Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cases and PSUs - New Recommendations!

12-25-2012:  A lot of this information is taken directly from the previous post on the subject, but I feel like there's enough new information to justify a new post.

Choosing a case and PSU for your new PC build is often something of an afterthought. It's easy to make the mistake of focusing in hard on your sweet, sweet CPU and GPU purchases, buying the best performing components you can afford, then sticking them in whatever case you can buy with what's left of your budget, along with the cheapest PSU you could find that would (supposedly) power your build.

The reality is that Cases and PSUs are, in a way, the most important part of any PC build. A case with poor cooling performance might result in long term (or, in extreme cases, even short-term) damage to your components. The harder it is to build in your case, the more likely you are to accidentally damage the case, your components, or yourself (the cheaper the case, the sharper the edges) trying to force things. And if the case was hard to build in, it won't be easy to upgrade components in, or clean. Keep in mind that a great case is an investment. Unlike a processor or graphics card, which can go from cream of the crop to just 2nd (or 3rd) best in the time it takes to get it shipped to your door, your case can be around for a long time, and be home to many upgrades and new builds, as long as you buy a solid model that gives you room to grow. It's worth the extra expense. A PSU is even more significant. A quality, enthusiast grade PSU is a solid, efficient, purpose built piece of electronics, and if you keep things reasonable, it will serve you well through upgrades, and even new builds. A quality PSU can do all you ask of it and more, and while you shouldn't go crazy, you'd be surprised by what a nice Seasonic or Corsair or Antec (etc.) can do for you. Of course, if you choose poorly, you could turn your multi-hundred dollar PC build into a paperweight fashioned of smoldering silicon trapped within sheet metal.

Below you'll find information and guidelines on Case and PSU choice, as well as some recommendations on what might be a good buy for your budget.


When looking at cases, I recommend looking for the following features as a baseline:

1. Cable Management - At this point, reasonable cable management features are so common in cases at all budget levels that there really isn't any reason to buy a case without them. Sometimes the case will have a large void on the right side of the motherboard tray (many older Cooler Master cases like the CM Storm Sniper use this method), others will have cutouts (sometimes with rubber grommets) to bring cables back through. Ideally the case will feature a cutout for your 8 pin CPU power cable as well, but some cheaper cases with cable management don't have them. If you're lucky and careful, you might be able to thread your 8 pin under your motherboard and through the CPU backplate cutout to mimic the effect. Regardless of the style or number/location of cutouts offered, the basic idea is always the same, moving cables behind the motherboard tray as much as possible and bringing them out right where they need to be. Cable management doesn't just make your case innards look pretty, it helps your case stay cool.

2. Bottom-mounted PSU w/ Vent - Once again, this feature is very common on quality cases of all budget levels, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding something you like. Basically this feature improves case layout by placing your PSU at the bottom of the case, where it can intake cool air from under the case and exhaust it. It largely removes your PSU from the thermal equation. It's nice if the vent is filtered.

3. Good Thermal Options - At the very least your case should have mounts for a front intake fan, and a rear exhaust fan. These should be at least 120mm fan mounts. Ideally you'll have options side intake and top exhaust fans as well (2 fan mounts for each location is fairly standard in a good enthusiast level case). If you have multiple front intake fans (or a single larger, say, 200mm fan) the side intake is less important. Filtered intakes are a plus.

4. General Good Design - I always look for a few additional good design decisions in a case. A good case should feature at least some tool-less/screwless options for hardware mounting. Understandably, tool-less mechanisms are less numerous the lower the price of the case, but the best budget options still often feature thumbscrews, and/or a single tool-less mount on the 5.25 bays. The HDD cages should be oriented to place the "back" of the drive, where your SATA and Power connectors are, toward the side of the case with the motherboard tray, to facilitate cable routing. Keep an eye out for a nice sized CPU backplate cutout, it'll make attaching an aftermarket cooler immeasurably easier. Finally, most cases worth your time will have at least 2 front panel USB 2.0 ports to go with the HD audio hookups.

Naturally, these baselines can't cover everything, depending on your budget or intended usage (HTPC cases are usually pretty short on cable routing possibilities, for example) you might find that some of those features aren't necessary to you. But, for a standard tower for the computer enthusiast and/or gamer, that's the stuff you want.

After you've taken a look at what's available and eliminated those cases that just don't make the cut, buy within your budget, and keep aesthetics under consideration. You'll be less inclined to take care of something you can barely stand to look at. There are a number of unique touches and additions that can increase the value of the case for your particular build, so be thorough and make sure you've found something you can live with. If you're having trouble figuring out where to start, check the list below for some good starting points at various budget levels.

~$40:  NZXT Source 210 - There are several options for cases at around this price level but frankly none of them really float my boat.  In the dim and distant past NZXT sold a pair of well-equipped but bare-bones cases (the NZXT Gamma and Beta Evo) for around $40 which I would normally recommend here.  Their replacement, the Source 210, looks more staid, and is at least (if not more) functional in terms of fan setups, but has HDD orientation issues and, weirdly, I miss the funky styling of the Gamma and Beta Evo.

~$60:  Cooler Master HAF 912 - Let's be real for a minute: there are definitely better looking cases to be had for $60.  I'm of the opinion, though, that there aren't any *better* cases for $60.  Yes, the front is chunky, plasticy and flared.  Yes, the unpainted steel interior is blah at best, ugly at worst.  But look past that and you'll find a spacious case with good cable routing features, removeable drive cages, and a small cage just for 2.5'' drives.  The included fan setup is basic but competent with included front and rear 120mm fans.  Fully loaded the case will allow for one of Cooler Master's honking 230mm fans up front, or dual 120mm fans, ditto for the top.  There's also room for a single 120mm fan on the side if your video card really needs some fresh air.

~$80:  Cooler Master Storm Enforcer - The Storm Enforcer is basically just a HAF 912 with a black interior, covered 5.25'' bays, and a different weird plasticy protrusion on the front.  Aside from the obvious aesthetic differences, the case includes a superior default fan setup (230mm fans at the top and front, 120mm at rear).  Once again, if you can deal with the looks, you're getting a great case with what I would definitely say are $20 worth of extras over its more basic cousin.

