I’ve now been fortunate enough to build 3 computers in one year, and I don’t think anything could make me feel luckier except for the caliber of the third build itself. This is going to be a long post, but for a system specced like this that’s almost a requirement. Let’s get to it!
(P.S. - Yes, I did the cup holder thing again.)
A very good friend of mine goes to Kansas State University for Architectural Design. The program there requires that every third year student purchases their own workstation computer, with a recommended budget range of $3500-$7500. Maxing out at $7500 with a prebuilt system from HP or Dell will land you at most an 8-core Xeon workstation with a basic hard drive setup and 16GB of RAM. My friend knows I've built 2 PCs and have helped several people configure theirs, so we got together and said "**** it, we'll build it ourselves!". For less than $5500, which would get you a median price PC within the $3500-$7500 range, we built a $4700 PC that trumps the prebuilts of any big-box company's $7500 offering. Since my friend actually lives in Nebraska and Kansas at different times during the Summer, he also needed a build that wasn't too big. K-State Architectural Design uses some pretty advanced software. AutoCAD, Revit, 3DS Max, Rhino, Grasshopper, VRay, SolidWorks, and the entire Adobe CS6 line.
This is build #3: APEX, the 10-core, 20-thread, 3D modeling and photon mapping workstation that eats prebuilts for breakfast. Leagues ahead of my personal VALKYRIE build, and a monument of my extreme jealousy. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to build something like this.
In nature, the apex predator is that which is hunted by no other - it resides at the very top of its food chain. It is the deadliest, most powerful being of its environment. And this system is going to be the most powerful machine in the KSU 3rd year studio this year…with a good chance of also being the cheapest.
|CPU||Intel Xeon E5-2690 V2 3.0GHz 10-Core CPU||$1992.98|
|Motherboard||Asus Rampage IV Gene||$254.99|
"The Budget Destroyer". I really wanted to fit the e5-2697 V2 in the build (12 cores/24 threads, 2.7GHz), but as big as a $4700 budget seems, it's not so big when you factor in the $800 GPU and $460 disk setup, among other things. I tried to keep the costs of everything else down as much as possible, but the minimum budget for the 12-core was $5000 and sacrificed a lot in the disk setup. Went with the next best thing, the 10-core 2690 V2.
This $2000 monster is no slouch. It'll be a massive benefit with Revit, which uses up to 16 cores for near-photorealistic simulations, and any other modeling program. The rationale is that even with software that does not use that many threads, he'll still see a benefit from such a massive CPU in multitasking - instead of sitting around for an hour while his model renders, he can work on something else too. K-State Architectural Design is notorious for making its undergrads sleep-deprived with how much work they're given, so we wanted to invest heavily into a CPU that could chew through renders and multitask if need be. Task manager was a beautiful thing to behold with its 20 threads :)
The motherboard was really the only option available for a microATX form factor X79 build. It's a great quality motherboard, and as with most ASUS boards comes with superb onboard fan control, which is important in a workstation - low noise keeps you sane when your CPU is under load for hours at a time. The only workaround we needed to do was a BIOS flash without access to an already compatible CPU, as the RIV Gene does not support the 2690 V2 out of the box. Fortunately ASUS USB BIOS Flashback allowed us to flash to a supported BIOS without a second CPU or even RAM installed.
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U14S||$64.99|
|Case Fan||BitFenix Spectre Pro Green LED 200mm Fan||$18.45|
|Case Fan||Noctua NF-S12A PWM 120mm Fan||$16.99|
The higher end of Intel's Xeon e5 lineup are definitely enormous performers, but they're also server processors. As server CPUs they're focused on high efficiency in terms of power draw and thermal output. To ensure stability this CPU in particular actually throttles itself at 86C rather than the 100C of many mainstream Intel CPUs. For this reason, while it's not essential to have an enormous cooling solution, you still want something reliable and low-maintenance (especially for a workstation PC). Pair that with silence and lack of a case window, and every time I'll be coming back to Noctua for CPU coolers and fans.
AIO liquid coolers were out of the question - too many points of failure for a system that's so mission-critical and for a user that's not a PC nerd like me. I have an H100i but if I was going to do studio work with my PC I would definitely go with a heatsink. If the fan dies, you still have a hunk of metal and case airflow for decent cooling until you can find another fan. With an AIO all bets are off until you get a replacement. Downtime needs to be zero in a workstation. For silence I took it even further and got Noctua's largest single-tower heatsink, as the Aerocool DS Cube case supports cooler heights of up to 190mm.
