Jan 12, 2011

New PC specs: wedding performance with practicality

Computers can fill many roles in our lives, and their flexibility and adaptability is part of what makes them so ubiquitous. The basic design hasn’t changed much since von Neumann and the market has simply grown and grown meeting every conceivable need. You’ve got ultra-portable netbooks, home and office laptops, family desktops, power gaming rigs, and various flavors of file and web servers.

In my case, we had just about all the good stuff already. A decent laptop to use on the couch, a slightly aged performance desktop for gaming use, and a Windows Home Server for backups and media storage. I set out to build a gaming and developer machine that would last for many years to come, plus so I and the missus would both have a full desktop to use. As such, I did not attempt to skimp on quality, but I was practical and wise where necessary.

My three main goals were:

  • Performance
  • Future-proofing
  • Quiet and efficient

It must have planned avenues of expansion, allowing for future upgrades to give it a kick down the road to keep it apace with the ever changing field of technology. It must last and be a good investment to justify the extra expense. It must be powerful, able to handle any game I throw at it and future ones, compile code swiftly, and generally not get in the way of me doing what I want to do. Minimize the time spent staring at a spinning blue ring . And lastly, it must be as silent and “green” as possible, but without sacrificing too much on the previous two goals. I see no problem with making it “greener” so long as I don’t compromise quality or performance impractically.

Let’s look at a brief overview of parts and then I’ll get into the details and rationale on each. All parts were purchased from Newegg, simply the best place for PC hardware bar none (and no they don’t pay me to say that, but if you’re reading this Newegg drop me a line about possible PR kickbacks).

Part Name  
Case Antec P183
PSU Antec EarthWatts EA750
CPU AMD Phenom II X4 970 BE
RAM Corsair XMS3 2x2GB DDR3 1600
HDD Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
GPU MSI Twin Frozr II Radeon HD 6870
SND Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Titanium
KB Logitech G110
Mouse Razer Lachesis
Monitor Samsung SyncMaster BX2450

I was quite deliberate with everything, down to even the appearance, color scheme, and how each part fit visibly with the whole package. In the end, I went with a mostly black, gunmetal gray, and chrome/silver with blue accents.

For the case I spent a lot of time on Silent PC Review on recommendation from an old blog post by Jeff Atwood. In his post, now over three years old, he went with the then-current P182. Antec has since released another update, the P183, so I went with that after reading a thorough review on SPCR. They do a wonderful job of dissecting it, complete with pictures. It mixes an emphasis on silent design along with intelligent layout, airflow, and expandability. It isn’t a cheap case, easily two or three times the price of a regular one, and it doesn’t come with a power supply, but the price tag is reflected in the design and the workmanship. This thing is the nicest case I’ve ever worked with. There are virtually no sharp edges, solid construction, high quality finish on everything, even the texture of the plastic is delicious (gave me a feeling like Salad Fingers and rusty spoons). It’s a subdued dark appearance that I really like, classy yet professional like a really nice tailored black suit.

I paired it with a nice quality yet efficient power supply, also by Antec. The P183 supports Antec’s proprietary CPX line of power supplies, but they seemed too expensive to warrant getting, and the EarthWatts was both efficient and good quality (and on sale with rebate). I didn’t originally intend to get 750W, as that is overkill for my rig, but it ended up, with discounts, being the same price as a 500W so what the hell, eh?

The motherboard was an easy choice. I knew I would be going with AMD, so I narrowed it to the latest 800 series chipset. This gave me all the latest technologies (USB3, SATA3, AM3) but without any fluff (no integrated graphics or dual GPU support). ASUS and ASRock (a subsidiary actually) both had good offerings, as did others like GIGABYTE and MSI, but I eventually just went with the ASRock since it had good solid reviews.

I agonized quite a bit over which CPU to get, whether quad-core or hex-core. I held out long enough, though, that AMD refreshed the line with the 970 quad-core and 1100T hex-core. This drove prices down and, coupled with some good deals on Newegg, I ended up going with the latest 970. The 965 was significantly cheaper by about $15 and only 100Mhz less, but I went with the newer one anyway. I intended to underclock and felt that I should get the best quality binned processor if I were to do that. As for going with quad-core, I eventually determined through dozens of hardware reviews and benchmarks that the hex-cores are better for Photoshop and video and other multimedia/threaded tasks but less so in games due to having lower clock speeds. That and they are quite a bit more expensive. Still, I can always upgrade in the future to a fancy new hex-core if I want.

I forewent the stock cooler and opted for a well reviewed and benchmarked (thanks again to SPCR) one by XIGMATEK. It’s not as large as some of the other tower heatsink monstrosities, but has an excellent noise to performance ratio even with the stock fan and at under $30 it is very affordable. A lot of people complain that on AMD boards the fan ends up blowing upwards instead of out the back of the case, but the P183 case has a top vent (with optional fan) for it to blow out and so it worked out nicely.

On the RAM front I was very flexible and mostly just wanted a good deal and quality sticks. RAM has dropped precipitously in price lately and an excellent DDR3 1600 2x2GB pair can be had for as little as $45 without skimping on quality at all. I could have easily gone with four sticks to total 8GB but I didn’t. The extra memory probably won’t be necessary for now and this means I can always upgrade down the road. I did get a bit picky, though, which made selection difficult despite the vast array of quality brands and excellent prices: I wanted it to match the color scheme! Turns out there aren’t that many in black and blue but the Corsair XMS3 ones turned out to be an excellent choice. They’re good quality, reputable brand, and they match fairly well. My only gripe is that the PCBs on them are green and not black like the MB (do you hear me? Yeesh!).