~$100:  Corsair 400R - Corsair has engineered some of the best case interiors around.  This one isn't much different, with great cable routing features, plenty of room, and loads of (unfortunately unremovable) 3.5'' drive bays.  The default fan setup is solid (2x120mm up front and 1x120mm in the back) with lots of space to grow (2x120mm up top, 2x120mm on the side, 2x120mm on the other side of the drive cages).  It even comes with additional extras like a built in fan controller.

~$120:  Fractal Design Define R4 - The R4 is the bigger, better successor to the already well-liked Define R3.  Like the R3, the R4 is designed for quiet operation, with built in noise-deadening foam and use of quiet 140mm fans.  It's not much taller than its predecessor, but it is wider, which helps make up for the room that the foam takes up and makes cable routing easier.  Some small irritants from the R3 (the loose grommets in the cable routing cutouts, for example) have been resolved, and there's a new fan controller up front.  Additional features include loads of fan ports (2x140mm up front, same up top, 1x140mm in the back, 1x140mm on the bottom, 1x140mm on the side) as well as removable 3.5'' drive cages and a pair of 2.5'' drive mounts on the back of the motherboard tray.

~$140:  Cooler Master HAF XM - The Cooler Master HAF XM is one hell of a mid tower.  It comes with 230mm fans up front and up top, with a 120mm fan in the back.  There are 2 3.5'' hot-swap bays accessible from the front of the case, below the 5.25'' bays.  Inside there are removable 3.5'' drive cages, along with tons of internal space, grommeted cable cutouts, and a 2.5'' drive tray on the back of the motherboard tray, which is pretty cool.

Can you spend more money?  Absolutely.  There are some pretty spectactular cases available, from high end aluminum cases, to completely custom jobs.  The real question is whether or not your *should* spend more.  Most people don't need the space offered by a really big, expensive case, so the answer to that question is generally "no," but if you're looking at a custom water cooling loop, or something even more insane, you'll be looking to spend more than is reasonable.  Drop by the thread to let us know what you're planning and we'll see if we can help.

Power Supplies

Buying a power supply is a crucial decision, and it doesn't respond well to the kind of "pop it in our test rig and benchmark it" style of reviewing that most PC component review sites tend to favor. In many cases, a power supply that runs a test rig just fine can be less efficient than advertised, unable to pull its rated peak wattage, and have out of specification electrical ripple and noise that can damage your components. Fewer sites than you'd think actually test power supplies correctly, below are 3 of my favorites:

Hardware Secrets

All of these sites are very transparent about their methodology, which is good because I've found that legitimate power supply reviews are very important in determing the correct supply to buy. For example, reviews might help you find out that while some Antec PSU lines are very solid (True Power New, original Earthwatts below 650W), others are mediocre to terrible (new Earthwatts, original Earthwatts from 650W and up, Basiq). This hodgepodge of awesome, acceptable, and awful product lines occurs largely because most major PSU vendors sell PSU lines that are rebadged (and sometimes modified) power supplies from other companies (Seasonic, CWT, and many others). So, while one line might benefit by being based on a solid Seasonic platform, another might be crippled by being based on a (literally) explosive Huntkey PSU. Because you don't have time to deconstruct a boatload of power supplies, your best option is to let good, reputable reviewers do the legwork for you.

So, you have some good resources that will let you know what to look for, but when you find it, you find that it has 2 12V rails, and your good buddy told you that quality PSUs should only have a single 12V rail. Or, it's modular, and that same buddy told you all about how that's bad and not as good as hardwired cables.

Your buddy is an idiot.

Apologies for my bluntness, but there are numerous myths/semi-myths that you hear all the time about PSUs that can really interfere with the buying process. Let's take a look at some “conventional wisdom” that is simply incorrect:
  • Modular cabling increases resistance/is another point of failure/is at increased risk for corrosion: The first and second points are technically true, but in the first case, the added resistance is entirely negligible, it's roughly equivalent to a few additional inches of cabling. Modular cables are, in theory, at slightly increased risk for failure, but the risk is very slim in a quality supply, and if you use PSU cable extensions (for example) you're essentially assuming the same risk, just slightly further down the cable. The third claim is just untrue. Modular cabling, either in fully or partially modular supplies, is really helpful in maintaining a clean build. It's a nice feature to have that usually comes at a price premium. Don't spend loads of additional money on it, but it is worth a reasonable amount of cash to have on a quality supply.
  • Single Rail/Multi Rail designs are superior to Multi Rail/Single Rail designs: The objections here are slightly different. Single rail designs get boosted by many because of issues multi-rail supplies had 4-5 years ago with load balancing. Since then, design has improved and those problems are a thing of the past (at least in quality supplies). Multi-rail supplies are “superior” because Single-Rail supplies above a certain wattage (around 600W) have OCP (over current protection) that is set so high out of necessity (because all of the current on the 12V rail is on a single rail) that it's likely that, in the event of a short circuit that the SCP (Short Circuit Protection) doesn't catch, you'll sustain serious to catastrophic component damage before the OCP kicks in. Now, it's really unlikely that such a short circuit would occur, so really Multi-Rail vs. Single-Rail is a non-issue, but if you really want the absolute safest supply and you need more than 600ish Watts, go with a quality Multi-Rail unit.
  • Headroom! More Headroom!: Okay, so often I'm the first person to buy more than I need, but a quality PSU is a well-designed, precision engineered, ass-kicking beast with as many safety precautions built in as the manufacturer can fit onto a PCB.  Buy enough PSU to run your PC at full bore and no more.  You'll hardly ever use that much PSU, and you'll be burning money in electricity bills if you buy a PSU where your normal usage doesn't fall roughly in the area where the PSU is most efficient.

