After about 4 months of research, I’ve decided to fork out a small fortune on a new PC. I came to the conclusion that building my own PC was without a doubt the best way to get the exact system that I want, completely tailored to my specific needs, plus I even end up saving a good deal of money out of the build (compared with buying a pre-made PC or especially buying an overpriced Mac).
That last comment might have enraged a lot of the Apple Fanboys out there. Don’t take offence! I love Macs as much as the next guy. They’re stylish, sleek, minimalist, work extremely well, have a decent interface and some great spec. But Apple’s problem is two things. Firstly, they’re over-priced. Come on, even the most loyal Fanboy in the world will agree that you can get the same spec for much cheaper in a Windows machine (if not, sometimes better). The fact of the matter is that Apple are greedy. Second of all, Apple are restrictive. This is more than evident in the new Macbooks just announced. They sound amazing (especially that unbelievable Retina screen!!), with some great spec and (thankfully) NVIDIA GPUs, but you need to tell Apple how much RAM you’ll be having for the rest of your life with this Macbook. Apple will then ensure that you can’t open up the Macbook yourself and add more RAM that possibly wasn’t bought from the local Apple shop. They will ensure this by soldering the RAM onto the board, so there’s no hope of you ever upgrading. This is shocking. If you buy 8gb RAM now, in 3 or 4 years you might need to buy a new system to accommodate some of the higher-end programs.
But enough of that. The above is just some of the reasons why I chose to build my own PC. The main reason is to have the freedom to have exactly what I want inside my PC and have the option to upgrade accordingly down the line.
Here’s a rundown of my chosen spec (beware, there’s a lot of technical info here and it’s very long… you have been warned!):
The Intel i7 Quad-Core 3820 runs at 3.6 Ghz with a 10mb L3 cache. It’s part of the Sandybridge-E range of CPUs. I chose this over any of the new Ivybridge processors because, firstly, it comes to a very close performance-matching with the highest of the new i7s and, secondly, it runs on the Socket LGA2011 chipset. This means that I can utilise one of the LGA2011 motherboards which gives me scope for 8 DIMM slots of RAM (with a max of up to 64gb!) and the option of down-the-line upgrading my CPU to something like the i7-3930K six-core beast of a processor (or the rumoured 8-core Ivybridge equivalent that will be launched later this year). Socket LGA2011 is the only chipset that holds the 6 (and 8) core CPUs and with anything else, the motherboards will limit you to a max of 32gb of RAM. For the record, I bought Windows 7 Professional, as the Home Edition limits RAM to 32gb and there’s no need to go for Ultimate unless you’re going down the networking route.
I went for a mid-range motherboard in the Socket LGA2011 chipset, because they can get quite expensive! The ASUS P9X79 PRO is one of the best mid-range boards out there. It supports 8 DIMMS of RAM, which means that I can upgrade to 64gb down the line, plus it hosts a tonne of other nice features along with EPU intelligent power switching, EFI BIOS and too many little features to mention. When setting up the PC, it’s the little features that matter.
Picking the correct RAM for a CPU and motherboard on the Socket LGA2011 chipset is difficult. It requires a lot of research and investigation. Because so many problems can occur with incorrect RAM, I decided to play it safe and go only with something on ASUS’ accredited list of memory. I was limiting myself to low-profile RAM at first (see below), but found that it was too much of a compromise to get decent RAM with a low-profile, so instead changed my heatsink options. I can only afford 16gb of RAM at the moment, although I’ll upgrade to 32gb soon, possibly up to 64gb a bit later. I originally wanted 2 slots of 8gb RAM. Then I’d get another 2 slots of 8gb and have 32gb and still have the remaining free slots to upgrade to 64gb without ever having to replace any of the RAM. But, I read how the motherboard uses memory most efficiently at quad-channel, so instead I settled on 4x4gb. I’ll have to eventually replace this RAM when I want to get to 64gb, but that’s a good bit down the line and I’d prefer to have the memory running more efficiently at quad-channel than just running at dual-channel.
