Bangkok Images Workstation

 

Purpose

My workstation is probably a bit unique in that I use it for everything.  I need a workstation that can download television show torrents in the background, play television or radio shows on the HDTV, manage my email client, maintain an open browser with up to 10 tabs, run my VOIP services, instant messaging, run my Slingbox, and run ALL my imaging programs which include Adobe's CS4, Lightroom, Phase One's Capture One Pro 5, and more.  My workstation must be able to run all these programs, across two monitors and a 50" HDTV, at the same time without slowing down or bottlenecking.  It must also be a fully functioning HTPC (home theater PC) and output my music and video files in DTS, Digital Dolby, all in 1080p HDTV.  I ask and require a lot from my workstation, but I demand 100% reliability.

Another goal of my system was silence.  I don't ever want to hear my workstation.  No fans, no hard drive noise, no vibration, nothing but silence from 3 feet away.  I've achieved this goal despite running (8) high quality liquid bearing 120mm fans.  I power these fans through a smart card controller which maintains their speeds barely above the minimum level which means they're virtually silent.

Because I demand 100% reliability, or as close to it as possible, and for certain it's my first priority, I am willing to purchase the very best components.  Keep this in mind as you read through my build.  If you're priorities are different you can probably save some money by buying less expensive and reliable components.

 

Choosing a CPU

We've never had more excellent choices available and all these choices can be more than a bit confusing.  I'm going to be very direct with my choices and reasoning.  The Core i7 920 is a four core, 8 thread, cached CPU which has been out on the market long enough to undergo several revisions and become the darling of the over clocking community.  The 920 requires the x58 chipset motherboards which are a bit more expensive than the p55 motherboards required of the newest Core i7-860.  The 920 runs at a stock speed of 2.6ghz, and the 860 at 2.8ghz.  The differences in clock speed are not significant for imaging purposes.

 

Intel Core i7-920, Bangkok Images

 

There are a many choices for CPUs and motherboards and listing them and comparing their advantages could take several pages.  I'm not going to do that.  Instead, I'll tell you why after reading countless articles, comparisons, and reviews, I've settled on the Core i7-920.

The Core i7-920 has been out long enough to be 'perfected' with several revisions.  The x58 motherboards have 6 memory slots which are easy to fill inexpensively with (6) 2gig sticks of DDR3 Triple Channel memory for a total of 12gigs.  And the very next Intel CPU's coming down the pike are 6 core, 12 thread CPU's which will require a 1366 socket and x58 chipset just like the Core i7-920.  This means the motherboard manufacturers 'could' write a firmware upgrade for your existing system and all you'd have to do is update the firmware and change out the CPU to have the most modern system.  Will they?  I don't know.  But they can.

Also, the Core i7-920 has been over clocked with success more than any other chip out there and it has a reputation for being extremely easy to over clock.  Normally I wouldn't over clock a imaging workstation, but from countless reviews and articles I learned that the Core i7-920 could easily and reliably over clock to 3.8ghz with the change of one setting.  This makes the Core i7-920 a keen bargain and a screamer in the performance department.  Properly cooled a Core i7-920 2.6ghz over clocked to 3.8ghz is 100% reliable with a very healthy life-span, much longer than the 4-5 years I normally keep a system.

With all this in mind I was convinced the Intel Core i7-920 at $275 was the best choice for my requirements.

 

CPU Cooler

The Intel Core i7-920 comes with an Intel supplied CPU fan.  It's adequate, but it's also noisy.  If you want a silent machine, and you want the best cooling possible, then you'll need to run an after market CPU cooler.  One cooler stands out as the industry favorite both for build quality and performance.  The Thermalright 120mm Extreme.  In every test, every review, it comes out at or near the top.  Installation is easy and all the hardware is top quality.  This is the cooler to get.  $45

 

Thermalright 120 Extreme, Bangkok Images

Thermaltake 120 Extreme i7, heatsink

 

 

Motherboard

There are more x58 chipset motherboard choices out there than there are CPU choices.  So how do you know which one?  During all the reading and research I noticed the guys who really knew what they were talking about tended to gravitate towards certain boards.  Sometimes because they were a great bargain, sometimes because they were a great performer, and sometimes because they were a rare combination of both.  The Asus P6T Deluxe Version 2 Motherboard was one of those that consistently rose to the top of any discussion when seeking the best overall motherboard.