So with all that said, here's a few manufacturer recommendations/warnings to keep in mind as you buy your PSU:

The Good

Corsair – Corsair has made something of a name for itself in the PSU sector, and they do make some of the better PSUs available today (their AX series, mostly). Many of their older lines are still favorites among enthusiasts, though other companies have come out with competing/superior lines. Still, those are completely solid supplies, even if they aren't the best performers anymore. With the exception of the current “Builder Series” (PSUs labeled CX430, CX500, CX600, which are labeled at higher wattages than they probably should be), and the new Gamer Series (which are solid, but probably overpriced, and mostly exist to be sold at brick and mortar outlets like Best Buy) I would recommend a Corsair supply without hesitation.

Seasonic – Seasonic makes some of the best PSUs in the world, including most of the best PSUs in the world from vendors like Corsair and Antec. You see, Seasonic is both an OEM vendor, and a Retail vendor. Most of their retail supplies are clustered around lower wattages, usually under 650W, but they make high quality, efficient supplies.

Superflower - Superflower doesn't actually make PSUs for the retail market in the US.  This is a shame, because they have a new 80+ Platinum platform coming out, and their 80+ Gold platform, the aptly named "Golden Green," was brilliant, with strong performance and unusually good scaling.  Fortunately for American consumers, multiple companies have rebadged Golden Green PSUs for sale in America, including NZXT's Hale90 series, Rosewill's Lightning series, and Kingwin's Lazer Gold units.

Silverstone - As far as I know, Silverstone is the only company that retails a good selection of SFX PSUs.  They're even releasing an 80+ gold version of their 450W SFX unit that is fully modular.  Silversone also makes a range of standard ATX PSUs, many of which are fully modular.  Silverstone usually uses Enhance as their OEM.

Antec – Despite my continued dislike of Antec's Basiq series of PSUs, I've come to the conclusion that Antec is doing much more right than wrong in the PSU market these days. The True Power New line (which appears to be EOLed) is great, as are the True Power Quattro units. The Antec Neo Eco units are really solid Seasonic-based units that are absolutely perfect for budget-conscious builders. The Antec High Current Gamer supplies are, at least at most wattages, built on the Seasonic S12II Bronze platform, so they're also a great budget-friendly choice. Antec also makes one of the best 1200W supplies available, the 1200W High Current Pro. The Earthwatts line is an adequate budget-friendly line of PSUs. I wouldn't use their higher wattage units in a higher-end build, but their low-wattage units are reliable, even if their performance won't wow you.

The Mediocre

Thermaltake – Thermaltake pretty much averages out to mediocre. Their Toughpower and Toughpower XT lines are both solid, if generally overpriced. Their other lines, though, like their TR2 supplies, are generally terrible, with a few thoroughly mediocre units in the mix.

Rosewill - Rosewill has some truly horrid crud, but also has some solid units, and some great units. In particular, their Gold-certified Lightning units are OEM'd by Superflower using their fantastic "Golden Green" platform, and are really solid values with some high voltage options for those who need them.

NZXT - These guys have recently stepped up to the plate with some seriously nice supplies. They have some more "budget-friendly" PSUs OEM'd by Seasonic, and their Hale90 series of PSUs is OEM'd by Superflower, and is a great platform.  Unfortunately some of their more recent "budget" focused supplies have been revealing some issues, despite coming from such a reliable OEM.

OCZ - OCZ has been in the PSU game for a while now, and the good news is that you could definitely do worse.  The bad news is that you could also do better.  Some of OCZ's supplies (the Fatal1ty 750W unit and most of the ModXStream units, for example) are somewhat overrated, at least when looking at their 12V ratings.  They do make a wide range of units, including some fully modular 80+ Bronze models, and higher end 80+ Gold ones as well, but you can often find better performing units at similar price points.

The Bad

Cooler Master – It's surprising, in a way, that a company that makes some really great cases also makes some exceptionally terrible PSUs. Out of all the power supplies that Cooler Master has in their lineup, only the Silent Pro M is really worth your time, and even those supplies aren't particularly good values. Aside from the 4 supplies in that line, avoid like the plague.

Ultra Products – Ultra has had a fairly tarnished reputation for a while, and has made some steps toward redemption recently, but between their fairly frivolous lawsuit regarding modular PSUs, and some recent incidences of them falsely claiming SLI certification, it's really hard to label them as anything other than a cruddy company.

Raidmax - I don't think I've ever met a Raidmax PSU I didn't hate.  They have a distressing tendency toward taking old, obsolete designs, adding enough modern touches to get by (fancy lights! PCI-E power leads!) then overrating their wattage at unreasonable temperatures and labelling them deceptively.  They're basically used car dealers, but for PSUs.

Diablotek - I don't know who makes the insides of these PSUs, but if I find out the authorities should probably be notified.  Any company making PSUs like this is either incompetent or evil.  If the former, they're a danger to themselves and others, stupidity like that will get someone killed.  If the latter, I guarantee you they're also war criminals.

Generics – God help me, don't use the power supply that came with your case.

As for specific purchasing recommendations...well it's hard to say. PSU choice is heavily dependent on what particular wattage, feature set, and connector demands you have. Buy a good supply from a good company, and be prepared to spend at least 50 to 60 bucks, even if you're looking at something in the 500W range. It sucks to spend money, but this is one of those instances where you will pay significantly more later if you try to save 20 bucks now.

Graphics: The Ever-War Continues!

For most systems, graphics hardware is the star of the show.  Sure, you need a processor and RAM, but that's all integers and floating points and blah, blah, blah, booooring.  For the purposes of gaming, the rest of your system is mainly an effort to get out of your video card's way.  The price of a solid video card reflects that; for gaming PCs the video card will be the most expensive single component you purchase.

Because the video card is so important to the performance of a gaming PC, and because you'll be spending a healthy chunk of change on one, you need to know what you're looking at.  The consumer graphics market is (for the moment) a continuous competition between AMD and NVIDIA.  Both of these companies design cards and create drivers and other software, then license this to other vendors who actually assemble and sell cards to consumers.  These vendors tend to produce at least 1 model each of the various card designs, and often more due to having factory overclocked versions, and/or versions with "non-reference" (that is, different from the standard design supplied by AMD/NVIDIA) coolers.  It's easy to get confused by all the different models, and having multiple vendors and versions of each card doesn't help.  Below I've included a basic breakdown of the models currently on offer from each company.