The DS Cube supports a 120mm rear fan, so I went with the spectacular Noctua NF-S12A for the rear (have 3 of them myself and love their airflow:noise). For the front fan I actually broke off to Bitfenix, as the front supports a whopping 200mm fan (a size which Noctua does not currently sell at the time of this writing). 200mm fans offer absolutely insane airflow:noise performance due to their sheer blade surface area.
|Memory||G.Skill Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 (Red)||$144.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 (Red)||$144.99|
Wanted to max out the RAM on this motherboard, as it's an extremely important factor when working with large model renders/exports. Not much to say here. G.Skill is a reputable brand and the price was right.
|Video Card||PNY NVIDIA Quadro K4000||$767.99|
This is the second specialty component in this rig. Most users around here are used to hearing about GeForces and Radeons when it comes to talking about GPUs. The less common product lineups from AMD and Nvidia are the AMD FirePro and Nvidia Quadro. Both are marketed as workstation graphics, and rightly so. When you compare the raw specs from card to card when looking at equally priced GeForces/Radeons, workstation GPUs seem pretty lackluster. The main differentials between gaming cards and workstation cards are drivers, support, and software-specific GPU acceleration.
AMD and Nvidia release drivers for their workstation line after a much higher level of scrutiny and communication with software partners than they do for their gaming cards. Driver incompatibility leading to downtime is not acceptable for professional uses. For programs like AutoCAD and 3DS Max, you actually see an enormous benefit from going with a workstation GPU versus a gaming GPU. The main workspace for those programs is called the “viewport” and it runs much smoother on workstation cards. The smoother it runs, the less you worry about sluggishness and the more you can focus on the task at hand. The tool should never be the bottleneck - the creative mind should.
This card combined with the CPU cooler and motherboard's PCIe slot layout caused a minor slowdown in the build. The cooler fins are wide enough that they actually touch the exposed back of the video card! To work around this we just needed to put a layer of electrical tape on the back of the card and the edge of the heatsink to protect the card and prevent it from shorting out. In a normal build this wouldn't really be an issue, but with the motherboard sitting horizontal instead of vertical, there's no sag to create a gap between the two.
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 460 120GB 2.5" SSD||$91.13|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 460 120GB 2.5" SSD||$91.13|
|Storage||Crucial MX100 256GB 2.5" SSD||$109.99|
|Storage||Seagate 2TB 7200RPM 3.5" HDD||$99.00|
|Storage||Seagate 2TB 7200RPM 3.5" HDD||$99.00|
Here’s where things might not be too obvious. At first glance this disk setup looks kind of absurd. It almost doesn’t make any sense. There were a couple things I needed to consider when choosing drives for this system: workflow efficiency, speed, speed consistency (steady state performance), and reliability.
When it comes to graphical content creation software, you have 3 basic tasks that your computer must complete: run the software, read raw materials, and output the raw materials in a finished result. This is the thought process leading to the 3-SSD setup. One SSD has the OS and programs installed on it, another simply holds raw photos/videos or previously created models/textures, and the final one is the destination of export or render files. In this setup, no one drive has to divide its own resources on the same SATA interface by reading or writing data within itself. The OS drive is the “shot caller”. You work in this drive. The shot caller requests raw materials from the second SSD and uses your commands to output a finished result on the export drive. In this way a smooth data pipeline is formed that utilizes multiple SATA interfaces and drives in order to maximize the efficiency of reading and writing data.
When it comes to the individual drives themselves, steady state performance also needs to be considered. The Crucial MX100 is merely an OS and programs drive. Most tasks when working on the drive will be done in short bursts (opening programs, booting up, opening a new tab, etc) while all of the work done on the OCZ Vertex 460s will involve long render times and big data movement. A simple building design may be several gigabytes in size. Steady state performance is the measure of how well a drive consistently keeps up its read/write speeds when writing large amounts of data over time. OCZ has a lot of top performers in this regard (Vector, Vector 150, Vertex 460, Vertex 450) even if they are not the fastest drives in terms of short bursts like the Samsung 840 Pro/EVO or Corsair Neutron GTX, which is why the Crucial is the boot drive while the OCZ’s are the “work” drives. The right hardware for the right tasks.