The Asus P6T Deluxe Version 2 has also had the luxury of several revisions and refinements and has a reputation for being top quality in every respect and even more reliable.  Further, its firmware BIOS allowed a rock solid 3.8ghz over clock of the Core i7-920 by changing only a single setting.  This seemed the most solid choice at about $250.

 

Asus P6T Deluxe V2, Bangkok Images

 

Memory

What kind, what speed, and how much memory are the questions.  More, has this particular memory been tested and certified by your motherboard manufacturer?  I started reading.  I didn't stop reading for weeks.  There is that much to know about memory.  Finally, I found a very in-depth and easy to read report where they asked the question "at what point of memory speed/quality will you not realize more value for more money spent?" Perfect!  They tested almost every available memory type out there and they just so happened to be  using the same CPU and motherboard I was interested in.  It seems my CPU and motherboard are commonly used by major system builders.

I'll summarize this.  With the current front bus speeds, CPUs, and memory speeds vs. price.. there is no significant advantage where it comes to performance past the 1333mhz speed.  Asus certified Kingston 2gig modules, purchased in 6gig kits of 3 modules each, of this speed and model number.  They were certified as being tested by my motherboard manufacturer, they only cost $192 for each 6gig kit, testing revealed there was no significant advantage to going with a higher speed, and they were guaranteed for life.  Perfect!

 

Kingston HyperX, DDR3, Bangkok Images

 

 

Video Boards

I'm not going to go much into video cards.  I'm using two XFX Nvidia 7950GT's.  I'm using two cards because I want to use two profiled monitors, and even though each card has two video outputs only one of those outputs on each card had it's own LUT (look up table).  Altogether I'm running 3 monitors if you include the HDTV, but my HDTV isn't required to have a color profile, only my imaging monitors.

Any video card with a minimum of 512mb of memory, a suitable output for your monitor, and the OpenGL standard (so they play nice with CS4's video hardware acceleration), will be suitable for image processing.  You don't need the fastest gaming cards.  You also don't need the slowest.  I would say almost any Nvidia card in the 7000, 8000, 9000 or the new 200 series will max out performance for image monitoring.  And the same with the ATI equivalent.  This is not the place to waste money, but a very easy place to spend money unnecessarily.

Also know the more powerful the GPU (video card) the more power it requires, the more heat it makes, and the more noise the fans make trying to cool them.  Lesser power cards which still max out your needs for image processing will require less power, run cooler, and make less noise.  My XFX 7950GT's were my choice because they didn't have onboard fans.  Instead they have big passive heat sinks.  These keep them cool with no noise.  None.  These cards can be found for about $60 each.

 

Optical Drives

Buy what you need but don't overspend.  Do you need Blue-Ray?  If not don't get it.  $30 will get you a quality SATA II interfaced CD/DVD burner.

 

System Drives

 

WD1500,

 

System drives hold ONLY your operating system and your programs.  They don't need to be large, but they benefit greatly from being fast.

I'm currently using a Western Digital 300gb Raptor II SATA II drive.  3 years ago this was the fastest system drive available.  Soon I'll replace it.  With what?  When the SSD market bottoms out, which will be very soon, and they offer at least a 256gb SSD (solid state drive) with 200mbps+ transfer speeds for under $300.. then I'll get one.  I might get two and put one in my laptop.

Currently SSD's are not as reliable as I'd like them to be.  The speed is certainly there, but they're still working out mystery phantom data losses and other issues with the controllers and firmware and for something as important as a system drive I'd want more refinement and even more reliability.

