Sunday, February 07, 2010

Quiet Computer Build: Component Picks

In the first part of this series I set out the requirements for building a quiet high-performance audio PC that would also be great for graphics, games and other day-to-day tasks. In the previous article I described the nine components we need to assemble before we can start building.

Today I will choose which makes and models to use. This is not to say there aren't other fine choices. A lot depends on price and availability. Plus you may have some specific requirements or favourite brands. And finally, time doesn't stand still. If you read this six months hence some of the details will be dated. In fact that's the main reason I split this article off from the previous general discussion.

Processor

So what's it to be: Core i5 or Core i7? As always in the land of processors, one pays a lot more to get a little extra power -- it's the law of diminishing returns. The £800 CPUs I referenced last time are the top-end Extreme brand. These get you a tad more power than those that sell for half the price and those are incrementally better than the chips you can buy for £200.

I have historically found that the best performance-to-price ratio is a couple of rungs down the ladder. This would land us at the Intel i7 920 for socket LGA 1366. That's a quad core 2.66 GHz chip with hyper-threading, which means there are 8 effective cores. That's a lot of processing power, and if we need more it can be overclock to 3.2GHz without blinking, and up to 4GHz if we don't mind significantly increased heat and power consumption.

There is ample evidence that a Core i5 for socket LGA 1156, though slower, is also an excellent choice. But I do a lot of CPU-heavy synthesis work and so did not want to compromise too much. If you use lots of plugins the same will be true for you. But if your needs are more in the sampling or multi-track recording areas then pure processor power may not be the bottleneck. Instead, buy more RAM and faster hard drives.

The kicker was the price. There was not a big differential between Core i5 and a decent Core i7 processor, so I decided the faster chip was worth it.

Motherboard

Of the ATX motherboards that support socket LGA 1366, many have reported incompatibilities with one line of audio card or another. Now, I lay a lot of blame at the foot of these supposedly "pro" cards. (M-Audio is not a pro company; they make gear for home users. Be realistic: Do not expect professional support or quality from them.) But still, one wants to be as flexible with interfaces as possible. I never know if a guitarist is going to want to plug in his favourite I/O or a fellow composer has a DAC fetish they can't shake. That means being quite picky about the motherboard.

Gigabytes boards utilise a Texas Instruments (TI) chip set for the FireWire controller. This is the only brand likely to be trouble-free with a variety of hardware. Their EX58-UD5 is a premium board with every connector under the sun, six RAM slots (great!) and three video card slots (who cares!). I chose it despite the £200 price tag. I was sorely tempted to save £60 and get the EX58-UD3R, the main limitation of which is that it has only three RAM slots. Though that's all I am using at present, maybe giant sample libraries lie in my future.

CPU Cooler

I chose the Scythe Mugen 2 since it is quiet, inexpensive and significantly better than the stock cooler Intel provides. For radically extreme cooling one might need something more, but that also would be louder. The Mugen comes with a fan, saving me from having to make yet another decision. The fact this can be mounted on any of the four sides of the cooler gives me more freedom, since I have no idea how this will fit in the case's air-flow.

Case

Whether you call it a Full or Mid Tower the Fractal Design Define R2 case is extraordinarily good-looking island (monolith, more like) in a sea of gaudy show-off gaming cases. I like the fact that the front access ports are on top of the computer, so I don't need to reach the ground to plug in a USB device. (eSATA for external hard drives also found here.)

The eight internal drive slots have tool-less removable trays with anti-vibration rubber mountings. Two case fans are included, but there's room for many more. The case is sound insulated and all the extra fan windows come covered to prevent leakage. Of course there's a compromise between blocking sound and blocking air flow, but this case lets us make that choice.

The case has very solid metal side panels but a flimsier plastic construction in the front. Oddly, there is no reset button. But it has four nice chrome feet to provide air flow underneath.

The Fractal case is such a hit, the small Swedish firm that makes it cannot keep up with demand. Delays at retail have previously been up to three months, but this is getting sorted out, I hear.

Power Supply

Yesterday's top-of-the-line power supply is today's mark-down. So it is with the Antec Signature 650, one of the best built pieces of electronics I have ever seen. It looks like it was hand-assembled by a fanatic in Austria and comes in a package more befitting designer shoes from Milan. More to the point, it has excellent electrical figures and is rated for "80 Plus" efficiency. It auto-switches based on the input power and has a straight air path for optimum cooling.

Though I do not need 650W of power, this PSU is very quiet (less than 18 dBA according to one test) when run below 300W. So within that regime I expect to never hear it.

This is a modular PSU, meaning that one can attach the cables one needs and leave the rest in the box. However, this concept is rather ruined by the fact that loads of connectors come already attached. Short of snipping them off (DO NOT do this!) one has to find case space for several useless leads. Why can't they all be modular?