AMD Radeon HD Cards
  • Current Generation: 7000 Series Cards
    • 7900 Series: Best Enthusiast performance.  Preferred for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors (~1440p).
    • 7800 Series: Strong Enthusiast performance, but significantly more affordable, excellent for full HD (1080p) resolution and similar.
    • 7700 Series: Basic Enthusiast performance, powerful enough to provide acceptable FPS with lowered detail at 1080p, with stronger performance at 1680x1050 and other comparable/lower resolutions.
    • At the moment, there aren't any lower-end 7000-series cards available for retail.  It may be possible to find one, but they would be resold OEM cards, so support would be limited, if not non-existent.

Nvidia GeForce Cards
  • Current Generation: 600 Series Cards
    • GTX 680: Best Enthusiast performance.  Preferred for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors(~1440p).
    • GTX 670: Best Enthusiast performance.  Slightly lower performing than the GTX 680, but still excellent for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors.
    • GTX 660 Ti: Strong Enthusiast performance.  Excellent performance at or around full HD (1080p).
    • GTX 660: Strong Enthusiast performance.  Similar in performance and price to the Radeon HD 7870.
    • GTX 650 Ti: Basic Enthusiast performance.  Stronger performance than Radeon HD 7770, but lower than Radeon HD 7850.  Acceptable performance at 1080p.
    • GTX 650: Basic Enthusiast performance.  Stronger performance than Radeon HD 7750, but lower than Radeon HD 7770.  Acceptable performance at 1080p.
    • GT 640: Strong general performance.  Acceptable budget gaming performance at low resolutions, strong performance in general applications and media playback.
    • GT 630: Good general performance.  Unimpressive gaming performance, good performance in productivity applications and media playback.  Preferred for for media playing (Home Theater PC) and slim PC applications due to availability of passive and/or low profile versions of these cards.  Multiple versions of this card exist, based on differing architectures, with differing memory configurations.
    • There are some lower end cards available, but for the most part I'd say those cards aren't worth your time unless you wanted to keep a backup/testing video card for trouble-shooting purposes, or need a passive or near-passive card that can support multiple monitors (maybe in an office environment) and you anticipate little to no demands being made of it.

This is an exciting generation of video cards.  Nvidia has reversed, in commanding fashion, a somewhat distressing trend toward hotter, more power hungry GPUs.  Kepler (their new architecture) is very efficient, along with being extremely powerful.  AMD is staying in the game as well, much like a few years ago, when the 5000 series cards were so well regarded, the 7000 series cards are competitive both from a price and performance perspective, along with continuing AMD's recent efforts of keeping heat and electricity usage at reasonable levels.

Below are some individual recommendations:

Extremely high end:  If you have a 1440p monitor, you'll need muscle to drive it.  The GTX 670 and Radeon 7970 (non-GHZ version) strike the right balance between price and performance.  Both have the large amounts of VRAM and pixel-pushing muscle necessary to drive your games at 2560x1440.

High end:  Most people game at or around 1080p (1920x1200 isn't as common as 1080p, but it's still out there) and the best cards for this come in at around $300, the Radeon 7950 and the GTX 660 Ti.  Both should give you eye candy to spare at 1080p.

Mid-Range:  As I said, most people game at or around 1080p.  Most people also don't want to spend $300 on a video card.  Fortunately, great performance at these resolutions can be bought for less.  The GTX 660 and Radeon 7870 are great cards that often retail for close to $200.

Low end:  The economy being what it is, who wants to spend 2 Benjamins on a video card?  For people with lower resolution monitors, or who are willing to turn down the detail settings a bit, there are still great cards to be had for less than $200.  Prices on the Radeon 7850 are plummeting, some are available for around $175, a spectacular value (in my opinion).  If you're looking to spend less, the GTX 650 Ti is probably now your best option

Generally speaking, most people won't need to spend more than $300 for great performance, because most people game at 1080p.  People with 1440p monitors will be well served by the cards recommended above, but may have to compromise a bit on detail settings in some games (1440p is so many pixels).  If you have a high resolution monitor, or are interested in a multi-monitor setup, you may want more horsepower than is accounted for above.  If so, drop by the thread and we'll see what we can do for you.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

HDDs and SSDs: Step 1 - SSD, Step 2 - Profit

Oh how times have changed.  The last time I wrote a big storage post like this, HDD prices were so low I was buying Samsung Spinpoints to use as paperweights.  All it took was a little rain in Thailand and suddenly you could trade a 2TB HDD for ownership of an actual human being.  Things have settled down significantly since then, but the rise in mechanical drive prices, coupled with a steep decline in the price of SSDs, has really altered the buying equation.

Hard Disk Drives:  Expensive, but Still Necessary.

There's just no getting around the fact that, even on sale, most HDDs are at least $20 more expensive than they were before the floods in Thailand.  They aren't as excessively expensive as they were immediately following the flooding in Thailand, but you will spend more to buy one today than you would have a year or so ago.  Still, you'll want one, even if you only need it to hold your documents and media files so that your SSD doesn't have to.  The factors you're looking at haven't changed much:

1.  Spindle Speed:  The RPM rating of a mechanical hard drive is the speed at which the spindle, and thus the platters (the magnetized disks holding data) inside the drive spin.  The higher the RPM, the faster the drive.  For a system drive you want at least a 7200 RPM drive, I'd probably also prefer 7200 RPM for the secondary drive to go with an SSD, just to ensure fairly quick response for documents and other data stored on the drive.  Storage drives (and drives for a NAS/Server) can be of the slower 5400 RPM "Green" variety. 

2.  Capacity:  500GB drives are, in $/GB terms, a worse value than 1 and 2 TB drives.  If you can find a good deal on a 1TB drive, that's probably the best drive deal available for a primary/secondary system disk.  Still, 7200 RPM 2TB drives are more common and affordable now, and depending on sales and pricing can be better $/GB deals than 1TB drives.  You shouldn't bother buying a storage disk in a capacity lower than 2TB.

