Building Your Own CG Workstation: Part One
If you've ever wanted to build your own computer, there has never been a better time than the present. After the big holiday rush, prices are lower, the availability of popular computer components is high and the internet is packed with excellent guides to take you through your first build step-by-step. Plus, the current level of technology for CPUs (computer processors) and GPUs (graphics cards) is very high. Especially for those interested in creating a workstation for computer graphics.
I was fortunate to be able to research, purchase, build and test my 6th computer build this last December, and this article is a condensation of that longer series of posts at my personal website (rgrove.com). Those posts focused on building a system around the new real-time render application MachStudio Pro (reviewed here at renderosity.com recently) and my main 3D application, MAXON's CINEMA 4D (also reviewed last year).
I'll still be discussing the requirements for those specific programs, but this article will place more emphasis on choosing components that can work well with a wide variety of 3D applications, like Poser, Maya and Adobe's After Effects/Premiere Pro. I do a lot of Machinima and digital editing for live action, so the system I'll be building will be able to handle both CPU intensive tasks like rendering, and GPU intensive tasks like capturing video from a PC Game.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the hardware for most computers is very simply designed for the most part. I was very surprised to find on my first computer build that the average computer is made up of only a half dozen components: the CPU, the Motherboard, the Graphics Card, the Power supply, the Memory (RAM), the Hard Drive and the CD/DVD-Rom. Of course, you need a good monitor, keyboard and mouse, too, but this article won't be covering those parts as they are generic (for the most part) and easy to install.
Anyone with average intelligence and the time to invest in self-teaching can build their own system. While it might seem daunting, it's really not. Not only will you learn a lot in the process, but you'll save money, too. So let's get started.
The process of building a computer consists of four parts:
1. Research & Purchase
Researching any new system build is often the most enjoyable part of creating a new computer. Not only do you find lots of interesting information on computer technology, but you learn a lot in the process. Most of you already know that computer tech is advancing faster than most of us can keep up with. And high-end components are often too expensive for Machinima mortals like me. Still, reading about new tech is exciting to me and I enjoy comparing components and weighing the merits of various motherboards and RAM. There are also some wonderful tech sites out there with very helpful forums. The primary task when you start research is to decide what you are using the computer for. Sounds simple, but you have to put a lot of thought into answering this question because it will determine practically everything you buy. Once you figure this out, you can buy complimentary components which should go together well in the assembly stage.
I chose to build a workstation for CG and Machinima. A workstation (as opposed to a general purpose computer) is a computer which has a very specific function and is not used for every day kinds of things, like email or typing blog posts, etc. My workstation will be built around using CINEMA 4D, MachStudio Pro and a wide variety of animation-related software, like Poser and After Effects. MachStudio Pro is a new, real-time software that allows you to edit the lighting, cameras and materials for your CG project. Since it's real-time, there is no need for expensive render farms, but you do need a fast graphics card, which is why they bundle the ATI FirePro 8750 with the software.
On the other hand, I'll be using CINEMA 4D (and Blender) for the actual content creation (and to support my Machinima work), so I'll need a fast quad-core CPU for rendering. After research at CINEMA 4D sites (a great one is our renderosity C4D Forum) and reading through the MachStudio Pro forums and FAQ's, the best CPU for the job is the new socket LGA 1366, X58 chipset, i7 920, which operates at 2.66 Ghz, but has a ton of overclocking headroom. Add this to the requirements for the FirePro 8750 and you have the two components the workstation will be built around.
My main shopping sites are newegg.com (good, but not always reliable customer feedback), TigerDirect.com, Fry's Electronics (a walk-in store near me) and frozencpu.com, where I bought almost all of the parts for this build from. Taxes are high in California right now (almost 10%), but since there is a warehouse in Southern California, the delivery is usually next-day from newegg.com. Very good customer service and a well-designed website/ordering system has made newegg a main stop for system builders. They also have very competitive prices and regular sales.
The Intel quad-core i7 920 CPU
I think it's pretty obvious that the X58 is the way to go for a relatively current workstation build. I could have gone for the cheaper 1166 chipset, but the upcoming 6 core cpu (spring of 2010) does not support it. Only the 1366 chipset will work with the next generation of Intel CPUs. This was important to me as I want a workstation that is upgradeable, and one that will last longer (my current system is 3 years old and going strong). The problem comes with the fact that the 1366 chipset requires more expensive components, like DDR3 memory and specific motherboards that are mostly in the high $200 range. In my case, I decided to pay the extra money and go with the X58, i7 920 CPU, even though components supporting the chipset are more expensive.
Many builds listed at the forums of these websites, whose primary focus was CG, used the i7 920, and almost all of the builders overclocked the CPU to at least 3.4 Ghz. I collected listings of about a half a dozen builds using this CPU, and started paying attention to hardware that kept reappearing in all of the successful computer builds. The 920 was highly effective in builds for CINEMA 4D, with very high CINEBENCH scores.
