building for the future

If you’re following my PC build saga, you’ll know that I was torn between trying to exploit old hardware for cheaper or splurge on new components. I think I’ve decided the latter route and focused on what my major uses are going to be: scientific computing (so, need lots of ram), and WoW Cataclysm (so, need decent graphics performance but not top of line). However, beyond those broad outlines, the specifics of what CPU, graphics card and motherboard to choose were pretty daunting. Luckily, I found the perfect guide to help me make some decisions: an article in Tom’s Hardware about performance in Cata.

Reading this superb and in-depth article, I am concluding:

– AMD chips seems to be bottlenecked in Cataclysm, whereas Intel chips hit their stride. Intel chips need only 2 cores to really shine whereas the AMD chips don’t utilize fewer cores efficiently. So, Intel is the way to go, and given my need for scientific computing I’ll go middle of the road with Core i5 rather than entry-level i3 or maxed-out i7.

– Hyperthreading doesn’t help performance, and chip frequency isn’t as important as cores and cache. So, I’m leaning towards an i5-655k dual/HT or an i5-750 quad. Both are the same price ($200) – but will probably the latter, since more cores will also help my scientific work. The Core i5-750 gets a lot of love from Anandtech.

– It looks like Nvidia’s series 4xx is the way to go for video card, as they support DX11. Of course ATI is always an option but the GeForce GT 460 seems to be a great value card with no equivalent value on the Radeon side. There are lots of manufacturers making these, I’m leaning towards Asus’s version even though it’s $20 more expensive than MSI’s.

– I am an Asus partisan when it comes to motherboards, though that’s really just a pragmatic choice to narrow down the choice. The real issue seems to be, do I need to run a dual-GPU setup (SLI, in this case, given that I’m leaning towards the nvidia rather than ATI video cards) ? According to Anandtech, If I were leaning towards SLI then an X58 board like the Rampage or Sabretooth would be better – most likely the Sabretooth since it’s got less gamer/lanparty bling I don’t need. However, multi-GPU doesn’t seem to be important in cata, according to the Tom’s article, and I’m not sure why I’d need multi-GPU in my scientific computing either. So I think I’m going to go with a P55-based board, which are designed to be compatible with Lynnfield chips like the i5-750 quad I mentioned above. I’m leaning towards the ASUS P7P55D-E, which comes in an LX and a Pro version. The Pro is about $50 USD more expensive but permits SLI also, but I’d rather save the money since otherwise the boards look pretty much identical.

Though I haven’t picked out memory yet, I know I want 8GB for about $100. Should be easy enough to find, but need to figure out what speed (this looks helpful…). The result looks a lot like the Editor’s Choice system at Tech Report. The key is balance – not to get any one component out of whack with the others. A fantastic video card but low end processor will handicap the GPU (and vice versa). The Core i5 coupled with the GT 460 seems like a good pairing here (though I request more saavy readers to critique me on this).

Amusingly, Tom’s sneers at the “Low” quality setting, saying it’s ugly but acknowledging that’s what you are stuck with if you’re playing on a netbook. But frankly I am really impressed that WoW is playable on a netbook at all. Regular commentor Anachronda has told me he played WoW on a Asus EEE 701; right now my only WoW-capable machine is a Dell Mini 10. You know, it may be ugly, but if you need an Azeroth fix, it suffices. That said, the rig above will be about $600 ($200 each for CP and video, $129 for mobo, and $100 for 8GB ram) and I’ll be playing at Ultra in addition to actually getting work done.

So, it’s in my cart at Newegg. I’ll look it all over again and choose some memory to go along with it. Also, I need to verify that my existing power supply will handle this stuff (not too worried about this). I think this is the way to go…

13 thoughts on “building for the future”

  1. Before ruling out SLI, I would look at CUDA and see if you can leverage some GPUs for your heavy duty scientific number crunching.