CPU Heatsink / Cooling Unit:
I had originally chosen an air-cooler as a heatsink for the CPU. I had originally chosen the Noctua NH-D14 Dual Radiator Air Cooler as it was well known for providing the best cooling at a whisper quiet noise-level. However, look at it!! It’s a MONSTER!! It’s absolutely massive and forces you to rethink your RAM and limits you to picking low-profile RAM that will actually fit under the beast. This became too much of a headache. Especially when you find out that both the P9X79 and the 3820 are very “finicky” when it comes to using the correct RAM. So, I decided to play it safe and go only with RAM on the motherboard’s official list. Going for RAM that’s on the list, that’s also low-profile is a difficult task. My second choice was this bad-boy. And looking back, I’m glad I went for it over anything else. Boasting a dual 120mm fan radiator and CPU cooling temperatures that win awards, the real selling point for me was when I heard one of ASUS’ technicians recommending it in particular for use with the temps that a CPU gives out when rendering video. The fans are the only downside to this. Apparently, they’re so loud that it sounds like a plane is taking off every time you use your computer. Hence, the next item in the list…
Case / CPU Fans:
I chose these Noctua NF-P12 120mm Case Fans to replace the notoriously noisy stock fans that come with the H100 CPU cooler. It seems a lot of people have done this and it seems to change the noise-level to a whisper. The case that I’ve picked out (the Antec P280 listed below) has two pre-installed 120mm case fans at the top where the H100 radiator will be mounted. I’m going to take these out, place in the front instead as intake fans and mount the H100 with these Noctua fans at the top above the CPU.
Graphics Card (GPU):
For this component, I went with the best that I could afford. I’d love the GTX 670, but I simply can’t afford it. But, I’m happy-out with this GPU, the Gainward GeForce GTX 570, and not just because of the free Street Fighter game, I promise!! I compared a hell of a lot of these and found this to be the best performing 570 in terms of Core Clock, Memory Clock, Shader Clock and most importantly CUDA Cores. This baby should blast through Premiere Pro and After Effects along with Nuke and Maya. NVIDIA is the VFX monkey’s card of choice, simply because it integrates so well with the editing programs. This card is known for being a bit on the noisy side, but hopefully the silent case I’ve purchased will block most of that out. Alternatively, I can buy another couple of fans to blow directly onto it and help keep it cool and minimise the noise of the card’s fans.
Solid-State Drive #1:
This SSD will be a home for my operating system (Windows 7 Professional) along with (hopefully all of) my programs. I went with the Corsair Force Series 3 120gb SSD, mostly because of it’s phenomenal read and write speeds along with it’s modest price. Also, the reviews this series of hard-drives have been getting are hard to ignore. Seriously good mentions from everyone. With read speeds of 550 mb/s and write speeds of 510 mb/s, I should notice a huge benefit in speed of boot times and overall performance for Windows and hardcore programs like those in the Adobe Creative Cloud.
Solid-State Drive #2:
Another SSD?? I hear you say… Oh yeah, hardcore baby! No denying the value in price for this 60gb version of the Corsair Force Series 3 (same as above). This drive will be used solely for After Effects CS6. AE CS6 uses something known as “Global Caching” which essentially means that your RAM cache of rendered and pre-rendered frames can be cached to a high-speed hard-drive (ideally an SSD) using a process known as “persistent disk caching”. It essentially means that if it’s faster to retrieve a frame from disk rather than from RAM, it’ll save time by doing so. It’s all very complicated to explain, but if you want a full explanation, have a read of this because Adobe can explain it much better than I can. Essentially, it means a highly significant performance gain and a huge benefit to workflow as you see almost real-time previews of effects made in After Effects. But don’t listen to me, let this guy talk you through it instead!
This Seagate Barracuda 2tb hard-drive will serve as my primary “MEDIA” drive. Essentially, it’ll hold everything. It’ll hold all my music, my documents, my photos and videos. For Movies and TV Series I have a separate TViX Slim HD Media Player for my TV with another 2tb hard-drive, so all those 1080p movies don’t eat up my computer’s free space. I won’t be storing projects on this. When working on Video Editing or VFX stuff, After Effects, Premiere Pro and Nuke will be reading only media from this drive. I’m well aware of the benefits for security reasons of two 1tb drives in a RAID over this single drive, but I can’t afford that at the moment. I hope (some day down the line) to upgrade this to 2 x 2tb hard-drives in a RAID for security.
I have 3 other hard-drives I’m resurrecting in this machine also. 2 are being rescued from the ship-wreck that is my previous machine (may she rest in pieces – har har!) and 1 that is being rescued from a defective enclosure.