But that is the only down-side I could find.

RAM

I bought three matched sticks of 2GB Corsair DDR3 RAM, branded XMS3, running at 1600MHz. Though there higher-grade RAM is available, what's the point? XMS3 will withstand all but the most extreme overclocking. And I'm not going to do that anyway. Speed = heat = noise.

Graphics Card

I simply found the fastest passively-cooled DirectX 10 card based around an ATI chip. This turned out to be the Sapphire Radeon HD 4670 Ultimate, which has 512MB of memory on board. There is also a version with a fan, so be sure to get the right one. They both have the same name (?) just to make things annoying. You might prefer NVIDIA, but I have a soft spot for a firm that used to be Canadian.

Hard Drive

The 1.5TB Samsung Spinpoint F2 (HD154UI) is an energy-efficient 5400 rpm drive that has a tested transfer rate of 109mb/s. I will also be installing a 300GB Maxtor DiamondMax 10 [6L300S0] from my existing computer to use as the system drive. That one runs at 7200 RPM. Then I'll add in two 1TB drives for project data. I will use one actively and manually mirror my data to the other.

DVD burner

The LG GH22NS40 is reputedly quieter than others and runs about as fast as any these days (22x for normal DVDs and 16x for dual layer).

While I was at it I spent my coffee money on the Akasa AK-ICR-07S memory card reader, a 3.5" slot device that reads the four types of flash cards we have in the house, plus others. Sure beats a floppy drive.

OS

Just to be complete I should mention that I decided on the Professional version of 64-Bit Windows 7, simply for the extra virtual machine compatibility mode. No need to worry about any old apps misbehaving.

And The Price?

Rounding off, this is what I paid, VAT included. I achieved my targets in all areas except the motherboard.

Intel i7 920: £200
Gigabytes EX58-UD5: £200
Scythe Mugen 2: £40
Fractal Design Define R2: £80
Antec Signature 650: £80
3x 2GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3: £130
Sapphire Radeon HD 4670 Ultimate: £60
1.5TB Samsung Spinpoint F2: £75
LG GH22NS40 DVD burner: £20
Akasa AK-ICR-07S memory card reader: £5
Windows 7 Pro 64 Bit: £105

See if any of the vendors can build a system like that for under £1000! (Of course, there is value in them doing all the hard work.) As for comparing this with an Apple... let's just say I can buy two of these for the same price as a similar Mac.

Further Readings

I will first note some easy-to-follow guides. These suffer only in sometimes referencing out-of-date terminology and technologies. The simplest is Build Your Own PC, providing basic definitions and the like. Popular review site Tom's Hardware has a series on How To Build A PC that is good but has a few gaps where they assume too much. The pictures are very helpful, however.

General equipment review sites include bit-tech and AnandTech. These are the ones that bog you down in excruciating technical details.

Two sites that I prefer, since they specialise in the business of quiet computing, are Silent PC Review (SPCR) and Quiet PC -- a trusted vendor of components that has an informative forum.

Sound On Sound magazine has a PC Music column every month. Writer Martin Walker also manages the forum, where helpful UK-specific information may be found. Unfortunately the forum is quite ugly and has much stale info pinned to the top.

Finally, I can recommend SCAN as a reasonably-priced and well-stocked UK vendor. I ended up getting personal help and advice from one of their reps. Ordering was easy and turnaround time great.

I dropped Overclockers UK from consideration when I found out how poorly they did on vendor review sites. This page, for example, shows Overclockers with a score of 1.7/5 compared with SCAN at 3.7/5. Of course all such sites attract those who have had problems and want to complain, but this bias applies across the board. Any sites that have a significant number of ratings can be compared on a level playing field.

In the next instalment of this article series I'll show you how I built my system. Lots of pretty pictures await!

P.S. I receive no compensation from any vendor or manufacturer for these comments. Please donate the price of a coffee (using the Paypal button in the side panel) if I have saved you time or money. As a starving artist I truly appreciate it!

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2 comments:

robin said...

I have priced some comparable systems from three well-regarded vendors. None have as good a video card and some are slightly different in one way or another. But most are very close to what I have built.

Please note that I do not do this to criticise these companies. They build the computer for you, take care of warranty service, sell audio hardware and software and can provide other value-added services.

Still, it is worth noting how much you can save by going DIY. I alluded to this earlier; here are some hard figures.

Rain Element Core i7: £1460
DARC studio +: £1555
Synergy Origin AW700: £1530

robin said...

The full Quiet Computer Build series is now available:
Introduction
Components Overview
Component Picks
Putting It All Together

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