    1. hmmmmmm

      well now. CUDA is definitely workable with matlab, though i am not seeing tehdifference between that and parallel MATLAB programming (the i5-560 is quad core after all).

      i guess the Pro is only 50 bucks more.. but now i have to decide on that or whether to go for 16gb ram.

      ugh. im definitely not buying two geforce gtx 460s right now…. sigh.

      ok lets think this through. Im going for low speed, low latency ram – ddr3 1066, CAS 7. My reasoning is i can always overclock teh ram, latency is more important than clock speed. I can buy 8 GB now and then upgrade another 8 gb later, saving $100 and then put half that back towards the upgrade to the Pro.

      UPDATE: I changed my mind on RAM. Will go for DDR3-1333 CAS 9, because the specific G.Skill dimms I have in mind achieved excellent overclocking and lower latencies. The “standard” timings and speeds are not the end of teh story. These are $20 more expensive though.

  2. Some more research… seems that P55 boards can not run two PCI-E 2.0 slots at full x16 speed. The x58 boards (like the Sabretooth) can. So doing SLI on a P55 is always going to have a performance hit. From an article at BrightHub, this is partly due to moving the PCI-E 2.0 controller off the processor on X58:

    However, the PCI Express controller used with processors that run on the P55 chipset is much less robust than the controller on the X58 chipset, which means it cannot support two graphics cards at full x16 speed. The performance hit is not linear, but is enough to make a noticeable difference in graphics performance. Using multiple graphics cards with a P55 motherboard will result in lower performance than using multiple cards with an X58 motherboard.

    Here’s another discussion of this limitation from Anandtech, which also points out that single-GPU performance is about the same between X58 and P55. So if I were serious about SLI I’d need an X58 board, which would obligate me to actually do SLI. Also, X58 supports Bloomfield CPUs (Intel i9xx) whereas I’m going for Lynnfield (i5-xx, i7-xx). So basically an x58 board would be a waste of money unless I was willing to spend a lot more money on an extra video card for SLI and a much more expensive CPU to boot.

    As far as CUDA goes, I think that by maxing out RAM to 16gb and using the i5 quad-core I will have enough parallel compute power to do most of what I need to do. I am having trouble finding any kind of performance comparison for adding CUDA to the mix.

    Of course, X58 mobos also support triple-channel RAM, but dual-channel is more than enough for me (and easier to populate to get to 16gb max.). The question is, can i buy 8gb now as a dual channel pair, and 8gb later, or should i just max out now?

  3. Sadly, by trusty EEEPC 701 has gone to the big charging station in the sky. My Windows WoW machine these days is an HP Mini 210.

    Of course, my main WoW machine is my slightly more powerful Mac Mini. I only use the HP Mini when I’m too lazy to crawl out of bed or something.

  4. btw Phelps – looks like i can access the GPU even on a single nvidia card from within matlab. I’ve gone ahead with the order, saved myself money on the mobo by going for the LX instead of the Pro, and am sticking with 8GB ram for now as well. Feeling pretty good about this build.

    Anachronda – you wouldnt have a spare EEE wall wart handy would you? Seem to have misplaced mine 😛 Heck, if your battery works, I’m interested in that too! 🙂

    Does the Mac Mini suffice for most of your tasks? My main complaint about the Dell Mini is the screen size. I can hook it up to an external monitor of course but its flaky as heck when i do. Doesnt want to be driving a bigger display *and* doing heavy graphics duty. I have to keep it plugged in to the wall and it still shuts down once i awhile. No way to really play for any length of time that way, even with graphics dialed down to Low.

  5. Wouldn’t trust my wall wart. What happened to my EEEPC is that something in the charging circuit died. I noticed when I A) smelled a bit of smoke and B) noticed that my wall wart was *very* *very* toasty.

    I’m pretty certain that what’s dead is in the EEEPC thought; that’s where the smoke was coming from.

  6. Do you still have the wart though? To be honest, having lost mine, i think i’m willing to take the risk, because otherwise it’s just a white metal paperweight right now.

