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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Building a Haswell Desktop

I know lots of people are moving to laptops for most of their computing needs. I use laptops plenty, but for use with my older 30" HP LP3065 display I still need something with a dual-link DVI output. There were a few gaming laptops that had such a connection, but these days? Yeah, too bad for me! So I tend to do nearly all of my home computing on a desktop still. If you're like me and prefer to stick with a traditional desktop, and if you happen to be running a system that's several years old or more, the recent launch of Intel's Haswell (4th Generation Core Series) processors may be giving you the itch to upgrade.

Here's a system I'm recommending to a friend. It's pretty easy to put this all together and having a speedy setup for the next five years. I've included a couple options on three key parts: the GPU, the CPU, and the RAM. At the high-end, you might want to go all-out on the performance aspects, and that's where we get the GTX 780, 16GB RAM, and an i7-4770K processor. The nearly as fast but quite a bit more affordable configuration opts for GTX 770, 8GB RAM, and an i5-4570K. For the even less demanding, we can also go with a GTX 760 graphics card -- and if you don't care about gaming, you might just save yourself hundreds of dollars by going with the integrated Intel HD 4600 Graphics. Here's the list of parts:

Intel Core i7-4770K processor ($339)
Intel Core i5-4670K processor ($230)
Corsair H80i Cooler ($75)
ASRock Z87M Pro4 motherboard ($142)
Zotac GTX 780 3GB GDDR5 ($610)
EVGA GTX 770 4GB GDDR5 graphics card ($440)
Gigabyte GTX 760 4GB GDDR5 graphics card ($300)
16GB (2x8GB) G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-1866 DDR3-1866 memory ($153)
8GB (2x4GB) G.Skill Sniper DDR3-1866 memory ($83)
256GB Corsair Neutron solid state drive ($190)
2TB Western Digital hard drive ($87)

Rosewill mATX case ($36)
Corsair Obsidian 350D ($80)
Silverstone PS07B ($79)
Bitfenix Prodigy ($80) (White)
Silverstone Tek TJ08B-E case ($100)

Power Supplies:
600W Enermax Platimax 80 Plus Platinum ($184)
450W Antec 80 Plus Platinum ($84)
Corsair RM650 80 Plus Gold ($118)
Corsair CX430 80 Plus Bronze ($40)

Operating System:
Windows 7 Home Premium OEM ($89)
Windows 8.1 OEM ($110)

You'll note that I've gone with a mATX motherboard and case, mostly because I feel the larger cases these days are just way bigger than they need to be. I cheaped out a bit on the case initially, so I added some higher-end options, plus the white Bitfenix Prodigy.

Similarly, the power supply has a few options now; go with the 600W/650W if you want to use the GTX 770 or GTX 780, and 430W/450W for lesser builds. The difference in efficiency between 80 Plus Platinum and 80 Plus Bronze is about 5-7%, so realistically you only save at best 25-50W under load by going with Platinum, and probably 5-10W or less at idle. Running 24/7 at load, that works out to $22-$44 per year, but a more realistic use would be loaded 10% of the time and idle the rest of the time, which would only be $6-$12 per year. Saving $40-$80 on the PSU in the short-term ends up being a wash over five years, but either choice is fine.

The CPU cooler is also optional, but overclocking is possible to if you want to give that a shot I'd grab the cooler. Windows 7 will also save  you $21 right not compared to Windows 8.1 (which is still whatever).

Here's what the totals come down to, using Platinum PSUs and Win8.1:

Maximum Performance (i7, 600W, GTX 780, 16GB, Silverstone, H80i): $2012
High-End Performance (i5, 600W, GTX 770, 8GB, Silverstone, H80i): $1663
Moderate Performance (i5, 450W, GTX 760, 8GB, Rosewill): $1284
Moderate Non-Gaming (i5, 450W, 8GB, Rosewill, no HDD): $897

So basically the total would be anywhere from $900 to $2000, depending on how high you want to go on the graphics mostly. The system is of course more upgradeable over the long terms, and it has room for multiple hard drives/solid state drives if you want. You could add more storage, a fast graphics card (two if your power supply and case can handle it -- I'd suggest switching to a full-size ATX case for that, though), or if something breaks down in a few years you can easily find replacement parts.

If you were to go out and buy a Dell, HP, etc. system, the initial pricing may seem much better than a custom-built PC, but there are a few caveats. First, Dell chooses most of the parts, without too many customization options available. One big item that's missing on many big OEM desktops is a good SSD (solid state drive), which is something I require for every system I build -- it just makes such a difference that I'm not willing to put together a system these days without an SSD. So if you take Dell's $700 configuration for something like the XPS 8700, you'd get a slightly slower CPU, a very mediocre GPU (the GT 635), a motherboard with no frills or overclocking, slower RAM, a smaller HDD, no SSD, and a lower quality power supply. If you wanted to get something close to the moderate build I've recommended, it's $890 just to get the SSD.

The problem with big OEM PCs is that Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, etc. make systems that are designed to hit a price point, and they cut lots of corners to get there. They're not as upgradeable in some respects, and the quality of the components is lower. As an example, I could get the price of the base level desktop I listed above down about $250 if I just use a lower quality, lower price motherboard (H81 chipset), power supply, RAM, SSD, and a slower CPU (i5-4430) -- but that's not something I am comfortable building, as long-term reliability is more of a concern. So if you've ever looked at OEM systems and wondered, "How can they get all those components into such a system at that price?", that's how. Buy in bulk, user lower quality parts, and you can save 20% on overall costs...and lose out long-term. Don't forget the bloatware software either!

Anyway, I'm working on a guide for my regular job with similar parts to the above -- I just need to do a bit more research before firming up the recommendations, so stay tuned....