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Hardware


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Hardware


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What's all this now?


Building your Dev Box

What's all this now?


Building your Dev Box

Original Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Who's this for?

  • Anyone looking to build a purpose built PC
  • Anyone decoding builder/manufacturer specs for a given model or suitability for a use case
  • Anyone trying to save a buck

Why would I want one?  

  • You want the best tool for a given job
  • You want to get as much value as possible for your money
  • You want to be able to realistically assess the value of upgrade over a current setup

Why am I writing this?

  • The above described me
  • It took me a while to figure this out
  • Maybe this will save someone some time in the future
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Step 1


Establish your budget

Step 1


Establish your budget

Original Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

For a desktop PC - all hardware + operating system (no peripherals, monitors, and extras)

  • $600 - $800 would be about the minimum you can spend on new parts and still get performance better than a years old machine
  • $1000 - $1200 representative of top 10-30% of install base, or min specs for VR
  • $1500 - $4000 purpose built machines that will accel at most tasks

For PC laptop - expect a 10-20% premium on top of the above ranges

For Apple - premiums vary dramatically between form-factors

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Step 2


CPU - "Processor"

Step 2


CPU - "Processor"

Original Photo by Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

TL;DR

  • Intel 8350K - Low price point, amazing value, excellent gaming performance, competent general productivity
  • Intel 8700K - Mid price point, good value, excellent gaming performance, great multi-core productivity
  • AMD Threadripper - 1920X/1950X - High price point, amazing value, good gaming performance, amazing multi-core productivity

General

  • Start here.  Get the processor that matches your use case.  Build your system to support your use case, whether that's gaming, development, etc.
  • Processors are the brain of the computer. They're what run calculations and processes.

Considerations

  • Quad-core is rapidly becoming the entry-level standard
  • Price != Performance
  • Newer != Better
  • 4 Threads != 4 Cores
  • More cores and threads help ensure video recording won't effect performance of what's being captured (i.e. streaming, documentation, etc.)
  • Different processors are becoming more and more purpose built
  • Marketing makes it difficult for consumers to decipher what's what

Recent historical context

  • Near a decade's lack of consumer relevance from AMD has meant several generations of CPUs have gotten smaller and more efficient, but not much faster
  • VR, Streaming, and YouTube content creation are showing signs of reinvigorating inovation and growth
  • AMD came back BIG with Ryzen and Threadripper series of processors

CPU factors

  • Clock speed - how many cycles the processor handles per second
  • IPC - "instructions per clock" is how much each cycle can handle
  • Cores - physical proccessing units
  • Intel Hyperthreading and AMD SMT - virtual cores allow a single core to approximate an additional physical unit per core
  • Turbo Boost - selective performance acceleration on one or more cores
  • Socket - form factor that determines board compatibility
  • Cache - built in memory for CPU with different ultra-high bandwidth directly to the CPU
  • Thermal Design Power - based on power load; corresponds to how much heat generated

Gaming

  • Most games benefit the most from strong single core clock speed, with some games showing additional benefity from 2-4 cores
  • Secondarily IPC matters a lot, and Intel leads AMD in this area
  • Intel's architecture allows a primary core to boost higher than others under load, which is awesome for games
  • AMD's SenseMI does the same but for all cores, which lowers the ceiling so less benefit for games

Productivity

  • Parallelized operations like video editing/rendering, image rendering, noise/data generation, audio processing benefit from more cores and more threads
  • More cores > more threads
  • For big things, cache and memory channels can be a bottleneck
  • For most purposes, the Intel 8700K's 6 core 12 thread will be beyond plenty.  A response to AMD's Ryzen line, it's a lot of bang for your buck for productivity and gaming.
  • AMD's Threadripper line (specifically the 1920X and 1950X) has cores and threads per dollar that Intel can't really compete with. AMD historically supports architecture longer so the X399 platform will be more future proof.  AMD's anticipated performance growth per generation means that X399 may be a great investment if you need top of the line.

Unity Development

  • Unity games are nominally single-threaded.  Developers can use threading, but it isn't part of the default architecture.
  • According to testing, for Unity 2017.1, the Unity editor shows increased performance from extra cores in:
    • Lightmap & reflection baking
    • Occlusion baking
    • Build times
    • Package import times

Prices

  • Going back a generation can be a good value when something new first comes out.
  • Over time that because less true because the supply drops, and people want specific dated parts for repairs.
  • Value is relative, and its important to understand your own needs so you don't spend money on features and specs you don't need.
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Step 3


Form Factor - Motherboard and Case

Step 3


Form Factor - Motherboard and Case

Original Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

TL;DR

  • Laptop if you need one.  Just know that a lot of the money is going towards portability and battery life; NOT performance.
  • Mini ITX if you need to be able to transport
    • Consider the new Intel Canyon NUC for even more portability in a non-laptop form factor
  • ATX otherwise

General

  • Now that you've determined what work you're going to do, decide how and where you're going to use it. 
  • Motherboards are how the CPU interfaces with every other part of your computer.
  • Picking a motherboard is about compatibility with your CPU, being the right size for your needs, and negotiating price for ports and features.

