Thursday, March 1, 2012

- Redneck High Performance

When I was a kid, the only way someone of my socio-economic status ever got a car was if they managed to save enough money to buy an old piece of junk and then repair it enough to be functional. The poor have always tried to make things from parts rather than paying someone else to put it together for them. Back in the day, "Primer" was the most common color in the student parking lot in my high school. These days kids just get a car from their parents.

But I’m reminded of those long ago days because now, while I can certainly afford to buy new if I want to, I’ve instead started a little project of my own. Call it a midlife crisis or whatever. But what started out as an effort to be a little frugal and get a better deal has instead turned into an adventure in high performance. But I’m not building a car in my driveway (I can only imagine how my neighbor “Mrs. Kravitz” would respond to that) or something like the "redneck hot tub" pictured above. Instead, I’m building myself a new computer.

My current machine has started acting a little squirrely and it’s almost a decade old so it’s time for a new one. And when I looked at comparative costs I discovered that you get a lot more for your computing dollar if you'll build it yourself rather than letting someone else do it for you. While I'm no hard core techie by nature, it's a job I think I can manage. So I decided to do a little research and give it a whirl.

Some of you might find it surprising to hear this given the fact that I’ve spent the last 20 years designing program trading systems. But the truth is, I don’t really know that much about computers anymore. I advanced in systems and programming until I got to C++, Perl, Unix, and few specialty languages like Fame, Matlab and S+, and then I focused on the markets while computers changed underneath me. I know no more about how Windows works these days than your average high school kid.

But I do know the basics… those haven’t changed all that much. The hardware is more or less the same, it’s just much faster, and strangely… smaller. So the first thing I had to do was go have a look at the state of computer hardware, the competing architectures, and the various pluses and minuses of each class of component just to learn where the world is with all this stuff.

The first thing I discovered when I started looking into it was that one other issue hasn’t changed. The primary minus for everything is almost always ‘cost’. More power costs more... sometimes much more. But there is a sweet spot to most things where you get a first rate value and don’t have to pay through the nose. After substantial research, here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to about where those optimum points are at the moment:

Processor: Intel Core i5 2500K
Ram: Samsung Low Profile 1600 Mbps
HD: Seagate Barracuda 6.0Gb (1Terabyte in size)
Motherboard: ASRock Z68 Extreme3 Gen3 for Intel 1155 Architecture
GPU: Radeon HD6970 2GB Graphics card

If you know what all that stuff means, then you probably consider yourself an ‘expert’ and have some major problem with my choices. “Experts” are always like that. The fact that someone doesn’t decide things exactly as they would means that they’re an ‘idiot’ in their eyes. Luckily that attitude doesn’t faze me. I’ve known for a long time that there is always some “know it all” who thinks you should have the same priorities that they do and I don’t sweat their poor manners. Besides, the choices I’ve made are about give and take. There are multiple compromises that go into them, and this is the call I’ve made. If I’m wrong, no one will suffer for it but me.

If however you didn’t actually understand any of that, then by all means please let me simplify it a bit, and in the process I’ll explain some of my decision making as well.

CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K

The CPU of a computer is the engine. And the specifics are at least as detailed as it’s automotive counterpart. To simplify though, this particular CPU isn’t at the bleeding edge of technology (there is an i7 out there and newer architectures as well), but it’s about as fast as they come in ‘production’ systems. Given the price point, this is the best power for the money in my opinion.

It may not be some sort of specialty nitro funny car engine, but it’s a good big V8 with fuel injection and a turbocharger. It’s got some muscle that’s for sure. The turbo-charger I mentioned in this case is the K at the end of 2500K, which means that it’s an unlocked processor and can therefore be ‘overclocked’ to give more performance than it normally would. Tweak the settings of how you run it and you could get as much as 70% better performance from your system. It’s complicated, but it’s a great big performance boost that doesn’t really cost you anything if you’re careful about it.

Ram: Samsung Low Profile 1600 Mbps

If the CPU is a pump for data, this is the plumbing. Its 1600Mbps which means that it’s pretty fast as these things go – about as fast as any standard production system. Only real specialty systems would be faster. I’ll have space for 16 gigs but I’m only getting 8 today. I want to save the space in the case and make sure 8 more will fit cleanly first. That’s the same reason I went with ‘low profile’ memory. These days RAM sometimes has its own heat sinks. And they can get in the way of other components in a crowded case.

