Components for the Perfect Computer

This blog post is part of a series on my experiencebuilding the perfect computer.  Comparingand choosing your components can be one of the most intimidating parts ofcreating your own computer.  A lot of thedecisions that you have to make early on will dictate what options you have forsubsequent decisions.

Note: This article only coverscomponents that can be bought “off-the-shelf”. For information on items that I created custom, see custom components.

Here we discuss which components I chose to use in my buildand how I arrived at the decision.

Case

Your computer case, also known as your chassis, will holdall of the components of your computer.  Thereare a huge variety of available cases that come in all shapes and sizes, butthey are generally categorized into the following sizing group (based on howbig of a motherboard they could be used with):

-         FullTower

Designed for any sized motherboard, thesecases are huge are typically are taller than 22” tall.

-         Mid Tower
This describes the majority of cases which can fit a standard ATXmotherboard.

-         MicroTower
Designed to fit a Micro ATX Motherboard.

-         MiniTower
Designed to fit a Mini ITX Motherboard.

Cases are not the components that you should look to savemoney on – they are relatively inexpensive relevant to other parts and theywill help to shape all of your other decisions.

If you plan on building a customwater cooling loop, make sure that your case includes a built-in fill anddrain port – this will let you fill/drain the coolant from your computer withoutcompletely taking it apart.

After a lot of research, I ended up deciding to go with the PhanteksEvolvX and I could not be happier. Phanteks products are extremely high quality and come packed with all ofthe features that you could possibly need. While they are notorious for having poor air flow, this has opened up awide secondary modding market for people to create custom air flow designs.

PSU

Choosing a Power Supply Unit (PSU) is fairlystraightforward.  The wattage of yourPower Supply dictates how many components it can power – you can use Newegg’s PSUWattage calculator to estimate how much you will need, but I would suggestgetting one with 750 watts, which should be more than enough for most customsystems.  If you plan on having multipletop-end graphics cards than you may need to increase this to 1,000 watts.

Make sure to get a modular powersupply so that you can remove any cables that you don’t need and so that youhave the option to get custom PSU Cables.

I ended up getting Corsair’s HX750i and it works very nicely.  Since I ended up using iCue, I do with that Ihad gone with an iCue compatible Power Supply.

CPU

As the brain of your computer, your Central Processing Unit(CPU) is the most critical part to your overall performance.  Pretty much all processors are made by twocompanies: Intel and AMD.  Intel is themore established brand, which means that AMD often aggressively prices theirproducts to compete (in some instances a similar performing CPU from Intel canbe 3x more expensive than AMD).

Each brand splits their products into two categories:Consumer and Workstation/Server. Performance-based consumer CPUs (known as i9 for Intel and Ryzen 9 forAMD) range in prices from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and providethe widest range of motherboard choices while still having some pretty awesomeperformance at the top end.

Workstation/server processors (known as Xeon for Intel andRyzen Threadripper for AMD) can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to overten thousand.  With workstation/serverprocessors you also have the option of having multiple processors in a singlemotherboard, allowing you to have an insane amount of performance for multi-threadedapplications.

When comparing different processors, there are a few metricsto keep in mind:

-         Cores
This is the number of physical processors in your CPU.  I would recommend that the minimum number ofcores you should look for is 8.

-         Threads
This is the number of discrete tasks that your processor can undertake atonce.  If you are building a workstation,look for as many threads as possible within your budget.  Otherwise, if you are building a gaming rig, focuson a higher clock speed.  Most high-end processorswill have twice as many threads as cores – this is known as Hyper-threading (atleast by Intel).

-         Frequency
This is how fast your processor can accomplish a task (this is also knownby names such as “Speed”, and “Clock Speed”). Processors will list a “Base Frequency”, which is the minimum speed thatall of its cores will run at.  There willalso be a Max Frequency (aka “Max Turbo Frequency”, or “Max Boost Clock”),which indicates how fast a single core can run under ideal circumstances.  For more information on this, see our articleon Overclocking.

-         Socket
The socket is the physical interface used to insert your CPU into yourMotherboard.  Make sure to checkout thecompatible motherboards for a potential CPU before buying it.

Server/workstation processors can have a lot of additionalfeatures, but none worth mentioning.

I decided to go with the AMDRyzen 9 3950x CPU, which I purchased the day that it was released.  This processor is a beast – with lots ofhorsepower and features – all at a very reasonable price relative to its Intelcounterparts (this is my first AMD Processor – all of my other computers andservers have Intel processors).  The onething that I would say about this processor is that it can run pretty hot.  You will need, at the very minimum, atop-of-the-line All-In-One water cooling system with a 360mm radiator.  However, to get the most our of this CPU, youwill need a custom loop.

Originally, I was leaning towards getting an AMD RyzenThreadRipper (which, again, is the Workstation/Server equivalent).  However, while ThreadRippers do have a higherrange of specs, they are more expensive for what you get and there are a lotfewer options when it comes to your other components (i.e. your motherboard).

Motherboard

Your choice in CPU will inform the available motherboardsfor you to choose.

Each CPU is associated with a socket and a chipset(collectively known as a platform).  Youcan only get a motherboard that uses the same platform as your CPU.  There can be a lot of nuance in choosing yourmotherboard – it can be really hard to know what features you will need untilafter you have already bought one and set it up.