I didn’t go for an SSD this time around and instead got a good quality Western Digital. It’s a black flavor Caviar, so it is their performance line. At 7200 RPM, 32MB cache, and 640GB of storage it is more than I’ll ever need and didn’t break the bank at all. SSDs are coming down in price fast and I figure if I wait it means two things: I can get an even better SSD than is available today for less money. Remember, I was deliberate in planning for future upgradability.

The GPU was the hardest decision of all. Do I go NVIDIA or ATI (now AMD)? I’ve used both before in the past and have no problems with either. I’m not a fanatic and I don’t fall into the religious wars that some PC enthusiasts do. In the end, I opted for AMD this time for two main reasons: they’re more power efficient (and thus cooler and quieter, one of my goals) and they’ll play nicely with my AMD CPU and MB. I like nVidia, and with them I would have gotten 3D and Physx support, but I don’t anticipate really utilizing those much if ever. Plus, their current Fermi line is such a beast. It is a power-hungry beast and I opted for something more efficient from AMD’s new 6000 series. I went with a nice solid middle of the road with the 6870. It is more than powerful enough to play current and future games at very high quality without being enormously long or power-hungry or expensive. Additionally, I paid extra to get the brand-new MSI Twin Frozr II variant, which eschews the AMD reference layout and introduces an excellent custom cooling design with factory overclocked settings. The extra money in the end was worth it as this thing runs very quiet while producing plenty of giggly-flops. Plus, its black PCB and chrome accents matches the rest of the rig very nicely.

I’ve always liked Creative’s SoundBlaster line. In the past I’ve used their Live! and X-Fi XtremeGamer models so this time I opted for their latest, the X-Fi Titanium. It was a good deal without any of the fluff that I don’t care about (like the front-panel and such). My only wish is that it came with (or you could purchase separately) the EMI shielding as seen on its much more expensive Fatal1ty Pro cousin. The Titanium line doesn’t change up too much but it wasn’t much more than buying the older X-Fi line anyway. I would have loved to have the ultra-sexy Titanium HD, but I couldn’t justify its extreme price especially considering I don’t yet have a new sound system to pair it with. I loves me some THX-certified sound, though. Some might argue the need for a discrete sound card, but I’ve always liked the hardware accelerated, EAX support, and cleaner signal it gives over integrated sound. (Also, didja notice how this card has black PCB, too? Ooo, color schemes FTW!)

For human input I opted for a Logitech G110 keyboard and a Razer Lachesis. I’m not much for flashy complicated “gamer” devices, so I steered clear of ones with fancy LCDs, huge arrays of buttons, and ridiculous customizability (and price). Both of these I got on relatively good deals; ordinarily I wouldn’t justify the extra expense. By going with quality gamer-intended parts, though, I was treated to very nice quality hardware. It’s just icing on that cake (which, incidentally, is a lie) that they both are mostly black with blue light accents. The keyboard is well constructed and doesn’t have too much flash. It’s missing the LCD and other advanced features of its G19, G15, and G11 cousins, but that’s A-OK with me. I like the backlighting and the feel of the keys, plus its media keys and built-in USB and audio ports. The audio is also separately driven by the driver, such that when you plug in headphones to it Windows recognizes it as separate audio hardware with independent volume settings. The keyboard also has a dedicated mute for any headphones/microphone plugged in separate from the system ones. Very nice (and the ports are even lit). The Razer mouse is just on the edge of too much for me, but it’s very well made, feels very nice, and has plenty of customizability without having crazy weights or adjustable joints.

Last but not least, I got a fantastic deal on a very highly rated Samsung monitor. It’s not the best consumer picture available but its damn close and much cheaper to boot. Plus, again, it’s all black with chrome accents and blue lights. It’s an LED, too, which is a first for me, and it is ridiculously thin and light and power efficient while still being bright, clear, and with excellent color. I’ve always hated the LCD-effect over CRTs, and moving to flat screen was hard for me because of it (I resisted for a long time before retiring my trusty Hitachi CM721F, and it is also why I opted for plasma over LCD in the TV realm). It’s got plenty of connections (HDMI was all I wanted though) and is plenty big (I linked to the 23in model review but mine is the 24in) at standard 1080p native resolution. The touch controls are kinda cool but the novelty is detracted by the fact that there is just no comparison to the accuracy and tactile feedback of a regular damn button. Still, a relatively minor complaint all things considered.

All around a solid build, with excellent performance, efficiency, hopefully low-noise, and not too terribly expensive. The consistent color theme is nice, too, even though I realize the majority of the time the case will be on and no one will be able to tell. It’ll be just one of those little joys on the rare times I have to crack it open, be it for an upgrade or to blow out dust, and I’ll see it’s wonderful theme continued inside. Going the extra mile even when no one is looking, maybe.

You’ll notice a few things missing, though, some I may have already mentioned. Some of these I’m waiting for price drops or just to leave open for expandability, and some I just didn’t want to add on the price tag for now.

  • Speakers
  • Two empty RAM slots
  • Optical drive
  • Solid-state drive

I’m waiting to find a really good deal on a set of speakers to do my X-Fi Titanium justice, but they can be very pricey. I’m leaving the SSD and RAM as future upgrades. I didn’t mention it, but I also grabbed a simple b/g/n Wi-Fi PCI card, too (though I did specify one with two antennas). As for optical, well… I could have easily grabbed a nice simple DVD one for less than a Jackson, but I want to wait and get a nice Blu-ray one later, possibly even a burner. As you’ll see when I post about building this machine, we can easily avoid the need for an optical drive by installing the OS from a USB flash drive and installing anything else from ISOs if need be (Office and Visual Studio for instance).

That’s all for now. Next I’ll follow along as I put it all together for great geeky fun.

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