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Guide to Building / Buying a Computer for iRacing by Michael Main

How to build/choose the right computer for iRacing
Many times we will find new members joining iRacing for the first time, and finding out that the computer they currently have is insufficient to run iRacing at an acceptable quality or performance level.

This is a guide to follow while shopping for a list of computer parts, or a pre-built gaming machine from a gaming computer system builder (such as myself, insert shameless plug here.)

First step: Computer performance, and what iRacing's (and most other games!) needs are.
  • High speed, multi-core CPU (Quad core or higher, at 2.5 ghz+ should be the goal. Less processor will equal less performance)
  • Sufficient, recent model video card (1GB+ of video memory, NVidia 260 or above such as GTX 4XX/5XX Series, ATI/AMD 5000/6000 Series or above for ideal graphics performance.) Again, less video card will equal less performance.
  • Motherboard – You want a motherboard that is reliable, has the features you think you will use.
  • Memory – 4GB or more. The average today seems to be 6GB of DDR3 240-Pin 1600mhz. There are various sizes one can choose from, and I will explain in greater detail later on below.
  • Hard drive space - SSD vs. Conventional HDD will also be discussed later.
  • Power supply/PSU – The heartbeat of your computer, probably the single most important piece of equipment. You do NOT want to skimp on this!
  • Computer Case – You want good airflow, more air = better cooling = longer life & better performance.
  • Software – Windows 7 64bit
The only two components from the list above that will not affect performance, are the case & the PSU.

The next step is figuring out what components go together. A lot of PC builders/vendors claim that not all hardware goes together, so you have to be careful, etc etc. That is true, but not with every piece of the computer like they would like you to think.

The only pieces of hardware that absolutely must go with one another are:
  • CPU
  • Motherboard (CPU Socket to be exact)
That is it, items like the video card, power supply, case, hard drives etc, will work with any hardware combination. One exception remains, and that is different size cases sometimes fit for different size motherboards.

Motherboards
Motherboards come in various size flavors:
  • E-ATX or Extended ATX
  • ATX
  • Micro-ATX
  • XL-ATX
  • HPTX
  • Mini-ITX
The most common (and the one you, the average user) should look for, is standard ATX Style Motherboard. Micro ATX is also acceptable, if you are looking to use a smaller case for your system. The only difference between the two is going to be lack of additional PCI-E x16 Slots and PCI slots. Performance is not affected. Extended ATX is designed for users who require the peak of expandability. Multiple PCI-E Slots, dual processors, etc.

The most reliable (In MY opinion!!!) motherboard manufacturers are:
  • ASUS
  • GIGABYTE
  • ASRock
CPU
iRacing currently uses 2 cores or threads while you are running the simulator. They do currently have plans to increase this to 3 cores/threads. Doing this will make a dual core CPU insufficient for iRacing, and even a 3-core processor, as the operating system & other background tasks, still need CPU power.

The ideal setup would be a quad core AMD CPU of 3.0GHz or higher, or Intel CPU of 2.5GHz or higher. Overclocking your CPU (Not possible on most pre-built computers) can yield even higher performance.

Its important to know which motherboard and memory type will be required based on your CPU choice.
  • AM2, AM2+, and AM3 AMD CPUs are all pin compatible. So newer CPUs will work in older motherboards (with proper BIOS support), but not the other way around.
  • Intel CPU’s are not backwards compatible with older sockets.
The following CPU sockets are current for AMD based CPUs:
  • AM2 - This is the oldest socket for AMD and is being phased out, it will work with AM2, AM2+, and AM3 CPUs (with a proper BIOS update). Boards only support DDR2 memory. - Quite slow for iRacing
  • AM2+ - This is an intermediate successor to socket AM2. AM2+ motherboards will support AM2+ & AM3 CPUs (with a proper BIOS update). Boards can support DDR2 or DDR3 memory, or both. - A bit slow for iRacing
  • AM3 - This is the last gereation AMD socket and will work with AM3 CPUs. Boards support dual channel DDR3 memory. - Great for iRacing
  • AM3+ - This is the newest AMD socket and supports the newest 8 core CPUs from AMD (Bulldozer), boards support dual channel DDR3 memory. - Overkill for iRacing
The following CPU sockets are current for Intel based CPUs:
  • LGA775 - this is Intel's oldest style socket still on the shelves, there is no new support. Avoid it if possible. Boards can support DDR2 or DDR3 memory, or both. - A bit slow for iRacing
  • LGA1156 – Good performance from the quad core versions, but a dead end product which is already facing EOL. Boards support dual channel DDR3 memory. Great for iRacing
  • LGA1366 – The original Core i7 socket. Supports triple channel memory, and carries high performance, even still today. Being phased out. Boards support triple channel DDR3 memory. - Great for iRacing
  • LGA1155 - The 2nd newest socket, supports Sandybridge CPU’s IE: Core i5/i7 2500K/2600K, etc. Boards support dual channel DDR3 memory. - Perfect for iRacing
  • LGA2011 – The newest Intel socket, geared towards high end workstation type users. Boards support quad channel DDR3 memory. - Exceeds performance for iRacing IE: Slightly Overkill
CPU Overclocking
If you are interested in pushing your CPU a bit, in order to maximize your gaming performance, here are some links to some great overclocking guides around the net: CPU Cores & Hyperthreading
A “thread” is a stream of data that the OS/application send to the CPU for processing. When the OS/application send multiple threads to a multi-core CPU, each core handles one thread at a time, without slowing down, or bottle-necking. More cores allow you to do more tasks, without a noticeable degradation in performance of the system. Intel's Hyperthreading technology allows it's CPUs to double the number of threads that the CPU can address at one time. This can be very helpful in multitasking environments, or heavy workstation type loads. iRacing’s physics are handled in one thread; a second thread handles everything else, from sounds, to assisting the video card with graphics operations/tasks. Having a quad core or higher CPU allows you to run iRacing, as well as the operating system, and other background tasks, such as Ventrilo, or Teamspeak without losing performance. However, Hyperthreading does not offer much benefit to iRacing at this time (unless you have an i5 dual core CPU with Hyperthreading, which may show a minor improvement).