3.  Cache:  I'd say that 16MB of cache is good for a 500GB drive, 32MB is good for 1TB, 64 is good for 2TB.

4.  SATA III:  Most newer drives indicate full SATA 6Gb/s compatibility, which is meaningless because they'll never manage to saturate 3Gb/s, much less 6, but it doesn't impact performance and there's virtually never a price premium associated with it.  Basically, just don't buy a Hard Drive that runs on IDE or SATA 1.5Gb/s.

I still like the Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB for a great value primary/secondary system drive.  It's speedy, relatively inexpensive (and goes on sale frequently) and, in my experience, reliable.  The newer ones are built by Seagate, but the drives are apparently unchanged (I own a pair of the new ones in addition to my older ones, and the controller PCB appears identical), the main difference appears to be where the drive components are sourced from.  Per usual, Seagate's Barracuda drives and Western Digital's Black series of drives are both excellent options as well.

For storage drives you have a few options.  Samsung's Spinpoint 2TB Green drives have had some pretty serious firmware issues in the past, but these appear to have been solved.  Their performance isn't world-beating, by any means, but they are generally one of the cheaper available 2TB drives and they appear to go on sale frequently..  Western Digital's Green drives are solid enough, but they do lack TLER (for RAID usage) and the fairly frequent head parking can be an irritant.  If you can find Seagate's 2TB 5900 RPM drive or Hitachi's 2 TB 5400 RPM drive at a reasonable price, those are both good buys.  Western Digital has recently released a new Red series of drives, specifically tailored for use with NAS appliances.  The stats in general for these drives look very good, so they'll probably be good storage options regardless of whether or not you use them "as intended."

Solid State Drives - Everyone Should Have an SSD.  Seriously.

You can buy a quality 128GB drive for like $90.00.  Yeah, let that wash over you.  Less than a year ago I paid almost $300.00 for a 120GB SATA 3Gb/s SSD, and now I can kick that drive's ass for less than a third of that price.  Admittedly, it's still not the best $/GB ratio around, but for the sheer performance of these drives, it's easily worth it.  Larger capacities can be even better deals, 256GB drives have been known to go on sale for as little as $150.00!  At those prices, you can't afford not to buy one, especially given the big performance jump over mechanical drives, lower power usage, smaller form-factor, and lack of any appreciable heat, noise, and vibration.

When choosing an SSD, buyers will want to look at price, along with 3 main factors that do the most to determine performance:  NAND type, controller, and firmware.  Generally speaking, there are 3 main types of NAND flash in use these days, Sychronous, Asynchronous, and Toggle.  Each has some different performance characteristics, with Synchronous and Toggle NAND generally considered the highest performing overall, though Asynchronous NAND based SSDs can be significantly cheaper.  I've noted the major current controllers (and firmware, where appropriate) below:

Sandforce - Ah, Sandforce.  Performance, low prices, what more could you ask for?  Frankly, stability.  Sandforce became fairly notorious early in this SSD generation for the frequent, seemingly inexplicable BSODs that occured on drives using their SF-2281 controller.  It took weeks for them to discover the cause of the error, and even longer for the firmware fix to make the rounds, and even now Sandforce drives are, relatively speaking, probably the least stable drives available.  Intel's 330 and 520 series SSDs have custom-made firmware that makes them the most reliable of this generation of Sandforce drives.  OCZ and Kingston have both developed more aggressively performance oriented Sandforce drives, with firmware to match.  Generally speaking, the most recent firmware packages for these drives make them solid enough for "home" use (I own two Corsair-built Sandforce drives and virtually never have any issues when using the newest firmware) and they are often excellent values from a price/performance perspective.  Whether or not you pick one of these drives over one based on another controller depends largely on your planned usage of the drive and whether or not the performance of the drive is worth the loss in stability.

- This generation of Marvell-based drives are considered very reliable, with competitive but not top-of-the-heap performance and excellent value.  Many companies make Marvell-based drives, including Crucial's nearly ubiquitous M4, which is an excellent confluence of price, performance and stability (also available in a 7mm version).  In addition to Crucial, Plextor has an excellent warranty policy and makes multiple excellent, performance focused Marvell-based SSDs and Corsair makes the Performance Pro, another performance oriented drive based on the Marvell controller.  A new, higher performance generation of Marvell controller is about to be released into the wild, starting with the Plextor M5 Pro.

Samsung - Samsung has their own controller for their own SSD, the Samsung 830.  Performance is excellent, and the drive is rock solid, just like its SATA 3Gb/s predecessor.  The drives are also 7mm tall, perfect for those who have "picky" laptops that only support that form factor.  In my experience, these drives are generally more expensive than comparable Sandforce and Marvel SSDs, but not excessively so, and I have seen them on sale.

OCZ/Indilinx Everest - The Everest controller is OCZ's first entry into using their own controllers (previously they had an agreement with Sandforce) and it's a pretty impressive "rookie" effort.  Technically speaking the actual silicon is made by Marvell (possibly derived from the next-gen controller in the Plextor M5 Pro) along with custom firmware from OCZ.  By some measures, these Everest based drives (right now just the OCZ Vertex 4) are the fastest around, and firmware revisions have kept them quick and reliable.  They aren't generally cheap, though.

If I had a gun to my head and had to pick just one product line to recommend, I'd say you're always safe with a Crucial M4.  As I mentioned above, they're some of the least expensive drives around, they frequently go on sale, they're available in multiple form factors, they perform well, and they're stable.  Not to sound too hyperbolic, but there's definitely a part of me that believes the 128GB and 256GB M4 SSDs are the best buys in storage today.

CPUs and Motherboards: Monopolies Make for Easy Buying Decisions


So, the last time I wrote a big Motherboard/CPU post, Bulldozer was in the offing and even those of us on Intel platforms were probably cherishing hopes that AMD would start competing in the enthusiast CPU space again.  As is so often the case, hope was simply the first step on the road to disappointment.  Bulldozer was disingenuously marketed (really AMD, 8 cores?) and hopelessly outclassed by an architecture that released months before it did.  Since then, AMD has abandoned the enthusiast market to focus on APU and (presumably) mobile development in order to cling to relevancy.