IF I had to replace my system drive today I'd be torn between three types of drives.  Another Raptor exactly like what I have, an Intel x25 SSD (the 256gb model is currently about $500), and one of the new SATA II 6gps terabyte drives which are even faster than the Raptor.  You WILL notice even a bit of speed increase in a system drive.  If you're interested in performance this is where you should spend some money.

 

Storage Drives

Good

So many possibilities.  SATA II 1tb (terabyte) drives are available for as little as $89.  Heck, I just picked up two 2tb SATA II drives for $149 each.  3-4 of these would be all most photographers need.  This will be the route most should take.

Remember, a standard motherboard will have a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 8 SATA II ports.  With your system drive using one port, your optical drive using another, this leaves from 2-6 open ports.  Choose your motherboard to fit your storage needs.

 

Hitachi SATA II

 

 

Better

But what if you want something faster and more reliable?  Look at the new SATA II 6gbps hard drives.  The 2tb models are roughly $350-$400, but they're very fast for mechanical hard drives and they're very reliable server class drives which should run for years without a single error.

 

WDC 1500, SATA II, 10,000rpm

 

 

Even Better

Forget about the RAID controllers embedded on the motherboards.  There are two reasons to use RAID setups.  Speed and/or data redundancy.  RAID 5 is perhaps the most common RAID mode used for storage drives, but do look into RAID 6 and RAID 50/60 for larger RAID arrays.

RAID cards come with ports for 4-12 hard drives and more.  The most common would be 4 and 8 ports.  My Promise Technologies EX8650 controller will run both SATA and the faster more expensive server class SAS drives.  I won't cover SAS drives except to say if you're loaded with money and want the very best performance do some research into SAS drives.  So far I've used 500gb and 1tb drives with this card in both RAID 5/6 and 50/60 configurations.

The EX8650 like most other quality RAID cards has it's own processor and memory for maximum performance.  These require a PCI-e slot so choose your motherboard accordingly.

 

Promise Technologies EX8650

 

I chose to not build a RAID array into my newest workstation.  Why?  Because with the availability of 2tb internal drives and 6 SATA II ports on my motherboard, I can have quite a lot of storage in my case without RAID.  AND I'll be setting up a RAID in my independent server machine in the near future and writing a review on how to build and manage a Windows Server.

When I do choose the drives for the RAID in my new server I'm fairly certain I'll be using (8) 2tb SATA II 6gbps server class drives.  These will be expensive, but cheap overall per megabyte.  With 8 drives I'll run a RAID 60 which means I'll have 12 terabytes of actual storage, and two drives redundant.  This means I can lose two drives and still not lose a single bite of data.  Three drives would have to fail at the same time to bring down this setup.  Short of an electrical surge or a flood this won't happen.

 

Best

You've guessed it.  If I had unlimited funds and wanted the most secure and best performing storage I'd use a RAID controller with SSD drives.  You can currently buy 1tb SSD's.  8 of them will set you back about as much as a new economy sedan.  It's possible and available today.. but it will cost you.

 

Power Supply

The power supply is the single most critical component in your system.  The power supply supplies 'conditioned' and 'precise' power to every component.  This is not where you save money.  Power supplies can also generate a lot of heat and noise, so choose your power supply according to your system needs.

There is only one power supply I will personally use and I have several of them.  PC Power and Cooling makes the absolute best and most reliable power supplies available.  There are other good ones, and a few really good ones, but there's only one made to the specifications and detail at this level.

In my server I run a Turbo-cool 1200w.  It's a noisy monster of a power supply suitable for server use.  However, in my workstation where I don't have the same power requirements I'm using a Silencer 910 .  This is a very quiet power supply which fits my goal of a silent machine.

 

PC Power and Cooling Silencer 900, Bangkok Images

 

Whichever power supply you select make sure it has the right type and number of power connectors for the system you're building.