Finally we come to the dual 2TB hard drives. These are merely backup drives. Specifically, NAS-rated hard drives set up as standalone volumes for maximum redundancy. These are not in RAID1 so as to avoid the case where my friend accidentally deletes a project and loses everything. In RAID1 the project would be deleted from both drives simultaneously. As standalone volumes he would simply lose the data from one drive and be able to copy it back over from his backup on the secondary drive. The only downside is that when backing up files, he must manually copy each file twice. But that’s the small price you pay for maximum redundancy when you've only got space for two 3.5" drives. RAID1 may be the worst concept to have been created for hard drives as it often gives users a very false sense of security and has the potential to work against the desired goal of data safety.
|Case||Aerocool DS Cube Black/White MicroATX Mini Tower||$119.98|
We needed something small enough to be easily taken to and from Kansas State University and his home, able to fit into a small computer locker when not in use, and yet still capable of housing 3 SSDs, 2 HDDs, possibly a Quadro+GeForce, and an ODD. As he’s an architectural design major, he does also see the value in good aesthetics and obviously was financially able to afford a case with nice aesthetics. And actually the case isn't overly expensive compared to the market. Enter the Aerocool DS Cube.
I’m not going to lie, this was a challenge to build in. Clearance and airflow are not going to be a problem, but just the process of working in the case was much harder than any mid or full tower. I suppose that comes with the territory though. I’ve always heard about small form factor builds being a challenge, but I’ve never had to experience the challenge until now. We packed 3 SSDs, 2 HDDs, and a PSU with full length cables to power all of them in this little mATX case!
Cable management would usually be pretty decent in a case like this, but sadly the only free space for bundling up extra cables is the lower left of the rear side panel. Which happens to also be where the 2 backup drives need to be connected. It was a real pain being able to plug in those drives with all the cable clutter already there. I couldn’t really see where I was going - just had to look at the keying and stick my hand in the general vicinity hoping I’d catch the pins. The SATA power cables on this Silverstone PSU have extra long reach, which honestly is extremely welcome for tower cases but very hard to work with for a small form factor case like this. I should have gone with a Silverstone PP05-E short cable set, but I didn’t know what to expect going in and so we had to build with what was already ordered.
Overall I am actually very impressed with this case. Most of the troubles we had would have been solved by using the PP05-E kit, which is no fault of Aerocool’s case design. Just an oversight by me, the parts selector. The case supports an incredible amount of hard drives for the motherboard standard it needs to accommodate, and supports them in stacked bays instead of flat mounts in every which way (I’m looking at you, Bitfenix Phenom M/Prodigy M). Cooling is typical of most of these squat, chubby sort of SFF cases: few fan mounts, but supports enormous fan in the front and has large CPU heatsink clearance. The aesthetics are amazing and my friend loves the black/white contrast, much like myself. The aesthetics of my VALKYRIE build rubbed off on him I think.
|Power Supply||Silverstone Strider Plus 850W 80+ Silver||$119.99|
850W is probably about twice as much as his system draw is going to be running a stock Xeon and a K4000. The main deciders here were price at the time of purchase, full modularity, and room for expansion to RAID cards, a supplemental GeForce rendering card for Adobe applications, a larger hard drive array, and possibly upgrading to a dual-CPU motherboard later. Few of which are things that will fit in the current case, but the case used right now was only chosen because he’ll have to transport the build fairly often. In the future when this is no longer a problem, he can keep the PSU while expanding instead of buying a borderline one now and needing to buy another one later.
The ends of each cable were pretty stiff, but I liked that Silverstone color coded the connectors so that the mandatory ones (24-pin, CPU 8-pin, SATA power) were black while all the expansion ones (molex, PCIe) were blue. Again, I really wish I’d gone with the PP05-E short cable set.
One interesting thing about this PSU: it doesn’t have an On/Off switch on the back. So I wouldn’t pick it for a water cooling build where you need to cycle your loop by flipping that switch. Other than that though I don’t know if lack of an On/Off switch is a good or bad thing.
|Optical Drive||Asus DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS DVD/CD Writer||$16.99|
I passed down this legendary piece of hardware to my friend. This is the very same optical drive used as a cup holder in my VALKYRIE build. Once we saw that the computer successfully POSTed and entered the BIOS, we put a celebratory cup into this holy optical drive in order to continue the tradition. The Rampage IV Gene comes with hard drive labels, and my friend, in a stroke of genius, suggested that I label the optical drive “Cup Holder 1”. One of the best ideas I’ve ever heard!
|Monitor||Acer K272HULbmiidp 2560x1440 27.0"||$399.99|
|Keyboard||Cooler Master CM Storm Devastator Mouse and Keyboard Bundle||$29.99|
For the peripherals my friend had some simple requests: 1440p and a functional mouse and keyboard, both without breaking the bank.