The ATI FirePro v8750 Graphics Card
The main difference between a workstation card and a standard GPU (except for the large price disparity) is in the drivers. The FirePro cards have drivers that are specifically designed for CG work, and in this case, the real-time rendering software MachStudio Pro. While not quite as efficient as a gamer's GPU, the FirePro card still works very well and should be able to handle all of my game-related work at the higher end. CINEMA 4D won't see much of a boost, as CPU speed is more a factor for that program, but MachStudio should blaze away.
Now that we have decided on how the system will be used and have two major components chosen, we can begin to look at hardware that will compliment our core choices.
The Coolermaster HAF 932 PC Case
Choosing a case is a lot of fun because there are so many good ones out there at very reasonable prices. One good thing about building a system at the end of the year is that you often have several component "round up" reviews on major tech sites that go into detail on what the best specific computer components are for that year. In my previous system build, I chose the Antec P182 because it had terrific reviews and was at a very reasonable price. That case held me in good stead for several years, but I was ready to try something new this year. mdotStrange's choice of the Coolermaster Cosmos case for his big daddy system got me to looking at Coolermaster cases, which previously I thought were mostly for entry-level builds.
I had a good browse of the cases on sale at Fry's and discovered that the Coolermaster HAF 922 and 932 were awfully well designed. I also liked the Zalman GS1000 which looked very stylish and functional. I toyed briefly with the idea of getting a Lian-Li case, but the high prices drove me away from these beautiful cases. After doing some research and reading reviews at sites like PCStats.com, I was liking the HAF cases even more. I usually buy full ATX cases because my hands are large and I have a hard time maneuvering inside a small case. Plus, larger cases are often cooler cases if you design the fans and airflow correctly. Since the HAF 932 was a large case (and is it ever - weighing in at 30 lbs), I focused on learning as much as I could before I committed to buy.
The Asus P6T Deluxe X58 Motherboard
The motherboard is usually the easiest component for me to choose for a new build because I've been using Asus boards for all but one of my builds. Not only are they great performers, but they last and last if you take care of them. So, when I read the Anandtech.com X58 motherboard roundup and discovered that the Asus P6T Deluxe won their Gold Editor's Award, I was all set to order. However, newegg (which had the best price and is very reliable) customer comments on the mobo made me think twice, as the RMA (return merchandise) percentage for the board was at 15% and many of the recent comments indicated there were a lot of bad boards being shipped (or damaged in transit).
This led me to about 3 weeks of study for alternative motherboards which, in retrospect, was worth the time spent because I discovered a lot about other competing boards and the companies that make them. Gigabyte and EVGA were the leading contenders and both make great boards. EVGA in particular, is the only American mobo manufacturer which I found intriguing. Their customer service had very high ratings and the forums were excellent. Both the Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5 and the EVGA X58 SLI are superb boards. In fact, if you run an Asus board at stock speed (2.66 Ghz), there is literally no difference between it and the other two boards. However, when you start overclocking, the Asus P6T Deluxe really shows it's superiority in not only the ease of using the BIOS, but in how simple Asus has made overclocking this board using their TurboV windows-based application. And there is plenty of clearance around the CPU for the large Megahalems heat-sink which I'll be using. The organization of the motherboard appealed to me as well. The main Sata ports weren't going to be blocked by the huge ATI FirePro 8750 card I'll be using, and the power efficiency of the board is perfect for this graphics card. Asus also has very good customer service, a decent warranty (3 years parts & labor) and they update their bios pretty regularly.
After almost buying the EVGA board, I ended up going for the Asus P6T Deluxe and decided not to worry about the higher return rate. Some of that is just poor preparation by the computer builders and other factors, like installation mistakes (not being grounded, etc). I've had faith in Asus, and every board I've ordered from newegg has been good. Asus packages their products well (see pix) so there shouldn't be a problem in shipping. If by some chance this board is a clinker, well, newegg has a very good return policy and I'll just get another. Fingers crossed.
Crucial DDR3 6 GB PC3-1280 RAM
Every build I've ever done has been with Mushkin memory. This Denver-based company makes top notch RAM that performs perfectly over years and years. And their customer support is the best of any company I've ever dealt with. So, why did I go with Crucial memory? Partly due to Xbitlabs' Triple-Channel Memory Round-Up article, but also because I simply got tired of looking for particular memory kits at the Mushkin site and finding them either discontinued or unavailable. Granted, this was December, but I've never had that problem with Mushkin, and the Xbit article explained that the XMP profile, which is part of the Crucial memory kit, makes configuring RAM in an overclocked system much easier. Mushkin came in a close third in the article, but I couldn't find that memory brand at their site.