 

The Case

Many PC users were in awe of Apple's Power Mac which sported a case which an only be described as a work of art.  Most PC users aren't aware that Lian Li  out of Taiwan makes equally beautiful and functional cases.  If you want the Cadillac of computer cases then Lian Li cases should be on your short list.  Nothing else compares.

Tool-less access, aluminum construction, and artistic design set Lian Li cases apart as the very best.  They come in many styles for several needs so check them all out carefully, read a few reviews, and choose the right Lian Li case for your needs.

I'm still using my 7 year old Lian Li case because frankly I see no need to change it.  If you purchase quality components your subsequent upgrades will likely be limited to a new CPU/Motherboard/Memory upgrade.  Your case, power supply, and storage drives will transcend builds.

 

Lian Li, PC-V2100b, Bangkok Images

 

Some things to remember about cases.  The more power your components will require, the more heat they'll generate.  Well designed air flow, large quiet fans, and even large cases will help dissipate heat effectively.  Cases are also limited to how many drives of each type they will hold.  Check your specification build list against each case you're considering.

When I build my server next month I'll buy a new Lian Li case.  It will probably be a mid-size case and I'll put my workstation components in this case, and use my old full tower case for the server.  The one thing I know for sure is that it will be a Lian Li case.  No shoddy workmanship, everything fits, no sharp edges to cut my fingers, and once everything is together it will have proper airflow and keep things running cool.  They look awesome too.

 

Input Devices

Input devices are personal, but very important.  There are a slew of such devices out there and often you'll need to spend a considerable amount of time checking them out to find the ones which fit your needs the best.  The three input devices I use are the Logitech Performance Mouse , the Logitech Di Novo Edge Keyboard, and the Wacom Intuos 4 graphics tablet.

 

Logitech MX Performance Mouse

 

Logitech dNovo Edge Keyboard, Bangkok Images

 

Wacom Intous 3 tablet

 

Input devices are what you use every single time you use your workstation.  This isn't an area to skimp.  You'll be rewarded many times over for purchasing the best input devices you can afford.

 

Monitors

We always end up here and there are many choices in as many price ranges.  I'm only going to tell you that I use (2) 21.5" LCD panels in a dual display stand and a 50" HDTV for my video needs.

Below is a list of VERY GENERAL recommendations when looking for a monitor.

  • Buy a minimum of 20 inches
  • Two monitors are known to be much more productive than one
  • S-IPS LCD panels are recommended for imaging
  • Monitors come on all qualities from very cheap, to very expensive.  Buy what you need
  • Monitors will need to be profiled for correct color.  A profiling device will be required
  • Pay attention to the warranties.  Especially with expensive monitors
  • Image monitors should ALWAYS have a matte surface.  Glossy monitors are a handicap

 

Over Clocking

I'll say right out that I sincerely don't believe over clocking and image workstations go together.  Oil and water.  I recommend against it 99.9% of the time.  It's not worth risking the integrity of your images/data.  The speed increases aren't worth it.

I'm over clocking.  What!  Please allow me to explain before lynching me for being an hypocrite.  During the course of my reading and research, and please know that I read the trade magazines and journals on a daily basis and have for years, one combination of processor and motherboard stood out as absolutely reliable for over clocking.  I decided to give it a try before processing images.  I made the one setting change in the BIOS and as advertised I was instantly running at 3.8ghz.

Confession time:  I forgot I was over clocking.  Two months of testing, using, and installing programs went by before I remembered I was over clocking.  Not once during this time, or the subsequent two months of use before writing this review, did I ever have a single error related to over clocking.  Not a single blue screen of death, no required reboots, no software errors, and my CPU temperature never exceeded 52c and it was only that high when really pushing the CPU at maximum for long periods of time.  Idle temp is a steady 38c, and an honest average temp when working large amounts of data is 44c.

