I decided last year that it was time to upgrade my home PC system - as I’d been running on an laptop CPU based system which was originally intended as a HTPC system for over a year.
The design criteria for my new system was:
- Low noise - because I’d rather pay a little more for a quiet system than sit listening to the fans spinning
- Space for lots of HDs - because it is much easier to support them in-box; rather than in external enclosures
- Relatively fast processor - without paying the ‘bleeding edge’ premium - to ensure the system is fast when processing images and encoding videos
- Lots of memory - for processing HDR and panoramic photographs without excessive swapping out to disk
- Fast interfaces (USB3, and SATA3) - to make transferring files to external HDs snappy
CPU and motherboard
First question to decide on is processor - Intel or AMD. I was originally planning to go AMD - but found several recommendations on dpreview and AnandTech which implied that Intel are a step ahead of AMD for Photoshop performance at the moment - so I went Intel.
Then for the motherboard - I went back to Gigabyte, because I’ve had one of their motherboards before, and I found it to be reliable, solidly built, and the features were well explained on their website. I also liked the idea of their UltraDurable 2oz copper PCB - because lots of copper in the motherboard should improve its ability to dissipate heat.
I also noticed that this Gigabyte motherboard used heat-pipes and heat-sinks to cool the north-bridge chips - thus doing away with the nasty small high-speed fans that had plagued previous generations of motherboard with high-pitched noise. Perhaps this is common to most motherboards these days - but this is the first one I’d come across.
Then I decided that SATA3 (6Gb/s) would be a good idea to future proof the internal disk interfaces; and USB3 (5GB/s) to speed up transferring large files to external drives. In order to get both of these - that meant I then needed an Intel® X58 chipset motherboard, and Intel® Core™ i7 Processor.
Looking through the list of Socket 1366 motherboards - the most reasonable seemed to be the Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R. Reviews from bit-tech, techradar and DigitalLane all gave it thumbs up. The only thing I had to be careful of when purchasing was to check that the one I was buying was a Rev 2.0 (the main difference being one USB header with a red colour that provides extra juice for charging smart-phones through the front panel USB port).
For the CPU I stepped up the price/performance curve until I got to what I thought was a reasonable spot - and plumped for the Processor i7 950 3.06 GHz at 130W.
For memory - I needed at least 8GB for panoramic processing (and to make sure that I could continue working while a pano or HDR image was processing; and on the X58 - I needed to go triple channel - so selected 3x4GB=12GB. From reading a few threads I determined that the speed of the memory isn’t that important - with DDR3-1600 being more than sufficient.
From the Gigabyte forum I discovered that a number of people had been having compatibility issues with certain memory configurations and initial BIOS versions of this motherboard. Based on those discussions I decided to go the most reliable, safe option - ValueRAM from Kingston Technology.
The only 12G kit available from Kingston was DDR3-1333, which was priced pretty reasonably - Kingston ValueRAM 12 Gb DDR3-SDRAM PC3-10600 CL9 - KVR1333D3N9K3/12G - so I went for this (even though it was slower than the DDR3-1600 recommended above).
Unfortunately, this particular memory kit was out of stock during December pretty much everywhere (including Australia), so I had to wait for January when new supplies arrived to complete the build of my system.
For the system’s primary storage, I thought it was about time to try a SSD as the main boot drive; and a couple of spinning-rust disks for working-space. Looking through the reviews of SSDs, the Crucial RealSSDs seem to be leading at the moment for price/performance (“At this point in time there is no other drive, platter or solid state that is in the same league as the Crucial RealSSD C300”); and as I didn’t need a whole lot of space for a boot disk I determined that 64GB would be sufficient - so selected the 64GB Crucial RealSSD. I’m writing this now with Win7, Office 2010 and my usual array of graphics packages installed with 25GB free out of 60GB.
Note that while the read speed of all of the 3 Crucial RealSSDs (64G, 128G, 256G) are similar; the write speed for the larger drives is much faster. If I was buying a single disk for a laptop - then I’d go for at least the 128Gb if not the 256Gb drive. For a multi-drive desktop - write speed wasn’t so much of an issue - because most of my writing will be hitting the spinning disks.
Talking of spinning disks; I selected what I thought was the most reasonable price/performance for a well-known brand - and picked 2 Western Digital WD1002FAEX Caviar Black 1TB drives. These are running in RAID0 configuration (striped for performance, not redundancy) powered by the motherboard’s on-board RAID controller.