- I’m going to use the Hitachi 1tb drive for Project files
- The Seagate 250gb will be used for Exports
- The Western Digital 160gb will be used as a “Scratch” drive
Reading and writing to different drives will benefit the performance and speed of the Video Editing / VFX process. The more information is separated over different drives, the faster performance will be. In simple terms, information won’t be getting bottlenecked when trying to read and write from the same drive. It’d be a shame to have a fast system let down by an insufficient number of drives.
I had originally picked out a cheaper “Bronze” edition Akaska PSU (which to be honest would probably do the job fine for me), but after a lot of advice, I decided to not take any chances and go for the Gold edition of Corsair’s 750 watt PSU. This will deliver better regulation and lower ripple than the bronze. It’s a more stable output current. Seeing as this is my first build, I thought I should go for a decent power supply. 750 watt is needed for comfort with a GPU like the 570, you could probably get away with 650w, but I don’t really want to take that chance. This PSU is fully modular, which means that you plug in any leads that you need to it, rather than having all leads hanging off inside the case causing unnecessary clutter and obstructing airflow within the case.
DVD Optical Drive:
This (thankfully) required the least amount of research. I have no real need for a BluRay reader at the moment and can’t see one coming up anytime soon. If it happens, I’ll fork out the €80 or €90 and pop one in beside this as I’ll be good to go. I opted for the LG 24x DVD±RW SATA ReWriter simply for the fact that it’s nice and cheap and it’s an LG which are a decent brand. The DVD drive is very rarely used, but is necessary for installing Windows. Up until the last minute of my purchase, I had included another optical drive – a memory card reader with a port for USB connections. Luckily, at the last minute, I noticed that the whole drive connected to the mobo with an internal USB 3.0 connector. I have two connectors at the front of the case connecting (as one) to the internal header on the mobo already, so there’d be nowhere to connect this. I looked into an internal to external USB 3.0 connector, and one does exist, but is quite rare and expensive and also very short, so there’s no guaranteeing that it’ll reach to one of the USB 3.0 connectors at the back of the case, so I just jacked the whole thing in and decided to get an external reader. I could have gotten a USB 2.0 connector for an internal optical reader, but that’d be sacrificing speed on the one thing that I connect to the computer the most. I need speedy transfers from my SDHC cards more than anything else.
The case was probably the one component I changed my mind about the most. Even towards the last couple of days before purchasing I changed my mind three or four times. But I settled finally (and most consistently) on the Antec P280 Super Midi Tower – Gun Metal Black. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t get this case, but when I’ve asked them why, they all tended to trip over themselves either with made-up facts or vague answers about airflow. One guy even tried to convince me that it was very out of date and old and I should go for a more up-to-date case like the HAF X (which actually came out about 3 years before the P280!!)
Regardless, I realised that the choice of a case comes down to four factors: good airflow, features (hard-drive spaces, expansion slots, front USB 3.0 etc), space requirements and finally, personal preference. The final factor is the one that causes so many hours to be wasted trying to figure out exactly what you need. For me, the P280 ticks all the boxes I need. I need a fair bit of space for the large motherboard I’ve picked along with a fairly large-profile GPU, I need a good deal of hard-drive enclosures (this beaut has two dedicated SSD docks also), I need good airflow which (regardless of what some people may say without any evidence) all technical reviews show that it does a great job at keeping temps low, I wanted a couple of front USB 3.0 connectors and a few USB 2.0 connectors and finally, I wanted a quiet system. The only thing I’m missing from what I wanted is a window to show off my hard work. But when it comes down to a choice between a quiet system and a window, I’ll pick a quiet system any day.
The quiet aspect of this case is brilliant. Everything from rubber pads to stop vibrations from the hard-drive and big noise-dampening material lining the case walls. The case comes with a pre-installed 120mm fan at the rear top exhaust and two 120mm fans pre-installed at the top of the case. Like I mentioned when listing the Corsair H100 CPU Heatsink, I plan to mount the radiator here at the top of the case and move the two case fans to the front as intake fans. I might even buy a couple more fans in a while to mount inside the hard-drive enclosures to add extra airflow to the GPU and PSU. I’ll see how it gets on first of all.
Very excited about my first PC build. I’m a little worried that something might go wrong, but I’m just going to take my time and make sure I double-check every step I take. Stay tuned for a timelapse of the final build!!
All photos © Overclockers UK