This one has been churning in my head for quite some time now, how can I putt this into words so it will last more than a year and not become outdated?
Well, first off I will strongly recommend a stationery computer and not a laptop. Nothing wrong with a laptop, but to be good enough (read, powerful enough), they need to be expensive, so I would rather recommend getting an “okay” priced and light weight laptop that you can bring with you on the travels and then get a powerful stationary workstation at home. Assembling a stationary computer is a lot easier than it might look like.
The only things that you need to be careful about is that mainboard, ram and processor fits together. Further you will need a cabinet, power supply and some hard drives. Optionally a dvd writer and a graphic card if the mainboard doesn’t have one built inn or you want to play games too and a wireless card (Wi-Fi) if the mainboard doesn’t has it built in or you may prefer to have the cable plugged in the machine. And then maybe some replacement fans if you like to be little bit advanced. That’s all and everything fits just in one place so it is actually quite easy to assemble. Outside the box you will need a keyboard and mouse, and preferably a tablet and pen, and then of course a monitor.
To break it down to more digestible pieces, let’s start with the box. There is obviously a jungle out there, but I will guide you to choose one that doesn’t look like a Christmas tree with lights all over, but rather has some kind of noise insulation and can take a mainboard with a form factor called ATX (the size of the mainboard). I will also suggest that the box has a door in the front for some extra noise blocking. Personally I ended up with a Fractal Design Define R5 where you can take off covers on the top and side to add fans if needed. Further it has a door and USB connection on top together with a couple of 3.5 mm jacks and on/off button. One other more timeless item is the power supply (PSU), timeless because you can keep it for years even if you replace other things inside the cabinet. I choose the Corsair RM 850i, which is completely silent until you draw more than 340 watts out of it and then the fan speed is temperature controlled. In my setup I’ve never been close to trigger the fan, but then I don’t have a power hungry graphic card, so the PSU is truly silent here. If you have chosen a cabinet with a form factor of ATX, make sure the PSU is too.
Next up you need to make the decision to go for Intel or AMD processor. As far as I know there isn’t any right or wrong there although I’ve chosen a path with Intel. Consequently I don’t know much about AMD, but noticed that they have released some very good processors lately. As general rule of thumb I would steer clear of dual core processors and go for quad core or higher. In Intel this means i5 or i7 and for AMD it would be any of the Ryzen processors. Which one exactly is impossible to say, but somewhere in the middle MHz-wise could be a starting point, but I encourage going for a fast as you can afford (and then maybe take it a step down). I ended up with an Intel Core i7 7700K Kaby Lake.
When you have chosen your future processor, you need to choose the RAM. I will encourage you to go for 16 GB if you are only doing photo editing, if you plan on doing some video editing, go for 32 GB. One thing to watch out for is if the processor you’ve chosen support dual or quad channel RAM, although in most cases they only support dual channel. This means though if yours support quad channel you get better performance getting four equal pieces of RAM like four pieces of 4 GB to get a total of 16 GB. You also need to make sure the speed of the RAM is supported by the processor and your mainboard of choice. This sounds complicated but is just a quick cross check and an insurance that things are working together when you’ve assembled everything and are stating up for the first time. Supported RAM can be found on the processors and mainboard producers’ websites (they may even have recommended RAM).
Then the time has come to choose the mainboard and as mentioned earlier, go for ATX form factor if you are not sure to go for something else. First I look for what is the newest chip set. The chip set determines among others what the mainboard supports of new connections. Then you need to decide how many USB ports should be on the back. I would suggest as many USB 3 as possible, but at least four USB 3 and a couple of USB 2. Then if the mainboard should have built in wireless card, but don’t let that option stop you from choosing another, it’s just nice to have but you can add a dedicated wireless card too. On the mainboard itself I would suggest at least four 6 Gb/s SATA ports and a couple of 3 Gb/s SATA ports. And obviously the socket for the processor you’ve chosen needs to be the same on the mainboard. I went for the Asus Prime Z270-A.
If you have chosen a mainboard without wireless built in, you need a plugin card, and I will suggest any with the letters “AC” in the name, means it will support much faster speeds than the older N and G standards (if you don’t choose to connect the network cable directly in the back of the cabinet).
When it comes to storage, I highly recommend going for a good size SSD as your system disc, like 250 GB. Then a much bigger “normal” 3.5 inch hard drive, like a 4 TB for storing your photos and other stuff, and a couple of slightly bigger ones for backup, like two 6TB mirrored (Raid 1). For my system disc I went for a Samsung SSD 850 EVO 500 GB, for storage I got a Seagate Barracuda 3 TB and for backup I got two Seagate Archive 6 TB in Raid 1 and formatted them into REFS.
NB, update about storage! In my quest to have a more silent computer, I’ve done some changes regarding hard drives. All old style magnetic drives has gone out and have been replaced with: System drive has been changed to a 250 GB Samsung 970 EVO NVMe SSD M.2, and the “old” 850 EVO 500 GB SSD mentioned above has become the internal storage drive. Backup has been moved out of the cabinet to a NAS with four 4 TB drives in RAID 10. More about using NAS as backup in a upcoming post. So, now it’s only two fans on the liquid cooling radiator running at slowest speed at low temperature that makes noise, and they are hardly noticeable.
