Jul 252014

The tech and mainstream press all seem to agree on the trend towards smaller, mobile devices.  Six years ago, laptop sales surpassed desktops. Then, smartphones and apps were the new hotness; then came the iPad, which quickly silenced early doubters as to whether there was room for another form factor between phones and laptops.

Even in my own case, I’d replaced my main desktop PC every three years, pretty much like clockwork.  The Pentium 3 based system I’d bought around ~2001 was replaced in 2004 with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4, which served me well until I upgraded to a Core 2 Duo E6400 based system in January 2007, which in turn was my main system until it was replaced with a Core i7-860 in January 2010. I’d stopped building computers from scratch starting with that Pentium 3, because it just wasn’t worth it anymore; the parts cost more than a pre-built, warrantied system from Dell – so all four of the machines I listed above were purchased from Dell, and then customized slightly (often with a better GPU).

As of January, though, my trusty desktop was still serving me relatively well – four years after I’d purchased it. In part, that’s because the mobile focus meant that Intel and others have focused much more on power efficiency than on speed, which hasn’t helped desktops much. A second big factor for me was that the only real gaming I do on PC is Starcraft, which having been originally released in 2010, does not really push a system that hard – even at the native resolution of my 30″ monitor (2560 x 1600). But perhaps most importantly, the majority of computing tasks – interacting with web apps, editing documents, reading E-mail, etc – aren’t too taxing, and are increasingly being designed to run smoothly on low end mobile devices.

Naturally, in denial of the mobile trend – or perhaps as part of a technological mid-life crisis – I decided not just to replace my desktop, but to actually pick each component and assemble the system myself. While assembly is still relatively straightforward, the simplicity of picking between a 3-5 options for each component at Dell was now more like picking a dessert at the Cheesecake factory – there are so many options that as you read the menu you swear you’re seeing the same item multiple times, there just to confuse you. Why did I go this route? In part, because a few pieces of my old system (especially the recently replaced GPU) were entirely adequate; but also because I wanted fewer compromises – plus the kids were away in Asia, so I actually had a little more time.

So what did I pick, and why?

Case: Nanoxia Deep Silence 1.  I clearly came out of a very different age in picking this “mid-tower”.  In my teens, selling 386-era PCs with my friend Herman, “mid tower” actually meant “smaller than the traditional size”, usually giving up a little internal room along the way. Now, like beverage sizes at McDonalds, “medium” really means pretty large, and “full tower” means gargantuan.  I should have looked at actual dimensions ahead of time – as this case is much bigger than what I had, and is more than I actually need.

At $120, this case isn’t cheap – in fact, it’s the most expensive computer case I’ve purchased. But as the reviews promised, it’s very nicely designed, it’s very quiet with internal dampening to keep the noise down, has a built-in fan controller (so you can adjust fan speed, and thus noise, down the levels that you need), and it’s nicely built. It’s also one of few options where you want a quality case with a simple aesthetic – it seems like most cases go for over-the-top visual designs with crazy lights, a faceplace that looks like a robot/demon/dragon/etc, and so forth. Some of it’s noise performance is still defeated by my slightly noisy GPU (which, of course, has fan ports that direct exit the case), but all in all I do like it.

Power Supply: eVGA 500B.  $60 was enough to get a 500W power supply with decent reviews and reasonable efficiency. Unless you’re getting a monster GPU, which I wasn’t, 500W is more than enough, and there’s several reasonably rated brands to go with.

CPU: Intel i7-4770K.  In past purchases, $300 has been a price point that’s the final point before the price/performance curve gets out of control (the next stop up is often $500-600, and above that you can pay $1,000 for a CPU that’s only marginally better). I definitely don’t need the extra cores or ability to use multiple processors that more expensive CPUs provide, and the i7-4770K provides basically the best single core performance available (at the time I was building) which still helps for gaming. Intel has CPUs that offer 90% of the performance at 2/3rds the price, but given that I expect this desktop to last 3-4 years, the extra $100 was tolerable.

RAM: 32GB (4 x 8GB) G. Skill Ripjaws Z PC3 1866 CL9.   Picking RAM is truly crazy. There are a dizzying array of SKUs, with infinitesimal differences between options. I spent way too much time trying to understand the relationship between clock speed (1866Mhz in this case), CAS levels (9 in this case), timings beyond the primary CAS level, to understand what it was worth paying for. This is an area where you can really pay more for nothing – getting higher specs that yield zero performance benefit. For my particular configuration (single processor i7), it seemed like PC3 1866 was the fastest RAM you’d get any real benefit out of; above that, RAM got expensive quickly, with marginal if any benefit.  32GB was still quite a splurge, though; at $340, the RAM was slightly more expensive than the processor – and I’m sure 16GB would have completely sufficed. But now I can survive days when the nightly untested build of Chrome (canary) has memory leaks, and I can laugh when Lightroom eats 5GB and just load Starcraft without quitting it anyways.

