Thursday, 30 May 2013

Attack of the Clones

I built my current PC six years ago. That's not bad going and shows how the technology had matured by then. I do not play high end games and so it has generally been quite adequate for my needs. Back then I could get a dual-core CPU (AMD 4600+), 2GB of memory, motherboard and case for just over £200. I recycled the drives and other hardware. It has since been upgraded a little with more memory and a better CPU cooler.

Since then I have not really been keeping up with developments in hardware. Intel and AMD have all sorts of newer processors, but the actual clock speeds have not increased very much. You just seem to get more cores for your money, and other technology to optimise processing. I would hope that the processing per Watt has improved significantly, but the power ratings do not seem to have come down much.

My requirements from a new PC are:
  • More processing power. The heaviest things I do are real-time audio effects and video rendering. I'd like to be able to use more effects and not have to wait so long for my videos
  • Faster boot. I want to minimise the time from inspiration to recording
  • Quietness. Silence would be ideal for the recording environment. The existing PC is not as noisy as some I've used, but I'm conscious of the fans. I've not noticed it intruding into my recordings, but it is in the mix somewhere
  • Compatibility with existing hardware. The main thing I would re-use is my M-Audio Delta 66 audio interface, which uses a PCI slot. Replacing that with a USB interface could cost almost as much as the PC
  • More memory to keep things running smoothly, i.e. not using swap
  • Not too energy hungry to keep the bills down, but also to making cooling easier.
  • Cheap. Computers are generally cheap these days. It used to be that a decent system would cost at least £1000, but that has come down
I realise I could use a laptop for most of what I do, but I like having a big screen, proper keyboard and some facility to upgrade. I do not really need mobility for the main PC and I have plenty of space.

I've tended to buy AMD processors in the past. I'd be looking for at least quad-core. The choice seems to be between the FX range and the A series that incorporate a GPU. The FX seem to consume more power. I shall compare with the Intel offerings around the £80 mark.

I'd go for a basic motherboard with on-board graphics. Needs at least two monitor outputs, a PCI slot and plenty of USB. 8GB of memory would be double what I have and is relatively cheap. I wouldn't go for the exotic ones as I don't plan to overclock. I have heard of some issues with Intel boards and PCI.

I quite like small cases. They are trickier to work on, but I don't expect to be in there too often. I used to use a nice little Antec. A modern equivalent is the Cooler Master Elite 120. It takes a standard PSU and has a few drive bays. Pretty cheap too, but the fans may be noisy.

I'll go for a silent PSU if the price is right. 300W should be adequate. The case may limit what CPU coolers I can use, but something passive would be optimal. Water cooling may be an option that I haven't tried before. There seem to be some more compact systems these days.

I know optical media is dying, but I still like to have a DVD drive for ripping CDs and playing movies. I'll probably re-use the one I have.

I'm hoping that a major increase in performance will come from using an SSD. These have come down a lot in price. I would aim for a 128GB for the OS (Linux of course) and some other files. There is some variation in speed, but I would pay extra for a faster one. For the rest of the files a 1TB hard drive should be enough. I have yet to fill my old 500GB.

All this should cost under £400. Unfortunately I do not have that budget ready just yet. I have contemplated just getting the SSD for now to improve the old PC. That is probably more likely to happen in the short term, so I will report back when it happens.

Feel free to chip in with anything else I should consider.