//

Laptop

  • Mobile processors names don't necessairly correspond to the similarly named destop version
  • Mobile processors usually have lower clock speeds and fewer cores, favoring efficiency over performance
  • Desktop/workstation level perforamance can be had at a premium
  • Compact size, power, battery life; pick 2

Desktop

  • Motherboards come in several sizes; Mini ITX < Micro ATX < ATX < EATX
  • Mini ITX - portable, common for media center PCs, fewer ram and expansion slots, more difficult to cool
  • Micro ATX - compact, but not generally "portable", common for smaller desktops, more expensive than ATX
  • ATX - standard form factor, newer cases are available smaller sizes with few compromises in cooling or expansion options
  • EATX - big, generally found in power workstations, server stations, etc.

//

Cases

  • Most cases are designed to accept the max design size motherboard and smaller form factors
  • Good cases can be had at any size for under $100; "sexy" cases can set you back several hundred dollars
  • If you're overwhelmed by options, I recommend you start with Corsair, Cooler Master, or SilverStone
  • Look for:
    • Easily removeable and cleanable dust filters - important for thermal performance and longevity
    • Cable management - clean routing support can dramatically help thermal performance
    • Adjustable bays - make sure you can hold all your drives, but be able to get unneccessary bays out of the way for cooling

Mini ITX

  • For people that value space efficiency
  • Handled cases available for those that want desktop power for showcasing their work (i.e. VR, mid-high performance games)
  • Currently supports 2 ram slots, and one expansion slot for GPU
  • Can be more than enough for many development applications
  • Doesn't scale well for more powerful workstation applications because of cooling restrictions
  • Slight upcharge for the smaller motherboard
  • Can be harder to build for larger hands

Micro ATX

  • Compromise platform
  • Just a little to big to transport comfortably
  • Lots of variety of expansion and ram slots between manufacturers and generations
  • Limited expansion options, more than Mini ITX, but not quite enough for "power users"
  • Slight upcharge for smaller form factor

ATX

  • Standard size PC motherboard
  • Chances are, you're not going to move it around
  • Plenty of room for multiple expansion slots, full ram slots per generational channel max
  • Most "affordable" form factor
  • Most options
  • Supports CrossFire, SLI, and top tier fancy tech
  • Easiest to cool

EATX

  • For heavy use applications like data server unit, constant video edition and rendering, or someone that needs absolutely everything
  • Potentially significant upcharge for additional expansions, ram slots, ECC ram support, multi-processor setups, etc.
  • Enormous

//

Motherboard Features

  • CPU Socket - make sure you get the socket that matches your selected processor
  • M.2 Sata ports with NVMe support - fastest boot speeds for newest solid state drive, also helpful if you're regularly working with large files.  For setup for booting, see here.
  • PCI-Express slots - for GPUs (video cards), video capture cards, usb expansions, m.2 / raid expansions, other expansions.
  • Ram slots and support - will denote the type and speed of ram supported by the motherboard
  • SATA ports - connection points for hard drives of all sizes and technologies
  • Wifi - built-in wifi is a nice to have in most cases, but isn't necessarily a given for desktops; absolutely vital for Mini ITX due to limited expansion options and ports
  • Overclocking support - "chipset" codes reflect overclocking support. For Intel Z = overclocking, B & H & Q = no overclocking
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Step 4


GPU - Graphics Processing Unit "Video Card"

Step 4


GPU - Graphics Processing Unit "Video Card"

Photo by Maxime Rossignol on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

TL;DR

  • GPUs help the CPU draw to a monitor.  They're purpose built tools designed to run small floating point operations super fast.
  • CPUs are flexible, while GPUs are optimized for a single type of task.
  • GTX 1050 TI - VR Development benchmarking (Oculus)
  • GTX 1060 3GB - VR Development benchmarking (Vive)
  • GTX 1070 TI + - video processing or 3d modeling hardware acceleration
    • RX Vega 56 / 64 should theoretically be better for applications that support OpenCL, but you can't find it any near MSRP