At $400 the monitor was no slouch in terms of the hit on his wallet, but it was actually the cheapest matte screen 1440p monitor available, excluding the Korean PLS imports from the likes of QNIX and Crossover. It has a decent tilt stand, but I would have liked to see the ability to swivel and rotate. There’s no backlight bleed at all and we couldn’t find any dead pixels, so great job on Acer for that. Believe it or not, a 1440p monitor was actually outlined in his school’s list of recommended hardware. The reason being that each student is assigned a locker to safely store their computers in. There isn’t enough space in there for multiple monitors, so the college recommends the highest resolution IPS display a student can afford.
The mouse and keyboard are the peripherals equivalent of the Hyper 212 EVO CPU cooler - absolutely massive value for money. The keyboard floored me. Not only does it have on/off backlighting and volume control buttons, but the keys are all made of a matte, soft-touch plastic to avoid fingerprints. The letters are all laser-etched to eliminate wear and tear. The physical feel of the rubberdome keys was fantastic. Almost as good as my Cherry MX Brown mechanical keyboard! I’ve never felt such sharp, tactile rubberdomes before. Great keyboard.
The mouse has 3-stage DPI control in the form of a rocker (same as the Gigabyte GM-M8000X that I own and adore) and blue LED lighting. Clicks were sharp and mechanical with no squeaking. Overall the bundle is absolutely amazing.
|Other||CyberPower PFC Sinewave UPS (600W/1000VA)||$132.57|
This is actually one of the more interesting items out of the bunch, which is weird to say since it’s essentially just a battery. This is a UPS, or Uninterruptible Power Supply. Basically it’s a surge protector that stores energy from the wall socket. The computer is always running off of this battery power and the UPS is constantly being charged up. Because it charges at a faster rate than the system is drawing power, there is no sudden shutdown in the case of a power outage. Your system keeps on running, giving you time to save all your work and shut down fully.
This is great to have for workstation use, but I always advocate it to anybody running RAID so that their array doesn’t drop. For my friend’s purposes however, this is going to be a life saver in a power outage. It may be $130 and he may never use it, but it only takes one power outage to justify the price. Kind of like insurance. To test out the functionality of the UPS, we let it sit overnight to charge up, then the next day I had my friend run Cinebench. Halfway through the test I got up and unplugged the UPS from the outlet, entirely disconnecting the system from any outside power. It just kept on chugging! It was surreal to watch.
|Total||Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available.||$4738.11|
And there we have it! I doubt I’ll ever get my hands on such high end computer hardware for years and years. The build itself went fairly smoothly. There were several challenges that could have been solved using that short cable set, like trying to squeeze in the PSU and wiring up the hard drives.
If I have any misgivings, they're all about the fact that this had to be ready before this coming Fall semester. I'm sure many of you know that X99, DDR4, and Haswell-E are on the horizon and X79 is on the way out. This is the sort of computer you build to last for years on end (imagine throwing out a $2000 CPU!), so it's unfortunate that we didn't have the time to wait and take advantage of the new releases coming later this year.
EDIT 7/23/14: And as of yesterday...the new releases include the Quadro K4200 later this year.
I have some brief test results to share from the short time I had with the system:
We set the fans to their lowest RPM between the 0C - 50C temperature range in ASUS Fan Xpert. When under load, the CPU never goes above 55C thanks to the huge 200mm intake and 140mm heatsink. Basically his computer is dead silent 100% of the time. You can’t hear a darn thing with your head next to the side and it's cranking out 15.02 points in Cinebench R11.5
Cinebench R11.5 Multicore:
- Temperature: 52C
- Score: 15.02
Cinebench R11.5 Single Core:
- Score: 1.22
- Temperature: 55
- Score: 1340
I almost cried manly tears when seeing that ridiculous Cinebench R11.5 multicore result. Then I remembered that the benchmark doesn’t take advantage of the system’s multiple disk setup, meaning for real world tasks it will be even faster than this benchmark can tell. Absolutely amazing.
Thank you for reading! This time around I had a real camera with me instead of a camcorder. I took every picture with an old Nikon D70, a new Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, and individually edited in Photoshop CS6. It's a labor of love. I don’t think I got enough glam shots of the finished build, but I did my best to capture the build process and steal some artsy angles/compositions along the way. Once again thank you to the staff of PCPartPicker.com for the wonderful site. It never ceases to be an incredible tool when configuring a build.
Good luck with the rest of your time at KSU, brother. I hope this machine we built together serves you well and makes your life a little bit easier. And of course, don't be afraid to brag to every other black-box prebuilt PC user in your class about how your PC is nicer looking, faster, and 2/3 the cost of theirs! Go get that degree.