  7. As it turns out, the 430W PSU I had on the old build probably won’t suffice for the new one. Looking over various online power calculators, it looks like I’ll need 500W minimum to run the thing. Buying a PSU is really difficult as there is’t nearly as much review effort dedicated to these as video cards or other components; one great resource I found was JonnyGuru, whose reviews of the Antec Earthwatt series and the Antec Truepower New series convinced me that spending a little more on the latter was worth it. As far as choosing between a 650W and a 750W unit, I’m getting a substantially better value for 650 at Newegg – the 650 is $30 cheaper, savings I can pt towards a better case at some point.*

    I did look at other manufacturers like Corsair and Thermaltake on NewEgg but the Antecs had the most reviews online, and are a well-known name, so I’m going to stick with that brand. Tom’s and Anand were not as useful here, given their focus on the mainstream components. That said, I found this forum post at Tom’s to have very useful general guidelines:

    The general rule of thumb is a high quality 500 to 550 watt power supply with sufficient current (amps) on the +12 volt rail(s) can easily power a system with any single video card made. A high quality 700 to 750 watt power supply with sufficient current (amps) on the +12 volt rail(s) can power a system with two video cards operating in dual mode. There are a few exceptions like the new ATI Radeon HD 5XXX series cards which use less power due to their energy efficiency and the brand new Nvidia GTX480 Fermi which uses a lot more power.

    A high quality 500 to 550 watt psu will have a +12 volt rail rated at 40 amps. A high quality 700 to 750 watt psu will have a +12 volt rail rated at 60 amps.

    In addition the power supply should be at least 80+ Bronze certified for energy efficiency. There are some models available which have achieved 80+ Silver and 80+ Gold Certifications.

    It looks like the Antec 650W is the way to go for me since it has 80+Bronze, a great value at Newegg, and I am not doing SLI (even though it is certified for SLI if I wanted to).

    * I’ll reuse the old build components forthe kids’ PC, along with a old laptop hard drive that I can repurpose. So I will need to buy a new case too, either for the kids or for my new build. Sigh… still, the total cost of this new build is still goin to be shy of 800 which is actually pretty good.

    1. The final piece – a case. Since I’m building a new PC but am keeping the old build as the kid’s pc, I either need a case for their rig or for my new one. The case they have isn’t bad (has two exhaust fans mounted on the transparent side panel) but isn’t a very long-term case. I’d be hesitant to put much in there beyond what’s in there now. Lacking a fan in front or on top, it just doesnt have enouhg cooling to really suffice for the hotter CPU and graphics card I have coming. So, I’m keeping that case for the kids and I decided to order something I would use more long term.

      I’ve never bought a case before, actually. I’ve always reused old ones, from Dell or Gateway or whatnot (or in the case of the kids pc, a hand-me-down). My basic requirements were something simple and elegant, without bling up the wazoo. I do’t want one of those “transformers/alien head” designs too prevalent right now. The Antec Nine Hundred appealed to me briefly but I rediscovered Lian Li and much preferred the aesthetics, but Lian Li is an aluminum case builder which is crazy expensive. I then learned that Lian Li has spun off a subsidiary for making steel cases (but decent width of 0.8mm rather than 0.6mm thickness as most of the budget cases out there are) – this subsidiary, Lancool, has a “Dragon Lord” series that basically copies the design of their more expensive aluminum brethren.

      For comparison, consider the Lian Li PC-7FNWX versus the Lancool PC-K62. The latter offers the same internal features (including vibration damping, easy tool-less installation, fans on the bottom for the PSU, etc) as the former aluminum more expensive cases. I actually was very tempted to spend nearly double on teh former, just because of the aluminum, until I realized that I’d have to shell out even more extra to install two fans on top, which do come standard o the Lancool. So, I’m svaing some money but still pushing the budget a bit (which is the theme of this build – not top ofline, but upper middle class) and going with the Lancool K62 even though there are cheaper cases with similar (but not all) features like Lancool’s own K58 and various offerings from Coolermaster, Rosewill, and Antec. The various positive reviews of the K62 really sealed the deal for me in terms of demonstrating the future-proofness of the case. If the Lian Li 7FNWX has fans on top included I might have splurged on it though.