Recent Historical Context

  • Cryptocurrency mining has driven the prices of GPUs through the roof
  • Compounding the problem, ram shortages from cellphones make it difficult to meat demand and meet MSRP targets
  • Video content creation, machine and deep learning, neural networks, alternatives to distributed computing have pushed pro-grade GPU technological growth significantly in recent years
  • VR, 4K / 1440P gaming, and pro-grade trickle-down have caused a surge in consumer GPU performance after years of stagnation

Perspective

  • GPUs are the most expensive single component in a build
  • Professional cards are prohibitively expensive for most people
  • Hardware acceleration benefits vary dramatically between use case and applications
  • If you're going lean, don't buy more GPU than you need

Radeon Cards

  • After years of absence, Radeon is back with a slew of entry to mid-range GPUs
  • Almost impossible to get at a reasonable price
  • They're highly desireable for mining because of their price to performance ratio
  • Apple's announcement of native support for Radeon units for EGPUs have compounded the problem
  • Until something changes, you can assume that it's unobtanium

nVidia Cards

  • GTX 1030 - GTX 1050 - entry level gpu, good for light gaming, some benefit in Adobe Creative Suite applications
  • GTX 1050 TI - new official min spec GPU for Oculus VR
  • GTX 1060 3GB - intended to support 1080p 60fps gaming, equivalent min spec for Vive VR (similar to last get GTX 970, the advertised min spec)
  • GTX 1060 6GB - entry 1440P gaming
  • GTX 1070 - recommended 1440P gaming
  • GTX 1070 TI - 4k gaming intended use case
  • GTX 1080 - 4k 60fps gaming intended use case
  • GTX 1080 TI - commercial flagship, 4k 60fps ultra-settings gaming  intended use case
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Step 5


RAM - Random Access Memory

Step 5


RAM - Random Access Memory

Original Photo by Fancycrave from Pexels

As of 13FEB18:

TL;DR

  • A CPU runs operations from cache, but will load to cache from RAM, and loads to RAM from storage.
  • RAM speed only matters in the extremes.
  • DDR3/DDR4 are different.  Get the one that your motherboard supports.
  • 8GB for gaming.
  • 16GB for development.
  • 64GB+ for 4k video editing and rendering.
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Step 6


PSU - Power Supply Unit

Step 6


PSU - Power Supply Unit

Original Photo by Thomas Kvistholt on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

TL;DR

  • Use a calculator, like this one or this one.
  • One GPU, gaming grade CPU - 450W
  • Multi GPU or high TDP processor - 600W
  • Going right for the top - 800W+

General Info

  • Too much is a waste of money
  • Too little with cause throttling of performance and will shorten the life of the PSU
  • PSUs are long term investments and are one of the few components that can easily go from one build to the next
  • Components are requiring less and less power with each successive generation
  • Use a calculator to determine load

Rating

  • Bronze/Gold/Platinum/Titanium power rating reflect efficiency
  • Low efficiency means more heat which lowers life span
  • Gold is barely more expensive than Bronze.  Go gold or better.

Features

  • Pin support - make sure that your PSU has adequate support for your motherboard, GPU, and drives
  • Size - there are different form factors for different size cases
  • Efficiency curve - make sure that your peak power draw is less than 80% of the rating; a small margin is sufficient

 

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Step 7


Cooling

Step 7


Cooling

Original Photo by Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita on Unsplash

As of 13FEB18:

CPU Cooling

  • Air cooling is still more than relevent and adequate with many very affordable units even outperforming water cooled options
  • Heat piped units use vapor chamber technology to evenly distribute heat for easier cooling
  • Ensure your cooler matches your CPUs TDP load
  • Mini ITX - use a compatibility utility to find a unit that will fit your case and socket, but be careful as nothing is fool-proof
  • ATX - Noctua is amazing if you can get past their color choice

Case Cooling

  • Case fans come in many sizes.  Check your case for size compatibility per install point.
  • Mini ITX cases will support very few if any fan hardpoints, so it's important to use component fan orientation to ensure adequate case cooling.
  • Maintain balanced flow.  Testing suggests that in most cases one intake and one exhaust is plenty. 
  • Intake fans blowing through a mesh or past obstructions benefit from "static pressure" designs.
  • Exhaust fans blowing through minimal obstructions with high CFM (cubic feet per minute) ratings will ensure hot air exhausts efficiently.
  • Err on the side of more intake than exhaust.
    • The long answer is that a positively pressurized case will prevent dust from leaking in, will make exhaust fans more efficient from the net-positive suction head, increase the specific heat capcity of the convective medium, and can offset the volumetric limitations of static pressure fans.
    • That said, excessive turbulance and dramatically unbalanced flow will result in quickly diminishing returns