HD: Seagate Barracuda 6.0Gb (1Terabyte in size)

This is a traditional spinning wheel hard drive that’s 1 Terabyte. The fastest drives are all solid state now, but the price point on them isn’t quite there yet. Too costly for what you get in my opinion. Instead, my plan is to suffer through with my traditional drive for a year or so and wait for the solid state drive prices to come down a touch before I upgrade.

Motherboard: ASRock Z68 Extreme3 Gen3 for Intel 1155 Architecture

The motherboard is the thing that everything else plugs into. Mostly it’s a question of choosing one that supports your chipset (Intel Core i5) and then trading off features and cost until the price looks right. More USB3 ports costs more, etc. I think this is a place to get all the features I need without paying for too many I don’t. ASrock is a pretty well known name, and offers a respected and stable product that’s been well tested.

GPU: Radeon HD6970 2GB Graphics card

The ’video card’ is probably the most complicated choice you have to make when putting a computer together from scratch these days. I need one that will both support the higher end computer games and meet my needs for a multi-monitor system for work. There are lots of graphics options out there right now and it’s a good thing too because the coolest games all use a ton of graphics power. If you wanted to save money over the choice I made, you could buy a Radeon 5970 and overclock it, or you could buy two lower priced cards and link them together. Or for about the same price you could buy a competitive GTX card - I think the 570 is about the same.

I looked into it a lot over a period of weeks, and literally read hundreds of assessments and reviews. Eventually decided on this one. It may not be ‘the best’ choice, but its close enough that the difference shouldn’t bother me. Comparing one video solution to another these days isn’t a straight ‘better or worse’ decision.

There are a few other things you’ll also need to buy too but they are either dependent on these prior decisions, (like a case large enough to fit the exceptionally long HD6970 and a power supply to run it all off of) or are totally a question of style. If you’re going to overclock your processor you’ll need an aftermarket CPU cooler as well. You can shop around and save money on all of them, but as I understand it, it’s a mistake to go too far with that. My choices have all been in the ‘low priced’ section, but are all from good respectable names, and should do the job well enough. For those of you interested in specifics I’m getting:

CoolerMaster Hyper 212 Evo CPU Cooler
Asus 24xDVD
OCX ModXstream Pro 600W Power Supply
CoolerMaster Elite 430 Case (with a few extra fans)

I’ve just started ordering the parts. I have the CPU and Ram on my desk as I speak, but that’s all so far. When it’s all together I should have a machine which supports my current multi-monitor setup for work, and offers the performance of a Dell desktop that would cost about $3500. I’ll use the flat screen monitors I already have and don’t need more.

And to do all of that, apart from my labor, my total cost will be $983.00, tax and shipping included.

I don’t think I’d have done any of this 5 years ago. Like I said it started out as an effort to save some money on a new machine. But we all need to make our ‘shared sacrifices’ in the era of Obama, and I guess this is one of mine. It’s actually not really a sacrifice. I’m having fun with it. and I’m definitely saving a buck. Who could ask for more. And since this is a cutting edge machine today, hopefully it will still be ‘barely getting by’ in another decade.


frithguild said...

The main advantage to brand systems is their applied research on cooling - which keeps their working well. I would "overinvest" in cooling parts.

Tom said...

I've put some serious thought into it. Based on the research I've done, the supplemental cooler I'm buying and the extra case fans should more than do the job.

But I agree - it's a primary concern.

Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

“Mrs. Kravitz”

Was this the neighbor that caused the mess with that concrete slab and the building department?

Tom said...

No... that was her best friend from up the street. (good catch though.) For all her faults and intrusiveness and the fact that she thinks she's living next door to the Clampett's sometimes, she's actually a very nice person.

She'd have never brought the government in on something she could nag us about herself. She'd want to know every detail and tell us that we've picked the wrong color and we would have been better off using her brother in law for the job, but she would never go to the city.

Matt H said...

I've done this for my last 2 computers and helped my brother with his. It went very smoothly with mine, but my brother tried to get some cheaper mobo and cpu, and it was a huge pain to figure out exactly which parts were causing the problem. The 2 pieces of advice I have are go for the better parts (sounds like you are already) and don't procrastinate on the assembly. You have a limited (usually 30 day) window to return defective parts.