Tip, on your system drive I will recommend you to only have your operative system and installed programs. Everything else you should save in your storage drive. This way when you have a system drive crash or other reason would like to replace your system drive or reinstall the operative system, everything you have saved and worked on are readily available on your storage drive as it was before. Lets also mention size for the OS drive. If you know your stuff and are sure you’ll be okay with a smaller drive, go for a 120 GB, although in my experience after some time with a lot of update for the OS and more and more programs, the used space quickly gets up to 120-160 GB. There are some 180 and 200 GB SSD’s, but I recommend to take a look at the more standard size of 250 GB too. If you like to get a NVMe M.2 SSD, I don’t think there is much between 125 and 250 GB.
The question about cost, is it worth it to get a NVMe M.2 SSD over a SATA SSD? Short answer, if you have the money, go for it. If not I think it’s better to add the money somewhere else in the build, or towards a NAS. The NVMe M.2 SSD is on paper 5-7 times faster than a SATA SSD, and about twice as expensive, but in real life experiance it’s not much difference when it comes to opening programs and using them. Admittedly, opening programs is a bit snappier, but not worth the added cost. So why did I do it? Well, sometimes you need to see for your self, and I had 500GB system drive that I would like to use as pure storage, or getting another one at 500 GB for storge. The price for a 500 GB SATA SSD is about the same as for a 250 GB NVMe M.s SSD, so I ended up with a 250 GB NVMe M.2 SSD.
Further I recommend getting a DVD writer although it has less use in later years; it doesn’t cost much and is still good to have. I would also go for a wireless mouse and keyboard and as mentioned in the beginning, a drawing tablet and pen, like the Wacom Intuos Pro. If you want to do more than just global adjustments with your photos, a pen and tablet is a necessity and way, way better than just using the mouse.
Then it has come down to the monitor and the first question should be how many? If you think one is enough (to begin with) you need to decide the size and resolution. I would recommend nothing less than 24 inches and preferably somewhere in the range of 27 and 35 depending on the viewing distance. For resolution and size, I would go for as big as you can afford as long it’s a good quality monitor. A full HD monitor doesn’t have more than about 2 Mpx, which isn’t much with today’s 20-30-40-50 Mpx cameras. Even a 4K screen has only slightly over 8 Mpx! In my opinion it is also essential to calibrate the monitor, with a calibrating device. An affordable 24″ could be the Dell P2415Q, a 4K monitor that is very good compared to the price.
The subject of fans and cooling is huge and I will just mention some few things. First off, the processor sometimes comes with a stock cooler and fan, sometimes not. Price difference is often nothing, so get the one that is cheapest if you plan to go with an aftermarket cooler/heat sink and fan. Personally I’ve had good experience with Noctua. Most cabinets comes with some fans installed, but in my opinion it’s a good idea to replace them with some that are even more silent. Standard fan sizes now a days is either 12cm or 14cm, look at the description for your cabinet to find the right size. If your mainboard support PWM-fans, recognized by a four-pin socket, I recommend getting those as it’s an advantage when it comes to speed control related to temperature. I prefer Noctua fans set as slow as possible and then increase speed according the temperature rising inside the cabinet.
A nice option to get a cooler cabinet is to install water cooling. Traditionally the processor generate a lot of heat and that heat circulate inside the cabinet before it eventually goes out by a fan or a hole in the cabinet. With water cooling you absorb the heat from the processor with a liquid and dissipate it via a radiator out of the cabinet without the heat staying inside the cabinet at all. A further benefit is that the fans on the radiator are sucking cool air from the outside into the cabinet in the process filling the cabinet with cool air. I went with the Corsair H115i.
Some final words on how to adjust fan control. After all is assembled and everything is up and running, run a stress test program like Prime 95 with all the fans at maximum speed and watch the temperatures, normally it’s the processor (CPU) that should have the highest temperature. Let the program run for 10-15 minutes and write down the temperatures (abort if temperature goes over 85-90°C, which is not normal, I expect it to rise to about 70°C). Let the computer idle for 10-15 minutes and write down the temperatures, you should expect temperatures in the range of 25-30°C. Then try to slow down all fans as much as they can and let the computer idle for 10-15 minutes and write down the temperatures again. Expect temperatures about 35-40°C. If you experience higher temperature on idle, try increasing the speed on one fan at the time and see which one matters the most to make the temperature drop. If you have a temperature as an example at 40°C at idle, I would start increasing the speed of the fan at about 45°C or so and make the curve go steeper and steeper until it has full speed at about 70°C. This way your computer is as silent as can be at idle and light work/load, and then increase accordingly when the temperatures rises. How many fans you should add in the cabinet varies with possibilities and what you want. If the cabinet has room for fans in the front, I would start with one there blowing into the cabinet and maybe one high in the back to blow out of the cabinet. Maybe that is all what you need. Another tip is to tape over places you don’t want air to come in or out, so you have more control over the airflow inside the cabinet.