 

Performance

Initially I was going to run the same tests Craig Lamson did in his laptop review last week.  After running just a few of these benchmarks I realized these systems are, not only not, in the same league, they're not even in the same universe.  A workstation built to these specifications will be faster than you can imagine, and faster than you'll probably need.  As always, when you do have to wait on something it will be the drives as you pull data on/off the storage media.  Otherwise even previously long tasks just 'flash' done.

What really counts with performance is how much time it takes you to complete your workload.  This same system with my previous motherboard (Intel 975xbx), CPU (Intel Core 2 Duo 2.67g) and memory (4gigs of DDR2), compared to my upgraded system shows a huge performance gain.  Let me give you some examples:

 

    • My standard workflow is to process my images in Lightroom and create a collection with up to several hundred 'semi-finished' images which I'll then import into CS4 Photoshop for final processing.  Because this final processing can take some time I'm also using my PC to play a movie on the HDTV, listen to music, or maybe watch a cable channel vs. my Slingbox.  My browser with up to 10 tabs, Yahoo messenger, torrent client, and my email client is ALWAYS running in the background.  With Lightroom open I could import 3-5 images into CS4 Photoshop as 16 bit 98mb tiff files.  I could then finalize these images and save them, and then bring in 3-5 more.  Standard tasks would be levels adjustment, saturation, Focus Magic, and a noise reduction plug-in such as Neat Image.  Each image would take roughly 5-8 minutes.  ALWAYS when initially opening these images into CS4 Photoshop the movie playing would freeze.  Everything else like the browser would be unusable.  Once loaded things would be better.  With the new system I can open as many images into CS4 Photoshop as I want, for instance last night I loaded 48 16bit 98mb images at one time into CS4.  The system doesn't even sneeze.  Everything not only works without momentary freezes, but it works just like it always does.  For grins I opened 100  16 bit 98mb tiff images and got the same result.  Instead of needing 5-8 minutes per image, I now need less than 30 seconds.  It completes its tasks literally as fast as I can press the mouse button.
    • Video rendering.  I've been working with Adobe Captivate learning how to make Flash based tutorials, a feature I plan to offer in this column soon.  My old system would take hours to render a 10 minute tutorial.  The new system does the same in less than a minute.  And it does it without slowing down anything else running at the same time.
    • I have a "CPU Usage" indicator that shows a colored bar for each thread.  When idle these bars reflect no usage.  During light work one or maybe two threads are being taxed.  No matter how hard I try to tax the performance of this machine the best I can do is to get 4-6 of the 8 threads working, and then only from 10-50%.  There is always a great amount of processing power in reserve.
    • I want to make clear my system isn't "lean" or set up to run the bare minimum to increase speed.  I have everything activated and installed.  And I'm always running video/music, and my other programs in the background.

 

I get a lot of questions that ask "how much memory do I really need?"  The answer to this is easy, you need at least the minimum amount of memory listed under requirements for your program or operating system.  Usually this will be 1-2gigs.  However, the best way to improve the performance of any computer is to increase the amount of RAM.  How much?  I'd say for most uses 6gigs will make you very happy and provide a great level of performance.  If you're like me and do a lot of things at the same time and you don't want any slow downs no matter how many tasks you have open and/or running, then 12gigs would be better.  12gigs of quality fast Triple Channel RAM DDR3 memory is currently less than $400.  It's a bargain.

 

Operating System

 

Windows Vista x64 Ultimate

This machine is set up to use Windows Vista Ultimate x64 Service Pack 2.  Any machine with over 3gigs of memory will need to run a x64 bit operating system.  I was an early adopter of Vista and besides for a few bugs here and there, and a few old pieces of hardware which weren't supported, I didn't have nearly the issues you'd read about.  If you listened to the naysayers Windows Vista was the devils work, and was not only buggy but would also crash your system and steal little children in the process.  My personal experience running Vista x32 and x64 across 2 workstations and 5 laptops.. is that Vista was a pleasure to use in all of them.  More, especially in the x64 machine, Vista made my machines run smoother and more reliable.  I never turn my workstation off.  The only time I need to reboot the machine is once per month after it automatically downloads and installs the latest updates from Microsoft.