System Temperatures

  • After an investment of this size, protect your system by keeping tabs on the numbers
  • HWiNFO and MSI Afterburner are great monitoring tools.  The former gives you a ton of info, and the latter allows you to tune your GPU fan curve.
  • CPU cores should stay under 80C under load.
  • GPU temps should stay under 85C under load.
  • HDDs should be kept under 80C.
  • Cooler is better, but it should be balanced with fan noise for the sake of your sanity.
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Step 8


Storage

Step 8


Storage

Original Photo by Patrick Lindenberg on Unsplash

General

  • Faster drives help you load stuff into RAM faster, or write from your programs faster
  • Once a program is loaded into memory, it doesn't really access your storage again for the most part
  • As RAM capacity has risen in the last several generations, storage is accessed less and less frequently

TL;DR

  • HGST / Seagate HDD for reliable storage at a minimal premium
  • Samsung 850 EVO for most use cases
  • Samsung 950 PRO for constant video content creation

//

Booting

  • Faster drives, particularly Hybrid and Solid State types, will make your computer boot up faster
  • For Windows, this is possible thanks to an enormous file called hiberfil.sys, and your bios

Gaming

  • Resources are read from your storage medium of choice into RAM
  • You play the game
  • A faster drive makes the game load faster only in so far as it gets loaded into RAM
  • After that it's your CPU, RAM, and other componenets that'll have to the building/generating/etc. => no storage speed impact
  • When you save your game, saving may be marginally faster with a faster drive

Browsing

  • Internet connection speeds will be the bottleneck for getting new images or pages
  • That'll be loaded into memory first so storage speed doesn't matter
  • If you are caching a ton of stuff, browsing speeds may be improved from faster drives if you're loading a page you've already visited before

Video/Photo/Large File Editing/Rendering

  • When reading or writing VERY large files, read/write speeds may be a bottleneck, and many purpose built systems benefit from very fast drives
  • Examples include 1080p 60fps or larger format recording, high def video transcoding, photography raw file batch processing, high resolution multi-layer photo editing or digital painting, 4k texture generation, lossless audio recording/generation

Spreadsheets

  • Most spreadsheets are calculated and manipulated in memory, but the opening and saving of large spreadsheets can be improved with a faster storage device

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HDD (Hard Disk Drives)

  • High volume storage device that writes by magnetically writing to a stack of spinning discs
  • Selling points - volume and reliability
  • Speeds range from 5400RPM, 7200RPM, or even faster
  • Cheapest format for high volume storage
  • Come in standard 3.5" and smaller 2.5" formats

SSD (Solid State Drive)

  • High speed storage device that writes using integrated circuit assemblies
  • Selling point - speed and lifetime
  • Speeds range from SATA speeds to even faster
  • Relatively limited life span so price increases as speed, volume, and read/write lifespan goes up
  • Come in 2.5" drives, and new M.2 form factor (explained later)

Hybrid (Small SSD built into a HDD)

  • Commonly found in notebook applications
  • Rarely paired with exceptional SSDs or HDDs

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3.5" Form Factor

  • About the size of a small book
  • Generally does not fit into Mini ITX cases

2.5" Form Factor

  • About the size of a stack of business cards
  • Fits in almost all cases

M.2 SATA Form Factor

  • M.2 actually refers to the connection type and layout
  • As drive speed outpaced SATA speeds, this PCI-Express style protocol was used to allow faster drives to reach their stride
  • Uses PCI-Express lanes so watch out if you're using multiple video cards (should rarely be an issue)
  • Can be used as a boot drive if your motherboard supports NVMe

//

Recommendations

  • Who needs HDDs
    • People who need a lot of storage for media, games libraries, and applications
    • People who want data reliability through mirrored RAID setups
    • People who want to be able to back up data with a disconnectable media (electrical storm proof)
  • Who needs SATA SSDs
    • People who want super fast boot times
    • People who want faster loading in general
    • People who are working with very large read/write operations regularly
  • Who needs M.2 SSDs
    • Power users looking to shave time off of 4k and 8k video work

 

  • 250GB SSDs are plenty for boot, but you should have a secondary drive for media, games, apps, etc.
  • 500GB SSDs are adequate for single drive usage, especially if you own externals for long term storage
  • 5400RPM HDDs are very usable for almost everything because how infrequently computers read/write to the HDD
  • M.2 is the future, and can be only marginally more expensive as a boot drive vs a SATA SSD, but boot performance differences are negligable, and chances are, if you need it, you already know about it