Motherboard: MSI Z87M Gaming.  There’s a similarly huge number of motherboards for a given type of CPU, but at least this one was easier to whittle down; at $140 the Z87M had what I needed without the extraneous features I didn’t. As a mid-end motherboard, it has the flexibility of adding a second GPU but doesn’t come with the cost of top-end boards that accommodate 3 or 4 GPUs. It’s got a decent onboard Gigabit Ethernet controller, which could be handy, but without the cost of integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi (which I don’t need, and if I did, would prefer an external adapter anyways). The audio support reviewed decently, though I have an external DAC anyways. Unlike RAM, reviews were more opinionated and this board did reasonably well in reviews.

GPU: Gigabyte GTX 660.  I’d previously purchased this GPU, and just moved it over. Picking a GPU is pretty easy; pick your game, what resolution/settings you want to play it at, and there’s usually a clear winner or at most two contenders as the best choice at that point in the price/performance curve. The GTX 660 handles Starcraft 2 at 2560 x 1600 at reasonably high settings, and that’s good enough for me. At least till 4K :).

HDD: Samsung 840 EVO 500GB SSD.  Going to an SSD, which I did with my last system, is perhaps the most impactful upgrade you’ll ever feel. At $310, it was certainly a splurge to go for 500GB, and 250GB would probably have been plenty sufficient. However, I’ve spent countless hours trying to stay alive in my prior system, which had a 120GB SSD (which actually cost more than this 500GB drive when I first purchased it!) that was perpetually almost full. This meant compromises, like having to put photos I was processing on a slower traditional HDD. To make sure I don’t have to do the next 4 years, I went with the 500GB option. Samsung’s 840 EVO series had top reviews at the time of purchase, and didn’t cost measurable more than alternatives, so this was another category with a clear winner.  I moved a 1GB HDD from my old system over for mass storage; it will be full soon, but quite inexpensive to increase.

Optical: LG BD-ROM / DVD-RW.  It’s hard to describe how dumb I felt, when putting together my Windows Home Server box a few years ago, when it came time to install the OS… and I realized I hadn’t bought an optical drive.  $50 buys a decent Blu-ray reader / DVD writer combo drive, so this was a straightforward choice.

Operating System: Windows 8.1 Professional.  I considered sticking with Windows 7, after several experiences with bad Windows 8 machines, but Windows 8.1 is tolerable overall. I just pretend it’s Windows 7, and hit Win+D anytime I accidentally launch a non-desktop app. Even the start menu is tolerable – just close your eyes, type the name of the program you want, and that’s usually the extent of your interaction with the new Windows UI. Which is really important, because Windows 8.1 was designed to seamlessly bridge your 8-10″ tablet with your 14″ laptop – and so the design, for me, utterly fails on a 30″ monitor. No, I did not get this big monitor to run tablet apps full screen with fat touchable fonts! My friend George, who works at Microsoft, was kind enough to give me the Pro version of Win 8.1, which was very nice!

The pieces I wasn’t stealing out of my existing computer:

Given the adequacy of my old PC, why would I spent ~$1,200 building this new and somewhat indulgent machine? In a word, Lightroom. While other apps weren’t blazing fast, I was spending a lot of time in Lightroom, and a significant chunk of that time was waiting for it to respond. In part, it’s because Lightroom “upgrades” have, over the years, given it more capability – but at the cost of speed; Lightroom 2 was fast! But more significantly, moving to the 36MP Nikon D800, with it’s 40-50MB RAW files, really had a speed impact. With it approaching 10 seconds to load an image, and ~10,000 images shot per year (that I need to load once even if I’m going to delete), I was literally waiting a full day a year for Lightroom to respond.  Granted, no computer makes it go infinitely fast, but I figured even if I saved ~3-5 seconds an image, it’d be worth it.

Did this pay off? Somewhat. Lightroom is certainly faster with all my RAW files on SSD, and with the faster processor, and the increased speed reduces frustration for sure. But I’m still looking forward to Google+ Photos Auto Enhance getting to the point where manually selecting and tweaking things becomes entirely unnecessary! Until then, I suspect this desktop will more than meet my needs.


 Posted by at 7:41 am

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