If you on the other hand rely only on fan cooled heat sinks, I would recommend if possible to add a fan into the sidewall of the cabinet right over the CPU cooler and graphic card (if mounted), that way you get the coldest air where you need it most (on my other computer I’ve actually mounted the CPU fan in the side wall and has no fan on the heat sink at all (huge Noctua heat sink and fan), and it works fine). It may be all what you need. Try before you add more fans to see if they justify the potentially extra noise. You don’t necessarily need fans sucking air out and other blowing air in at the same time. Instead of having one (or more) blowing in and one (or more) blowing out, you could be better off having them all blowing in or out, just make sure the air has somewhere to go.
In my case with water cooling I have two fans on the radiator, which is mounted in the front of the cabinet due to space, and they are blowing out of the cabinet. That’s all, just two fans blowing out at slowest speed at idle load. My idea with both fans blowing out was to get higher airflow through the power supply that has a stopped fan at low loads. Temperature wise I have an idle at about 28-30°C at the water and about 30-34°C at the CPU, and water temperature at full load is about 38°C and CPU temps about 80°C which is not uncommon with slightly overclocked system (expect 5-10°C lower at full load with not overclocked CPU). All temps with a room temperature at 22-23°C.
So to summarize on fan control. As a rule of thumb I will by default try to run all fans at slowest speeds possible when the computer is not under load (idle). With fan cooled heat sinks I would start increasing the speed at about 5 degrees over idle and slowly the first 10 degree, maybe 1,5-2 times the idle speed, and then double the speed the next ten degrees and then full speed at about 70°C. For water cooling on the other hand, I would start increasing the speed at water temperature just 1-2 degrees over idle, and full speed after just about 5 degree increase, because water temperature rises very slowly.
And last, operative system. I would recommend Windows 10, but if you have a copy of Windows 7 that would be fine too (never liked Windows 8). Anyway, more importantly make sure you get the 64-bit version as the 32-bit version only can utilize 4 GB of RAM.
Update, for 4K 60Hz (60 fps) you would need a mainboard with at least HDMI 2.0 (or 2.1 for higher resolution than 4K or more than 60 Hz), or at least Display Port 1.2 (1.3 or even better 1.4 for higher Hz and/or resolution). If you on the other hand wold like to have a dedicated graphic card, I would recommend a passively cooled GeForce GT 1030. You won’t get more than 4K 60Hz with HDMI and a 1030 card, for higher Hz and resolution you would need a more powerfull graphic card and then we’re moving into serious gaming cards with potentially noisy fans, so tread carefully if you want a silent computer. If you are able to use Display Port, some 1030 cards has DP 1.4 with possibilities up to 4K 120Hz, or higher resolution with lower Hz. I would strongly recommend to aim for at least 60Hz if you are going for 4K. I went for a Gigabyte GeForce GT 1030 Silent as I wasn’t satisfied with only 30Hz provided with the mainboard. Water cooled graphic card is also an option, but a little on the side of the purpose of the post.
Another update, this time about cost, where can we save some money.
We all want’s to save some money, or at least not pay more than we need to get what we want. So, to brake down the article into components and price.
– Cabinet, the one I recommended is actually in the lower middle range price wise, and I’m pretty sure it’s difficult to get any cheaper with the same connection solutions and noise insulation. So this is not where I would save money.
– Power supply. Look for “80 Plus” certification and choose one that has more energy efficient label. Would also seriously consider one with not running fan on lower power out takes and further temperature controlled. There are PSU power calculator online to calculate total power needed for your build to help you chose PSU.
– Processor or CPU. Here you can save some relatively big money easily, but at the cost of processing power. If it really matters is up to you, but think about socket and if you can upgrade later, so you are not stuck with a socket that is in the end of its life cycle.
– RAM. Here its about the opposite of CPU, here is where you can waste a lot of money on some high speed RAM that may cost two or three times more than slower RAM. Compare prices and buy what you think you get most in return. I would rather buy slower, but not slowest, RAM and put more money into a more powerful CPU.
– Mainboard. Look for what you need to connect internally (and externally) and skip “nice to have” features. I would look for the latest chipset and the rest just basic.
– Hard drives. Highly recommend to buy a SATA SSD for you operative system and programs. More details earlier in the article about hard drives.
– Graphic card, here you can save really big money if you can use the built in graphic card in your mainboard/CPU combination.
– Cooling. How advanced do you like to make it? But seriously, liquid cooling is not much more expensive than a serious third party heat sink. More about fans and cooling earlier in the article.
– Pen tablet. If you are serious about editing photos, it’s hard not to recommend a drawing tablet it makes to job so much easier (doesn’t mean you are not serious if you don’t).
Keep in mind that I’m all about making the computer close to complete silent, so your priorities may differ in this matter.
All photos used in the article is the property of their respective producers.
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