The silver lining here is that AMD's incompetence has made building a PC easier for everyone: just buy an Intel proc.  "But it's not that simple!" you cry.  Admittedly, AMD's APUs are a nice product for the niche they occupy, but most people building a PC want discrete graphics, or aren't doing anything beyond the capabilities of an Intel integrated GPU.  Intel CPUs are the right call in almost all cases. 

Anyway, after making AMD look bad without even really trying, Intel released Ivy Bridge, a Sandy Bridge die shrink that includes Tri-Gate transistors as well as support for PCI-E 3.0 and a few other new gizmos.  In terms of processor performance, Ivy Bridge isn't a big improvement over Sandy Bridge, so the recommendations haven't changed much:

Intel Pentium G620/Celeron G550 - ~$60.00:  For the builder on a budget, the Pentium/Celeron is a perfect compromise.  It isn't clocked as high as an i3 and lacks some features from the higher end Core line (any kind of overclockability, Turbo Boost, Hyper Threading, Quick Sync, etc.) but that doesn't mean it isn't still great value.  Don't let the price fool you, it'll keep up with most workloads, and won't hold your video card back when you start up Pong or whatever other newfangled nonsense you rapscallions are playing these days.

Intel Core i3-2100 (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i3-3220 (Ivy Bridge) - ~$120.00:  Ivy Bridge Core i3s don't come in quite the same number of "flavors" as the Sandy Bridge versions (at least not yet) but there's something out there for basically everyone.  For basic usage in a run-of the mill gaming PC, the i3-2100 (or i3-2120, depending on pricing) or the i3-3220 are your go-to chips.

Intel Core i5-2310 (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i5-3350P/i5-3330 (Ivy Bridge):  Not everyone needs an overclockable proc, but many people are still interested in quad-core CPUs.  More games and applications are starting to take advantage of higher core counts, so those desiring four cores at a more affordable (read, sub 200 dollar) price are advised to look at these procs.  The "P" designation indicates that a lack of onboard video, so keep that in mind.

Intel Core i5-2500K (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i5-3570K (Ivy Bridge) - ~$220.00:  The 2500K is still fantastic and is usually priced around $220.00, but seems to go on sale fairly often and can drop to $200.00.  The i5-3570K is often slightly more expensive, but is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, performance-wise.  As mentioned above, Ivy Bridge does enable PCI-E 3.0 and some other benefits, but depending on your usage and equipment, either proc can be the right choice.  The 2500K generally OCs a bit better, particularly on air.

There's really no reason for the vast majority of buyers to look at more than the 2500K/3570K can offer.  Hyper Threading is not a particularly significant addition given the workloads of most home users, and that's really all the extra Benjamin buys you.  Those of you with niche cases that aren't covered by the above recommendations are welcome to ask in the thread or PM me regarding what you might need.


All the processors I'm willing to recommend are on LGA 1155, but there are multiple motherboard chipsets available for these CPUs, split between Cougar Point chipsets (introduced with Sandy Bridge) and Panther Point chipsets (introduced with Ivy Bridge).  H61 is the most budget-oriented of the Cougar Point chipsets, and would be most appropriate for a very low cost build utilizing a Celeron or Pentium CPU.  H67 is the next step up, and generally these boards have more complete feature-sets, but are not SLI/CFX capable and do not allow for overclocking.  P67 allows for overclocking and multiple video cards, but does not provide the ability to utilize the integrated GPU as well.  Z68 followed after and enabled use of the integrated GPU, along with some other processor features, and some boards on this chipset include PCI-E 3.0 compatibility when used with Ivy Bridge procs.  The most relevant new chipsets are Z77 and H77, which released with Ivy Bridge.  They are backwards compatible, though PCI-E 3.0 will not work with Sandy Bridge procs.  For full enthusiast-class systems, there's no good reason not to just go with a Z77 board, it does everything a P67 or Z68 board could do and more.  H77 is an excellent chipset for lower-end systems that don't need overclocking capability, but H67 and H61 are not necessarily significantly less capable, and may be better values depending on your processor choice and desired feature-set.

There are a few manufacturers I would consider to be most worth considering for your purchasing dollars:

ASUS – ASUS is probably my favorite motherboard manufacturer.  I'd go with ASUS if you’re looking for a board with fairly cutting edge tech, and useful extras like built-in Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth.  They have a number of different product lines, including the Republic of Gamers motherboard line for really high-end builds.

Gigabyte – Gigabyte has a reputation for rock solid reliability, which anecdotally I can verify, as I own a few of their boards myself.  VRM quantity and quality over their range of boards is very much in line with ASUS offerings (if not better).  Gigabyte has generally solid layouts (with some odd choices at times) though their board lineup can be tough to navigate due to similar model numbers (like UD3 vs. UD3R vs. UD3H).  Gigabyte generally stays a bit more conservative than ASUS with fancy tech and gadgetry, though they have gone whole hog on including mSATA slots on their boards for cache drives.  Instead of stuff like onboard Wi-Fi, you generally get a larger and more comprehensive set of ports.

– MSI is my least favorite of the “Big 3” motherboard manufacturers.  Much of this opinion is probably lingering prejudice related to their AM3 boards and some questionable decisions in some of their P67-based boards.  MSI has recently been pushing Thunderbolt onto some of their higher-end offerings.  Their current offerings are very competitive, and while I might prefer ASUS or Gigabyte myself, there’s really no good reason not to consider MSI at the moment.

ASRock – ASRock sprang out of ASUS spinning off a company specifically to make budget motherboards.  They’re generally considered a “budget” manufacturer, but their Sandy Bridge offerings were very strong, with good VRMs in their enthusiast level boards, and solid layouts.  Those same enthusiast offerings also set themselves apart with very aggressive pricing and solid accessory sets.  Their Ivy Bridge offerings have continued that trend.  The documentation and BIOS/UEFI interfaces aren’t as polished as their higher-end competitors, but if you can deal with that, you can often get a really nice deal.

