.) I gave my old 960 to my friend Montana Rosslyn, who is still using it as of writing this. 

I named my Skylake system ATHENA, and ATHENA served me well for many years. But after some time, things started getting more difficult. The GTX 1060 struggled to drive my dual 4K monitors, and the aging SSD was getting slower and slower. Bizarrely enough, its performance for what I would expect to be demanding workloads was not the biggest issue, it was the everyday usability. Google Chrome's infamous RAM usage was a problem, because it is fairly typical for me to have dozens of tabs open at once. When illustrating a fossil, I will often have the 3D scan of the fossil open in Blender, as well as both Clip Studio Paint and GIMP simultaneously open for music. I use Discord to talk to my partner and friends, Telegram and WhatsApp to talk to my family, plus am usually listening to music whenever I'm at my desk.  I managed to make ATHENA last longer than I had expected, but it was time for a new computer. 

I wanted to build a system that would handle my daily use for general productivity, illustration, 3D work, and occasional gaming. I also wanted something upgradeable that would last me as long as ATHENA did. (Or at least almost as long.) One of the main limitations I had had with ATHENA was upgradeability: since the motherboard was cannibalized from a small form factor build, it was an ITX board with minimal expansion capabilities and not many USB ports. I decided on an ATX form factor for this reason. For the CPU, I went with the Intel i7-14700, which occupies a similar place in Intel's Raptor Lake (14th generation) product line that ATHENA's old i7-6700 did in the Skylake era. I chose an nvidia RTX 3060 for the graphics, which likewise represents a somewhat similar place in the market that the 960 and 1060 did years ago. That being said, the Graphics Card market has been a mess for the last few years for various reasons, so it was somewhat difficult to get, and I had to opt for a slightly lower-end model than what I had originally planned. I'll admit to being somewhat of an Intel/nvidia fangirl, though in the time since I built ATHENA, AMD has risen from laughingstock of the PC hardware industry to a neck-and-neck competitor to Intel and nvidia, and Intel has entered the graphics card market. One of the less rational reasons I like Intel is just that I like the color blue (insert blue hair joke here), but the main reason I chose Intel and nvidia for this build was that chips from both brands have served me well for a long time. Likewise, my affinity for Gigabyte components returns: most of the computers I've built have used Gigabyte motherboards, and they have been very reliable (except when I tried to build a hackintosh, but that doesn't count because macOS isn't intended to run on non-Apple hardware). I used a Gigabyte motherboard, the Aorus Z790 Pro X, and a Gigabyte Aero series graphics card. The biggest upgrade, however, is the SSD. Samsung SSDs have served me well on other computers, so I went with the 2TB 990 Pro, which is a major upgrade over my old SATA SSD. Oddly enough, since this is the only storage device in the computer, this is the first time I've built a computer without any SATA devices. 

Being the scatterbrained person that I am, I forgot to order a CPU cooler. I had planned to get a bequiet air cooler, but just forgot, so Intel stock cooler it is in the meantime. (The new cooler has been ordered, but it's just a holdover.) I also had to do a bit of troubleshooting after the build. It's been several years since I built a computer, so I was rusty and forgot to connect the power button headers, and for some reason the keyboard I had initially used as a test keyboard prevented it from booting. (I suspect because its LEDs use more than the 100mA allowed for a USB 2.0 bus when an OS is not installed.) After this, it was time to install the operating system and start transferring files. It'll be a while before I move everything over because I have to sort through 7 years of miscellaneous files, but my new computer, ATHENA II, is now connected to my workstation. My daily-driver keyboard, for those wondering, is a Nixeus Moda Pro with Gateron Brown mechanical switches. (Originally, Gateron was considered a clone of the long-existing German-made Cherry switches, though many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts now regard Gateron as superior. I can't really compare as I do not own a keyboard with Cherry switches.) I have also customized my keyboard with pink gradient keycaps, becuase I'm me. My daily driver mouse is a logitech wireless vertical mouse that my sister gave me last year, also pink, of course.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that update. I'm planning to build a file server out of an old desktop I have, but that'll be for another post. Now, I don't want to beg for money, but computer hardware is expensive, and I do have a ko-fi button at the top of this article. Do with that information what you want.