The Toaster Diaries #0: The Parts

Reading time ~5 minutes

I’ve recently come into the opinion that every hardware enthusiast should own at least two machines: one good one — and one really crap one.

The reasons for owning a good machine are obvious. Everyone loves top-of-the-line hardware that eats modern triple-A games for breakfast. One that shrugs at large codebases, laughs in the face of video rendering, and boots to the desktop in the blink of an eye.

But how much of that beastly machine are you actually using, day in and day out? How often does it sit there, barely more than idle, as you use your thousand-dollar graphics card to play back a 720p YouTube video?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. The point of having a powerful computer isn’t to use it to its full potential all the time. Computers are flexible things: movie players, web surfers, emulators of games from bygone eras. Owning a powerful computer isn’t about always running at peak capacity. It’s about having the confidence that, if and when you need it, the power is at your disposal.

And that, right there, is where some of the magic is lost.

Once upon a time — or maybe even now — you had a computer where asking it to do just about anything made the fans whine and electronics chatter. And not everything was guaranteed to work, either. Some things needed tweaking, optimization, patching, fixes found only by poring through ancient forums. There’s an entire dimension of computer ownership that disappears once you have a dream machine that can do whatever you ask it to.

So my recommendation to hardware enthusiasts everywhere is this: build one that absolutely, positively, can’t.

Now, there’s a lot of ways to go about building a crap PC. You could buy an outdated “gaming rig” from someone looking for the cash to upgrade. You could build something from scratch with a tight budget. You could even nab an OEM tower designed for workstation use and push it beyond its limits.

My recommendation is to go with something you’re curious about, something you’d have no excuse to work with otherwise. Which, in my case, ended up being two things: a Ryzen APU and a miniature “tower” the size of a thick book.

Face the Raven: Ryzen 2400g

Integrated graphics are nothing new, but they’ve never been a good approximation of dedicated graphics either. Intel’s iGPUs, for example, are just shy of a joke: something that lets you plug in a monitor and watch videos on the Internet without the chip burning up. You certainly can’t game on them, at least not if you want to play anything made in the last decade.

AMD’s Ryzen APUs, like the 2400g, changed all that. Now you can have a halfway decent quad-core Zen CPU with a halfway decent Vega GPU. Neither of them are exactly a performance powerhouse, but hey, you got two for one, and if you’re just starting out, it’s not a bad jumping off point. I was able to pick up a 2400g from eBay for $95. For comparison, a used 1600 and RX 480 — while certainly more powerful — would easily run someone double that.

If I were starting a build on a tight budget but with an eye towards upgrading later, I’d strongly consider an APU. It’s easy to add a dedicated GPU down the line, and you’re not exactly locking yourself out of future CPUs, either, considering the versatility of the AM4 socket. (That’s another thing that can’t be said for Intel and their one-socket-per-generation approach.)

Upgradeability would be far more limited for this build, however, thanks to its real creative constraint: the chassis.

The Black Box: Inwin Chopin

The Chopin is one of the smallest computer cases out there, alongside the xCase and Skyreach. Size-wise, it’s little more than a shell around an ITX motherboard and a 150W PSU.

The included internal PSU is nice since it means that the Chopin doesn’t sport a hefty external power brick, but it also doesn’t leave much room for, well, anything else. Drives are mounted in the back of the case. Cable management is handled by a single gutter at the front. All this means onboard graphics are all I’m going to get, making the Chopin an appropriate pairing with the processor.

The Rest

  • Motherboard: Somehow, I managed to snag an ASRock Fatal1ty AB350 Gaming-ITX motherboard for $80 on eBay. Of all the motherboards I have owned, which isn’t many, this one takes the prize for most obnoxious name. It’s tiresome searching for “Fatal1ty” and Gaming-ITX is a pretty dumb rebranding of Mini-ITX.
  • RAM: I deliberately went for overkill here, but I didn’t realize how much overkill until after I built the thing. I purchased a TridentZ G.Skill 3600 2x8GB kit because I heard Ryzen was very memory sensitive. Also because I haven’t yet built a system with RGB RAM, which is practically a rite of passage.
  • Storage: Somewhat overkill, but not too much. I bought two Samsung 860 EVO drives, one for Linux and the other for Windows. I’d run dual-boot setups before, but I thought this time I’d save myself some headache and run the operating systems on entirely different devices. This wouldn’t prove to be as much of a panacea as I’d hoped, but that’s a story for a later post.
  • Cooling: The 2400g I purchased didn’t come with a Wraith cooler, which was fine as it couldn’t fit the Inwin anyway. I went with the Noctua NH-L9a-AM4 since I’m a recent Noctua convert. Sadly, as of August 2019, there wasn’t a Chromax alternative, but the brown would end up being hardly visible in the build anyway.

All told, the build came out to just shy of $600. More sensible RAM and storage options would have easily brought it under $500:

Category Product Price New or Used
Case InWin Chopin $100 (Amazon) New
Processor AMD Ryzen 2400G $100 (eBay) Used
Motherboard ASRock Fatal1ty AB350 Gaming-ITX $80 (eBay) Used
Storage Samsung 860 EVO (500GB) $75 (Amazon) New
RAM Corsair Vengance 2x8GB 3200 $80 (Amazon) New
Cooler Noctua NH-L9a-AM4 $40 (Amazon) New
Total - $475 -

The SSD I bought new as it’s one of the rare pieces of tech that can degrade with heavy usage — unlike, say, a graphics card or processor. The case, cooler, and RAM I would have happily bought used, but eBay listings ran more expensive than Amazon or Newegg.

Next time on The Toaster Diaries: putting it all together.

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