Beyond manufacturer, you should take into account the following criteria (along with price, naturally) when choosing a board:

Form Factor:  Be aware of the motherboard form factor, it’s crucial in ensuring compatibility with your case.

SLI/Crossfire capability:  This generally comes at a price premium, but if you’re genuinely going to take advantage of the capability, it’s worth the money.  If you are certain that you want a single card system, and have no plans to either add a second card in the future, or have 2 cards to start with, do not pay the premium.  And be realistic with yourself about the possibility of upgrading with a second card as well.  However, if you have the budget, and do think it’s a possibility, spend the money, you won’t regret it.

The basic requirement for SLI is 2 physical PCI-E x16 slots, which run at least at x8/x8 when both are populated.  Crossfire can run on 2 physical x16 slots that run at x16 and x4, but performance is compromised and I wouldn’t recommend it, at least x8/x8 is your best bet.  Higher end motherboards (or motherboards on higher-end sockets) may support multiple x16 slots running at a full x16.  For 2-way SLI/Crossfire, x8/x8 on PCI-E 2.0 is enough bandwidth to avoid throttling all but the highest-end of last-gen cards (and even then the performance loss is minimal).  I'd recommend a board and processor that are fully compatible with PCI-E 3.0 if you want to run multiple high-end cards from the current generation of GPUs.

VRMs:  The VRM system in your motherboard is the system that takes power from the PSU and converts it to the correct voltage to be utilized by the CPU and GPU.  If you see stuff like “12+2 power phases” being tossed about, that’s referring to the VRM system of your motherboard.  Basically the VRMs are small transformers that convert the +12V from your PSU into the correct voltages to run your stuff.  Phases refer to the number of transformers, the more you have, the lower the individual load on each transformer, which means a more stable, long-lasting board, especially when overclocking.  If you’re pushing things, poor quality/too few VRMs can mean catastrophic damage to the motherboard, and perhaps other parts as well.  For Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge, I would consider 6+2 to be adequate for reasonable overclocking, with 8+2 desired and anything above that being gravy.

Physical layout:  This is pretty important, especially in this age of double-wide GPUs and SLI/Crossfire setups.  For SLI/Crossfire motherboards, you want at least an additional expansion slot’s worth of space between PCI-E x16 slots in order to accommodate 2-slot GPU coolers.  For motherboards supporting only 2 GPUs, I’d recommend looking for 2 slots worth of space between, to give the top card some breathing room.  SATA ports should be either of the 90 degree variety, or placed to ensure they won’t be covered by longer graphics cards.  Front panel, audio and USB headers should be located along the edge of the board, easily accessible and away from any potential conflict with expansion cards.  Keep an eye on stuff like CPU socket positioning relative to DIMM slots, and the size and positioning of heatsinks on the motherboard.  Manufacturers are generally very good about avoiding those conflicts, but depending on heatsink size and layout you can sometimes have trouble mounting aftermarket CPU cooling.

BIOS/UEFI:  If you're looking at an overclocked system, you'll want a nice, full-featured BIOS/UEFI.  Some budget boards (even from otherwise high-end manufacturers) have taken to removing deeper, more complex customization options, and some manufacturers have very poorly put together interfaces, with nonsensical descriptions and confusing layouts.  Obviously, you'd like to avoid those if possible, so make sure to take a look at some reviews to see if you can't get an idea of what you'll be looking at.

Features and Documentation:  This is more nebulous, as it’s entirely up to your own discretion.  Each builder has different needs in terms of feature-set (quantity/type of ports, additional bells and whistles like Bluetooth, etc.).  Certain boards will come with automatic or software assisted overclocking options that other boards lack.  Do your research here, and choose the board that includes everything you need/want.  Similarly, some builders will need and/or want clear, comprehensive documentation of board features and installation, while others may be comfortable without it.

As for individual recommendations, I'll keep it fairly simple.  For basic builds (using Pentium/Celeron chips) go with the ASRock H77M.  For mid-range builds (using a Core i3 or non-K Core i5) go with the Intel DH77EB.  For high end builds (using Core i5 2500K or 3570K) go with the Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H.  If you need something fancier, or more esoteric, feel free to PM me or ask in the thread.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Updaten Sie!

Annoyingly, manufacturer's have continued to create new and interesting computer components that people can purchase (dastardly!).  Because of this capitalist, money-grubbing drive to "innovate" and "make things which are cool" I've been forced to update some of the previous posts here.  The older GPU post has been changed slightly to reflect some newer developments (I'm writing a whole new post once this GPU generation firms up), as have the HDD/SSD and CPU/Motherboard posts.

Also, we're closing in on the mark for the next PC Build thread, and I've got all the old pictures and stuff from the build gallery assembled and formatted for the new thread.  It's likely that the OP content will just be some basic stuff, including the "where to buy" type advice, with any and all component recommendation type stuff redirected here.  It'll be simpler that way, as I won't have to update multiple posts of info.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Let's Talk About Sandy Bridge E

Now, the last time I did something like this, it was regarding AMD's Bulldozer platform, which is thoroughly (and likely un-redeemably) mediocre. At the end I concluded that there was little reason to buy into it if you were looking for a new PC, and that it's primary selling point (loads of cores at bargain basement prices) was more solidly addressed by the Phenom II X6 processors that AMD already has. Sandy Bridge E isn't the same story (indeed, far from it) but the end result is the same: you shouldn't buy into this platform.

Sandy Bridge E is a benchmark crushing series of processors. You're talking about 6 real cores, with HT and serious overclocking potential. The die is titanic by comparison to a standard Sandy Bridge die, and it doesn't even include an IGPU! In every performance metric, Sandy Bridge E outperforms its predecessor, not to mention the absolute hash it makes of AMD's offerings.

Unfortunately, Sandy Bridge E's performance is matched, then exceeded, by the price of the platform as a whole. The cheapest Sandy Bridge E processor is as much or more expensive than the top of the standard SB heap, and if you're buying into Sandy Bridge E for a glorified 2700K, you're doing it entirely wrong. Then you have to consider the price of a solid motherboard, the cheapest of which will likely start in the $200 range. When you consider the fact that the performance offered by a 2600K/2700K was already well in excess of what is necessary for gaming and general computing usage, it becomes incredibly difficult to justify Sandy Bridge E as a computing platform for the general consumer.