My CPU uses the AM4 socket and the X570 chipset – Ieventually settled on the MSI Ace X570Motherboard.  While I am happy with itoverall, here are some things to keep in mind:

-         The motherboard I chose is compatible with NVMeM.2 SSDs, which means that the hard drives fit inside of the motherboard (threein the case of my motherboard).  Thisreduces the number of cables that you need to run which would normally connectyour hard drives to your motherboard and power supply.

-         Despite having the capability of having threehard drives, the built-in RAID controller does not support RAID-5.

-         MSI’s build-in RGB lighting controller (known asMystic Light is compatible with a lot of different components).  However, the actual software that you use tocustomize lighting is awful, and I have ended up using a completely separatelighting controller.

-         Asus has some motherboards that can becontroller via Corsair iCue – if I was starting from scratch I might go withthem instead.

Hard Drives

The speed of your hard drive is the cheapest, most effectivemethod of massively improving the performance of your computer.  Getting at least an SSD for your computer(rather than a traditional hard drive) is an absolute must.

For my hard drives I chose CorsairForce MP600s.  These are very fast,but they require a compatible motherboard to get their full performance.  NVMe M.2 drives are about 10 times fasterthan most SSDs, which are already pretty fast.

They come with a heat sync attached.  My motherboard comes with built-in heat syncsfor these drives, so I had to remove it before installing them.  If you buy an NVMe M.2 Drive without a heat sync and yourmotherboard does not have one, then you need to buy a separate heat sync for it or it willquickly burn out.

When going through the process of deciding which hard driveto get, I went through several considerations:

Performance

The performance of a hard drive can be measured in Megabytesper Second (MBps).  A traditional 3.5”mechanical hard drive (HDD) might run at 80 to 260 Mbps.

Solid State Drives (SSDs) are much faster, with speeds ofabout 560 MBps.  Additionally, since a 2.5”SSD can fit anywhere that an HDD can, it is easy to swap out.

A NVMe M.2 drive is a special type of SSD that connectsdirectly into your motherboard (no cables needed) and is substantially fasterthan a traditional SSD with speeds of up to 5,000 Mbps.  The only drawback with these types of drivesis that since they plug directly into your motherboard, you can have feweroptions for RAID.

Reliability

One of the big concerns about SSDs when they first came outwas reliability.  Over time, SSDs willinvariably start to get “bad sectors”, which will eventually lead to afailure.  Knowing this, SSD manufacturersinclude a ton of extra hidden storage on each SSD – as a sector goes bad theinformation is automatically transferred to this extra space.  Luckily, this degradation can actually bemeasured by tools like Hard Disk Sentinel.  Additionally, when you buy an SSD themanufacturer will have the estimated Total Bytes Written (TBW) advertised,which approximates how many bytes you can write to the drive before it becomesunusable.

The fewer bytes that you write to your drive, the longer itwill last – but I can tell you that I have a stack of consumer-grade Samsung 850Evo SSDs in one of our servers (which is constantly reading and writing),and Hard Disk Sentinel estimates that they still have 3 years left (and theyhave already been running for 2 years). A workstation’s drives should last even longer.

On the other hand, traditional HDD don’t necessarily degradeover time.  However, due to theirmechanical nature they do fail completely at random intervals throughout theirlifespan.  It can also be more difficultto compare the longevity of different drives since there is no quantifiablemeasure like there is with SSDs.

A 1TB Samsung 860 Evo SSD is rated for 600 TBW whereas my 1TB Corsair MP600 is rated for 1,800 TBW.

Memory

Prior to deciding on using Corsair iCue to manage all of mylighting, I got 64gb of G.Skill Trident Z– a popular choice for people with the Ryzen 9 and an MSI Motherboard (sincethe G.Skill RGB can be controlled by MSI’s Mystic Light.

However, once I decided on Corsair, I switched to Corsair Dominator Platinum RGB.

Make sure to check your motherboard’s manufacturer to getthe exact memory that they recommend with the CPU that you chose.  I first bought memory from Corsair that itsaid was compatible with AMD Ryzen CPU but I ran into some issues with it.

Generally, a Creator will use the same brands of memory asGamers, although Creators will want to focus their budget on higher quantitiesof reliable memory (at least 32gb) rather than purely on speed.  For even more reliability, you can look forError Correcting Memory (ECC).

This category of user cares wants more threads on their CPU(at least 20) and a higher quality of memory (at least 32gb).  They are also willing to sacrifice somecooling performance of exotic, more complicated cooling systems for the sake ofreliability.  GPUs are less important formost, and will often be chosen based on the number of monitor outputs.

Creators can definitely choose a gamer-focused GPU, whichwill give you a lot of performance for the money, but both AMD and Nvidia makeworkstation specific graphics cards that offer better multi-monitor support andcan be linked together in series to yield huge performance benefits.  The two most popular lines are Nvidia Quadroand AMD Pro.

The price range of workstation graphics is much higher thangamer graphics cards, but they are designed to run more reliably at lowertemperatures – meaning that most people do not need to water cool them.  If you are using a program that can leverageGPUs (e.g. rendering video/graphics), you can even link multiple GPUs togetherto create one massive GPU (using SLI).

GPU

Known as your Graphics Card, your GPU is used torender what is seen on a monitor.  Ingaming, this can be quantified by Frames per Second (FPS).  Since Graphics Cards have many more coresthan any CPU, some programs can actually offload their processing to your GPU,making things like video processing much faster. 

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