      The system is nearly complete (though haven’t received any parts yet). Will probably get the case last since I’ve ordered it last. I will swap out the hard drive on the kids PC to an older one once the parts start arriving so I can get their PC stable, and I’m giving away my older parts to a friend who builds PCs to see if they are any use to him.

      I should have listened to those of you who said I shouldnt have built the kids PC towards upgrades in mind – the dual Asrock mobo in retrospect was underpowered for what I could have bought. In trying to save money, I ended up costing a bit more. However, the flip side is that the new build is probably more powerful than the one I’d have had otherwise, as I probably would have just used the kids PC for my own, and got them a cheapo dell. So, its a wash, really.

      Still, excitement ahead! building a new rig is going to be fun. Not exactly flex computing, I thought for a long time I was done with desktops, but until netbooks become workstations, in proce and performance, there’s just no comparison yet. I’ll sacrifice my desire to buy an Alienware M11x for a while thouhg – maybe next year when the next revision comes out, let’s see.

  8. I still *have* the wart. The question is can I still *find* it. I think I know where it is; I’ll take a look next week when I’m putting some stuff in the storage shed.

  9. Sounds like a great system. I’ve recently built a 2 gpu system myself for use with matlab. I use jacket by accelereyes and have been happy (~15X speedups for my system). I looked at using the parallel computing toolbox from mathworks but quickly realized it sucks and i hate how slow mathworks tools always end up being. The jacket stuff is great. I also bought the multigpu option so I can run on 2 gpus simultaneously.

  10. This thread has turned into a notepad of sorts for me to keep track of my decisions and research. I’m not going to buy anything else right now, but in the near future after teh system is setup, I am going to add a few bells and whistles.

    To that end, I am now considering whether i want to do RAID, so I’m looking at hard drives. Specifically I want to go for 1TB drives, ideally two in a RAID-1 array (but if someone has any advice on why I’d instead want to do RAID 5, please enlighten me…). For power efficiency I want to go for two-platter drives – three platters offer more capacity of course but that comes at cost of power. There’s a great review from September of 7200 RPM, two-platter 1 TB drives at TechReport that is very helpful in understanding the options. Basically, Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 edges out the competition providing great performance at great value. This is typical of Samsung products in general, be they DVD drives or TVs (or Korean manufacturers in general, such as Hyundai. The Japanese equivalents ie Hitachi/Sony/Toyota are always more expensive but less robust). The Spinpoints are $70 each which is kind of amazing.

    I’m also going to need a better LCD monitor. A good comparison start point is the Asus VH242H 23.6″ on sale for about 160 after rebate.

    I am also debating whether I need an aftermarket cooler or not. Her’es one for example that’s got great reviews at New Egg. The stock cooler on the i5 should be enough if I have decent cooling and airflow, as shoudl be the case with my Lancool case. I probably won’t do much overclocking. Maybe instead of buying a typical cooler I’ll splurge later on for a watercooling solution (an all-in-one piece rather than doing a custom job).

    I also think I will eventually add an optical drive to the system – ideally a blu-ray combo drive like this one from LG. Adding to the temptation list is a decent 5.1 audio card like this Xonar, which is only $20 after rebates right now, though of course I’d need a headset that supports 5.1 too.

    its funny, these secondary things add up to about $400! In my case, I’ve got very little I can reuse since I havent built a totally new system in a long time and am already reusing old stuff for one rig (for the kids). But this extra stuff adds anotehr 50% to the base cost. It can be painful. Still, even if I do splurge on all this, since Im still choosing these components for value (upper middle class, as I stated above) my complete system even with all these bells and whistles will be under $1500. That’s really pretty impressive, frankly.

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