You would want Sandy Bridge E if you are, say, starting your own space program, or plotting to take over the world. You might use it as the centerpiece of a device designed to use mathematical calculations to warp the very fabric of reality. I'm not entirely convinced it couldn't be used to resurrect the dead.

All of that doesn't mean that super-villains are the only people who could use the kind of horsepower that you get out of a Sandy Bridge E based PC. Professionals with video editing, 3D rendering, and/or CAD needs will find this kind of number-crunching ability compelling, as will those involved in high-end computing/distributed computing projects, like Folding@Home. Still, those with the need for that much processing power are decidedly in the minority, and those outside that minority who buy into the platform are undoubtedly enthusiasts with deep wallets and misplaced priorities. Normal people with reasonable budgets and no deep-seated need to compensate for something will be perfectly happy on the LGA1155 platform.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cooling your PC: Water Cooling

Disclaimer:  It should be noted upfront that this post mainly concerns cooling with an eye toward overclocking.  If you intend to keep all of your components at stock clocks, it's unlikely you'll need to bother with aftermarket cooling of any kind.  If your intent is to utilize aftermarket cooling to achieve a near silent PC, please ask in the thread for recommendations.

As mentioned in the last post, cooling your PC realistically comes down to Air or Water for those of us who don't feel like hacking up a refrigerator or utilizing Peltier effects.  If you decide on "Water," you need to know that you're looking at two options built on an identical process, with significant differences in design.  The decision comes down to a choice between a custom water cooling loop, or a "closed-loop" cooler.

Custom water-cooling encompasses a vast and varied market of products.  There are 4 main components for a custom loop, a radiator, a pump, a reservoir, and "waterblocks."  The function of the radiator, pump, and reservoir are relatively self-evident.  "Waterblocks" or just "blocks" are heatsinks applied to the various components in your PC for water to run through.  These include the most common components, CPU and GPU blocks, and more esoteric products, like waterblocks for motherboard chipsets, RAM, and even HDDs.  The basic idea of a water cooling loop is that a liquid (distilled water, or another liquid coolant) is pumped from the reservoir, through a tubing into waterblocks, where is draws heat away from the blocks and into the flowing liquid, which then leaves the blocks and enters the radiator, where the liquid is cooled, before heading back through the pump to the reservoir, etc. etc.

Because liquid is a significantly more effective conductor of heat than air, and because custom-loop radiators often have significantly more surface area than an air-cooler, water-cooling is a significantly more effective method of cooling your CPU and GPU(s).   Components like drives, RAM, and your motherboard chipset don't usually demand more than passive cooling, so they are usually the last components to be considered for inclusion in a loop.

The main advantage of custom water-cooling is that it's a more effective method of cooling PC components, especially in higher overclocks.  Because of the sheer surface area of some radiators, lower amounts of airflow are often required to go through the radiator, which results in many custom loops being quieter (relatively speaking) than higher end air cooling setups.

Disadvantages of custom loops include expense, which is usually significantly in excess of even the highest end of air-cooler designs.  A custom water cooling loop requires significant research to develop the knowledge and skills to ensure it is built correctly.  A custom loop also generally requires much more significant time investment in the building stage, first when installing the loop and then when leak-testing the loop.  Custom loops also require regular maintenance, in excess of the standard dust removal procedures, including regular refilling, and (depending on the liquid used an precautions taken) cleaning of the loop.

Recommendations:  Discussing and recommending custom water cooling kit could be an entire blog unto itself.  I'm not qualified to make particularly good recommendations on this score, but I can point you to some good resources if asked.

Closed-loop coolers and custom loops are based on an identical set of components.  Just like a custom loop, a closed-loop cooler has a pump, radiator, reservoir, block, and tubing.  The difference is that a close-loop implementation combines some of the elements (usually a reservoir/radiator combo and a pump/block combo) and then seals the entire thing up.

Closed-loop coolers are almost universally CPU coolers.  A few specialized GPUs are sold with closed-loop water coolers for cooling, but this is a relatively recent implementation that hasn't yet become widespread.  Asetek and Coolit are the OEMs behind the vast majority of closed-loop solutions, most (if not all) retail closed-loop implementations are rebadges of their products, or products designed and produced for the retailer by these OEMs.

Closed-Loop products are favored by many "boutique" PC retailers (like Cyberpower) as ideal solutions for gaming PCs.  They're often as quiet, if not quieter, than traditional air cooling setups, and allow them to advertise that the CPU is water-cooled without the time, mess, and expense of a custom cooling loop.  By virtue of their design, closed-loop coolers are much less prone to leakage than custom loops, and don't require maintenance (aside from standard dust removal measures).  Because the waterblock/pump assembly is so small compared to virtually any good air cooler, closed-loop solutions are excellent for situations where you wish to avoid RAM clearance issues, or have limited clearance above the CPU socket (as in many small-form-factor cases).

Disadvantages for closed-loop products include price/performance.  Many budget-friendly air coolers will match or outperform a significantly more expensive closed-loop cooler.  In general, the best air-coolers will outperform the best closed-loop coolers.  Depending on case design, the reservoir/radiator may cause clearance issues with various components.  A closed-loop cooler is not competitive with custom water cooling loops.  A custom loop generally has more liquid, a better pump, less restrictive blocks and tubing (which improves liquid flow and cooling capacity) and significantly more radiator surface area.

Recommendations:  I prefer the newer generations of Corsair closed-loop coolers.  They combine solid installation (as opposed to the ludicrous circular ring mount of earlier efforts) with solid performance and a fairly good range of prices.  The H60 is a basic thin-rad, single fan setup.  The H80 has a thicker radiator and 2 fans.  The H100 is the highest end, boasting a 240mm radiator and 2 fans (with a max of 4 fans for push/pull).  If you want a closed-loop cooler, pick the one that best fits your needed level of cooling and maximum level of expense.