XP Professional would allow certain programs to work faster, especially moving data across my home network between other PC's and my NAS servers.  However, Vista was far superior for my imaging programs, or any program which used a lot of RAM.  I'm convinced the Vista memory manager was responsible for this increase in performance.  For instance, with XP Pro I'd often have to exit Photoshop after processing so many images, and then bring it back up again and continue.  Performance would drop off until I did this.  With Vista I could run the same Photoshop for weeks and thousands of images without needing to do this.

I've ran this upgraded system on Windows Vista x64 Ultimate for almost four months now. There have been NO blue screens of death, no crashes, and no issues which couldn't be attributed to application software.

 

Windows 7 x64 Ultimate

I hope you believe my experiences with Vista, because Windows 7 uses the Vista core and is essentially the same operating system with a slick new UI.  Sitting before me is a brand new System Builders OEM copy of Windows 7 x64 Ultimate.  I've had it for a while now, staring at me, taunting me, daring me to mess up my perfect performing Vista build by installing Windows 7.

I have two options.  I can do a "in place" upgrade from Vista x64 Ultimate to Win 7 x64 Ultimate.  This means I can upgrade and it will transfer all my files and programs over including my setup information.  I won't need to reinstall anything.  OR, I can do a complete clean install.

Among professionals conventional wisdom for upgrading has been to bite the bullet and do the work for a complete clean install.  In place upgrades always resulted in issues that took more time to deal with, than the extra time to do the complete install.  However, initial reports show that Microsoft has improved and fine tuned the 'in place' install to such a degree that now there's very little if any advantage to doing a clean install.  I'll admit to being very curious if this is true.

 

Upgrade routes you can do, and still do an "in place" upgrade:

    • Windows Vista x64 to Windows 7 x64, version to version copy.  i.e. Ultimate to Ultimate, Home Premium to Home Premium, etc, etc
    •  
    • Window 7 version to an upgraded Windows 7 version upgrade.  You can upgrade for instance from Home Premium to Ultimate

 

Upgrade routes you cannot do, with a "in place" upgrade.  These routes require a clean install:

    • Windows XP to Windows 7
    •  
    • x32 to x64

 

Windows 7 x64 Ultimate and I have been in a staring match for weeks now, wondering who will blink first.  I can't take it anymore.  I'm giving in.  Once this column is penned and sent off to Stickman HQ I'll attempt an "in place" upgrade and see how it goes.  If necessary I'll do a clean install.  Next week I'll be able to share with you what I learned from this process, provided I still have a working computer.

 

Conclusion

This is a huge area to cover.  This is why I limited what areas I covered and what items I talked about.  It would be easy to write a book length guide to building your own PC and hundreds have done so.  The purpose of this review is to share with you what I built, what I use it for, and why I chose certain components over others.  Hopefully, in the event your requirements are similar then the huge task of researching this subject won't need to be repeated by you.  You can just order the same stuff I did, put it together, and it will work.

Do keep in mind that changing any item may result in parts that physically or electronically no longer fit or work together.  If you change anything ask your retailer to be sure they do.

I've already mentioned that if you put together a quality system with quality components, then the next time you need to upgrade to the latest CPU, all you'll need to upgrade is the CPU, motherboard, and RAM.  Everything else will translate over.  This means the initial cost of your PC might be high, but over 3-4 upgrades it becomes ridiculously inexpensive.  For instance, my last upgrade only required the CPU/Motherboard/Memory and the total cost was somewhere around $700.  That's cheaper than the laptop reviewed in last weeks column!

Good luck building your system.  Take it slow and ask if you're not sure, and it's not that hard to do.  There are tons of "building your own PC" resources available on the web.. there are even Utube "how to" videos.

I hope this helps..