Choosing the right video card
Video cards have quickly become one of the most important aspects of a gaming system, in the past, CPU played the major role. NVidia & ATI are the two major players in today’s performance gaming video card market. Both companies offer SLI/Crossfire abilities (Two cards working in tandem), triple, or more screen gaming, and the latest in 3D effects, rendering technologies (DirectX 11) and they can even be used to decipher data for DNA Research, and the search in the universe for Extraterrestrial life! Amazing right?

You want a video card with at the least 1GB (Gigabyte) of memory. This allows for the use of higher resolution textures, and higher resolutions in general. This is especially true for multi-screen gamers, who run resolutions of say 5760x1080. More memory = good!

Video cards, on both sides of the fence, are broken down by generations. The minimum recommended generation for iRacing, on both sides would be as follows. I will list them from oldest, to newest.

ATI Radeon
  • ATI 4XXX Series (Generally, the higher number is better in a series)
  • ATI 5XXX Series (The 5870 was the card to have, 5850 was the 2nd best, and 5970 was the Dual GPU card, with the highest rated performance)
  • ATI 6XXX Series (These are the latest series, ATI 6770 and above are ideal for iRacing. Budget minded gamers might make do with slightly less, but graphics and performance will be limited.)
ATI Notes:

1. ATI Eyefinity allows for multi-screen gaming on a single card.
2. Some previous generation 5XXX series cards are faster then some 6XXX series cards, make sure you do research prior to buying!

NVidia GTX
  • GTX 2XX Series (Anywhere from the GTX 260 and above, with a quad core CPU, would run iRacing quite well. The GTX 285 was the quickest single core video card in this series, the GTX 295 was the Dual GPU card, with the highest rated performance)
  • GTX 4XX Series (GTX 460 and above would be recommended)
  • GTX 5XX Series (The current series, based on Fermi. GTX 580 in SLI is considered the highest performance you can get, however SLI configurations in iRacing can sometimes cause “Stuttering” and is currently not recommended.)
NVidia Notes:

1. Dual video cards are required for multi-screen gaming, with the exception of the GTX 590, and some aftermarket FLEX cards by ASUS.

Hard drives – SSD or Conventional? How much space do I really need?
Hard drive space requirements are really up to you. What will you be using your system for? Do your needs ever change?

Chances are, they do, and will. So always buy more than what you THINK you may need. Hard drive speed will not really affect your iRacing performance, maybe in track load times, but the difference is questionable.

SSD vs. HDD
An SSD is called a Solid State Disk; they have no moving parts, and store information in what are called NAND Cells. They are also very, VERY fast compared to conventional hard drives that you may already be accustomed to. Programs open up almost instantly, Windows will boot up in less than half the time it takes on a HDD. Games though, such as iRacing, spend most of their time loading textures into the Video Card memory; very little time is spent on the hard disk.

A conventional HDD uses spinning platters, and a moving arm with a read head that hovers slightly above the platter. Information is constantly being moved around, and data access is limited by the speed of the rotation, and the needles ability to move quickly across it to read or write. Fragmentation is also an issue with HDD drives, because with use, they can get slower as the data gets read, moved around, and put somewhere else. De-fragmentation is essentially telling the hard drive to clean up its bedroom or else.

SSD’s are more expensive, because the technology is new. Conventional HDD’s have recently taken a turn for the worst in price, due to flooding in countries like Thailand where they are manufactured. The choice is up to you, price per gigabyte is an important factor. An SSD can greatly speed up a computers overall performance, but won’t make a lick of difference in iRacing.