Unlike my previous AMD system, the X58 needed a separate graphics card, and I needed something with CUDA support - so went looking for a Nvidia based card. I also wanted to avoid the latest high-spec video cards - because I don’t play games - and so didn’t want a couple of extra fans in the system creating turbulence (and hence lots of noise). QuietPC had the answer with the Zotac GT430 Zone Fanless Graphics Card. This card has DisplayPort, HDMI and DVI interfaces, and DirectX11 support with 1GB of graphics memory.
Sure - it’s probably not going to be great for high-end gaming… but I reckon fine for my purposes.
Case and Cooling
To box the above kit - I went back to a vendor I’ve known about for sometime - QuietPC.com. These chaps search out the quietest PC components they can find - and offer them for sale across the globe. From their range of quiet cases, I liked the sound of the Fractal Design Define R3 (no pun intended), with its pre-installed noise absorbing material, and sleek front-panel.
There are a couple of things to consider when you’re looking for a quiet case. Large fans allow you to move more air at a lower speed than small fans - so a case supporting 120mm or 140mm fans is a good idea. Spinning-rust disks also cause vibration, which can be transmitted through the case again causing noise - so you should isolate HDs from the case using rubber grommets. Finally - any noise that is generated inside the case should be dampened with some sort of noise-absorbing material - such as a high-density foam.
The Fractal Design case has space for more drives than I’m ever going to need (8), space for up to seven large fans (and I’m only using 3) with fan filters for the inlet fans, and an underside filtered inlet for air flow through the PSU. The back side of the case is easily removed to allow you to route cables behind the motherboard - leaving more space for airflow on the component side of the board.
Drives are mounted in white steel caddies with silicone grommets to insulate the drive from the chassis, and the caddies clip securely into the case itself. The caddies support standard 3.5” disks, as well as the 2.5” SSD I’m using for my boot disk.
My only complaint with the case is that sometimes the side panels can be a little tricky to replace, although a couple of minutes of jiggling usually does the job.
To cool the CPU I went looking on QuietPC’s site for a quiet CPU cooler. The name of the game here is to find the one with the largest fin area (for better cooling); and the largest fan (for lower noise - because a larger fan can move more air at lower speed, hence causing less noise than a small fan). I could probably have selected something cheaper - but by this time I’d already spent more than I was planning on the CPU and motherboard - so went for the best rated, and largest cooler I could find - the Noctua NH-D14 dual radiator.
Everywhere I looked - this had great reviews (Overclock3d, SilentPC review); and other than the top of the range price - I couldn’t find any fault with the unit. Given that I wasn’t planning to go overboard on over-clocking, and because the cooler is so close to the PC’s exhaust fan, I’ve relocated the smaller of the 2 fans to the front-panel of the system, providing a little extra cooling for the HDs at the front of the box.
For a power supply, I used the Xilence Power ECO 550 Watt that I’d purchased last year in preparation for this build. It is an energy efficient power supply (80 Plus certified) with a whisper quiet 120mm fan.
Now that I’ve finished building it, I’m impressed with the speed and relative silence. It boots in a few seconds; and has been able to run some large pano renders and video-re compression without breaking into a sweat (or ramping up the fan-speed).
To summarize - this is the components list for my new PC:-
- Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R Rev2
- Processor i7 950 3.06 GHz
- Kingston ValueRAM 12 Gb DDR3-SDRAM PC3-10600 CL9 - KVR1333D3N9K3/12G
- 64GB Crucial RealSSD
- 2 x Western Digital WD1002FAEX Caviar Black 1 TB 7200 RPM Internal Hard Disk Drive
- Zotac GT430 Zone Fanless Graphics Card (1GB DDR3)
- Noctua NH-D14 Dual Radiator and Fan Quiet CPU Cooler
- Case Fractal Design Define R3, Black Pearl
- Xilence Power ECO 550 Watt
I used hardware.fr, ciao.fr, twenga.fr, topachat.com, and prixdunet.com to find the best resellers in France, and ended up purchased the kit from MagicPC, pixmania.com, QuietPC, and LDLC costing me the princely sum of EUR 1160. Could I have bought a pre-packaged system from a mainstream vendor for less? Probably - but it wouldn’t have been easy to find a system that was both quiet and powerful; and it wouldn’t have been as much fun!
Should anyone want me to run a benchmark on the system - or try some over-clocking - let me know your preferred benchmark tool, or how I should push the system, and I’ll give it a go.