Further research on Crucial memory indicated that they are a highly-regarded memory company which uses quality Micron chips for their enthusiast brands, like this one. And although Corsair memory seemed to be the preferred brand for the Asus P6T Deluxe mobo, it was very hard to find the Corsair Dominator memory at reasonable prices. Moreover, the Crucial Ballistix series has low clearance with it's aluminum head-spreaders (no blocking a large heatsink like the Megahalems) and it has an unusual green LED that lights up on the top of the sticks to indicate it's relative activity.
I liked these sticks and found ordering them at the Crucial site to be easy. They arrived in 2 days and were well packed.
Thermaltake Toughpower XT 750W Power Supply
As with the RAM memory, Corsair was the PSU of choice for X58 mobo systems using the i7 920 CPU, but the 750 watt versions were all sold out at the major internet PC parts sites. So, I went looking for another PSU with high ratings and a decent price. JohnnyGuru.com is the site for power supply reviews. The tech folks at this site literally tear every PSU apart to make sure they are put together correctly, as well as running well as a power supply. The author of the Thermaltake TP XT 750W review was Jeremy Schrag, and after reading his thorough (and funny) review, I had no doubt that the Thermaltake PSU was the one for me.
I was particularly concerned about power for the FirePro graphics card, but after double-checking at the ATI site and working out the power demands (plenty of sites to figure your power needs) for my new system, the requirements were well under 750watts and the Thermaltake has plenty of connectors for graphics cards. Plus, it's a modular unit, so I'll only use the power cords I need. And best of all, it's on sale at newegg with a rebate.
ProlimaTech Megahalems CPU Heatsink
Since I'll be over-clocking the CPU, I'll definitely need something better than the stock heatsink that comes with the i7 920 CPU. There are many excellent brands to choose from (Noctua and Thermalright), but it was the heat sink with the Star Trek sounding title that won me over. While other brands had slightly better cooling results, I was very impressed with how easy it was to install this heat sink. Youtube had some excellent install/review vids on this heatsink that finally sold me on it. Price was good and it was in supply at most of the online sellers. The only caveat was that it didn't come with a fan, so I ended up losing the money I saved on this heatsink, since I had to buy two recommended fans (one to pull, the other to push the air through the heatsink fins). Fortunately, FrozenCPU.com had a nice deal on the unit, and I've always heard good things about this company. So, I went ahead and ordered the Megahalems heatsink, two Yate-Loon 120mm fans and an extra applicator of Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste (for the CPU). Everything came within the week, nicely packed and now sitting on my kitchen table ready to be installed.
Of course, I'm hoping that this heatsink install will be a lot easier than the last one I did, which turned out to be an hour and half of hell. I think I made the right choice though.
Windows 7 64-bit Professional OEM
I've followed the release of Windows 7, read reviews and checked the CINEMA 4D and MachStudio Pro sites, and all of them say that Windows 7 64-bit is the way to go for a CG workstation. I had an opportunity to work with Windows 7 in my new Sony laptop and liked it very much. Although I was annoyed that Microsoft made it impossible to update Windows XP unless you re-install (you have to reinstall everything as the only real "upgrade" is through Vista), I liked the reviews and had nary a problem with my laptop. Seems they got this operating system right. And I definitely needed to upgrade to a 64-bit system, since it allows you to have a huge amount of RAM, which is very tasty for CG workstations like mine. I'll start out with 6Gb DDR3, but will probably upgrade to 12Gb DDR3 in the spring.
All the components ready to be assembled
So there you have it - all of the parts which took me about a month to research and choose. The main thing to keep in mind when you choose your PC parts, is that they all work together (check the manufacturer's website) and that the company you buy the parts from has a good RMA policy. I've been lucky in all of my builds and have never had to return a part, but there is always a first time.
I haven't listed a hard-drive or a CD rom purchase because I'll be pulling these item from my current system. FYI: I use a 500gb Windows Black for my system drive and a Lite-On Blu Ray drive for my DVD/CD rom. I will be buying a large 1.5 Tb drive for storage once the sales start rolling in at Fry's.
I recommend keeping a notebook which contains all of your receipts and notes on every part you've purchased (along with dates, etc). This will make it much easier for you in the future if you have to get this info for reference or returns. I also use the notebook to record any notes on the system build and to record the process of putting the system together. These kinds of details seem superfluous at first, but later when you need to troubleshoot a problem that might come up, your notes will come in handy.
As far as Preparing for the Build (step 2), you'll need to read through the manuals of your components (especially the motherboard manual). And if you are following a step-by-step tutorial, be sure to have it printed out and read it over carefully. You'll also need to buy a basic kit for computer repair which comes with an anti-static wrist strap (very important). These kits are cheap and can be purchased at Fry's or any other reputable computer dealer.
Next Up in Part Two
We will assemble all of the parts we've purchased, and then run basic stability tests to make sure they play nice together. Then, we'll install the software and have some fun.
Be sure to read Ricky's related article: MachStudio Pro and the Future of Real-Time Rendering
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and Machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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