Memory
This section of this article is going to be short and sweet, as there are way too many options, so I will give my opinion only. 6GB of DDR3 240-Pin 1600 MHz is more than enough for your needs. For a dual channel setup, such as Intel i7 2500k/2600k an 8GB pack with the same specs would be a good choice.

More memory will not increase your performance. Too little however, will decrease it!

4GB should be considered the bare minimum. With memory prices where they are today, no reason to not go with more than what you think you may need. Users, who wish to dive into video editing, might consider even more, like 16GB, or even 24GB.

Power Supply Unit or PSU
Here is where things can get slightly confusing, and or tricky. Opinion matters a ton I suppose, but I personally have built hundreds of computers, and built them with varying manufacturers of PSU’s.

The PSU is the heart of your computer, it has no effect on performance, no effect on speed or anything, but it provides the one thing every component in your system needs, and that is a reliable, steady flow of electricity. Ever heard the term, you get what you pay for? This is very true when it comes to this piece of hardware. In my personal experience, the following makers are the ones to be trusted.
  • Corsair
  • ANTEC
  • Silverstone
  • Thermaltake
Your experience may vary; some readers may disagree with that above list. I have a list right here of warrantied parts of systems my company has replaced over the past 1 ˝ years, and I can count on 2 fingers how many PSU’s of the above manufacturers, combined, we have had to replace. You guessed it, two.

Over 300 computer systems I have sold over 1 ˝ years since I started to take my company full time and we have replaced 2 power supplies. One Thermaltake, and one Corsair. Knock on wood!

Computer Case
This is really up to four different things:
  1. Do you have limited storage where the system will be?
  2. What type of motherboard form factor are you deciding on (Micro ATX, E-ATX, ATX, etc)
  3. Ambient temperature/Climate
  4. Personal style
Ambient temperature plays a role in how cool your system will run while gaming, the cooler, the better. Most data centers spend un-godly amounts of money in efficient cooling of their server rooms. You don’t have to do the same, but you do need to take the cooling efficiency into account when looking for a gaming case. Large fans and multiples of them are usually marks of a case that will flow good air. A single exhaust fan in the back is not really doing much. You need to both intake cool air, and exhaust the hot air. Some cases take different approaches, some by even turning the entire internal setup 90deg to the right to allow efficient rising of the hot air, and exhausting it out of the top of the case. Silverstone does this with their Raven series case, and the design is fairly neat looking!

Personal style plays a role too, if you’re not into flashy lights, or if the system will be in your bedroom, chances are you want a case with no lights, or the ability to turn them off or dim them at night.

Software
The operating system, this goes without saying, Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit should be your choice. It does have a few limits, such as the cap on memory to 16gb. Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate have a cap of memory to 192GB. If you plan on installing more than 16GB of DDR3, then you will need to go with Windows 7 Professional 64bit.

More information on the differences between Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate.

OEM Or Retail Windows?
My personal opinion is OEM all the way. You are essentially paying extra for tech support from India, and a little less hassle when you buy or build a new computer later on. OEM lacks the support from Microsoft, and if you upgrade the motherboard, or processor, you may encounter issues with activating Windows online. The EULA from Microsoft states that OEM can only be installed on one machine; this does not apply to upgrading your machine. Please correct me if I am wrong, that is my understanding.

Building your own, or buying Pre-Built?
There are advantages, and disadvantages to both scenarios. I will list them here:

Advantages to building your own:
  • Less cost
  • Can be a fun Do-It-Yourself Project for you and a friend/family member
  • Can be very rewarding, and educational
The disadvantages to building your own:
  • The warranty is on you, and limited strictly to the warranty of the parts you install
  • Troubleshooting is 100% on you and the information you can find, or get help on the net
  • Not taking your time, and damaging a component can instantly make the entire process more expensive than if you had bought pre-built
Take your time, do your research, watch videos! Building a computer can be VERY easy!

Advantages to buying pre-built:
  • Support, for both hardware & the operating system
  • Limited troubleshooting is required on your end, obviously, the company you buy from plays a role in this
  • Warranty, for the full system, 100% covered by the system builder. Most companies offer 1 year, look for the ones that offer 3 year or more
  • System tweaks, right out of the box. No configuring your system!
Disadvantages to pre-built:
  • Higher cost – They have to make money too you know!
  • Sometimes dealing with tech support can be aggravating, do your research on the company before buying from them. The amount you paid for the system means nothing to some companies!
Extras
USB 3.0 - Do you want it?

In short, YES!

USB 3.0 is the latest and greatest in the Universal Serial Bus development pipeline. With speeds more then double that of the now very common USB 2.0, USB 3.0 can be found on most newer motherboards of today.

My name is Michael Main, I have many years in the IT world, and my main focus is on hardware performance. I am co-owner of Main Performance PC and live in Alexandria, VA. Main Performance PC is an OEM System Builder, specializing in high end, high performance gaming computers.

Article by
Michael Main - Co-Owner/Operator Main Performance PC
1-877-MPPC-798

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