Friday, February 22, 2019

Ripping threads: a new workstation

Before we get started, if you'd rather see the super short version with mostly just pictures, check out my Instagram profile instead. Okay, on with the post. I recently purchased and assembled a new PC! Reason 1: My previous home workstation was purchased a little over 9 years ago. Reason 2: I'll be making computer animations that are fairly demanding with respect to computer hardware.

Yes, it was past time for me to build a new computer. Over the years, I have made some additions and replacements here and there to my old machine; I chronicled one such upgrade in this tongue-in-cheek blog post. However the core of my old computer has been a constant and stalwart workhorse and has enabled me to apply to, complete, and make use of a Master's of Science in Biomedical Communication. It's a bittersweet parting.

Part of the reason (beyond the expense) it took so long to upgrade is because purchasing a computer comes with so many decisions: Windows, Mac, or Linux? Laptop or desktop? Pre-assembled or self-assembled? Intel or AMD? NVidia or AMD? Water-cooled or air-cooled? How much RAM? Everything fits in the case, yes? How about that Samsung NVMe boot drive: Pro or Evo? And do you really need a USB type C port on the front of the case? No, but calculus involving shipping times, availability, cost, colors, side panels, so yes I have one. The list is nigh endless.

I'm not going to discuss pros and cons or rationalize all the decisions I made. I am confident that I did sufficient research and made decisions that were right for me, which are not going to be the choices that anyone else should necessarily make. I try hard not to be a fanboy for any company (I'll admit my chief failing in this regard is Redshift3D). I don't think brand loyalty is worth very much for consumers of hardware, though it's worth a tremendous amount for companies. Food for thought.

So (five paragraphs in), let's cut to the good stuff. All the components arrived in exciting boxes. The case shipped later, so I opted to assemble the guts outside the case in the meantime to make sure I didn't have any dead components.
Like Christmas morning
I cleared off my desk (it's never this tidy), stole my wife's MacBook for on-the-fly support and troubleshooting, and grabbed my iFixit toolkit (a worthwhile birthday splurge).
The streetcar print was a secret santa gift. I love it/hate it.
I grounded myself with an anti-static wrist strap (not pictured) and placed the ROG Strix x399-E motherboard on its box to use as a non-zapping workbench.
It's convenient that so much gaming hardware is perfectly functional for workstations.
Then it was time to install the CPU. I chose the AMD Threadripper 2920x, with 12 cores, 24 threads, 3.5GHz base clock, and this post's namesake. For me it's a good balance of single- and multi-threaded performance and price. Screwing it down was a sweat-inducing nightmare though. I had to press hard way beyond comfort to get the tiny screws to catch. Installing the 64GB of Corsair RAM was comparatively easy, with 4 empty slots for adding more in the future. Yes, I use a lot of RAM hungry applications. There's simply never enough.
This smallish piece of silicon came in the most dramatic packaging I've ever opened.
Next is the "hard drive". In this case it's a tiny (half-terabyte) stick of non-volatile flash memory. Computer technology has come so far. The Samsung 970 series of NVMe SSDs is a very popular choice. I'm using this to hold my operating system (Windows 10 Pro) and all my applications (too many to list, sorry not sorry).
I broke one of the stand-off posts, I think. Ah well, not critical I'm sur&#,%20&..#^@.......
I stuck with air-cooling for this build; I'm not quite convinced of the merits of water-cooling (even AIOs) just yet. Noctua has built great coolers for me in the past, and this giant hunk of metal looks to be another excellent cooler. I meticulously followed the thermal paste application guidelines; indeed I measured out and drew reference circles on that piece of paper in the image, to verify my pea-sized dots of paste.
Fans are available in beige and brown. No, beige AND brown.
As mentioned previously, I'm using a GPU render engine called Redshift to create my images, so a decently powerful NVidia graphics card is a must. This one is the RTX 2070, and I also added the GTX 970 from my old computer (not pictured).
Blower-style. That's not a joke, that's what it is.
I have to power all those components somehow! I wanted high efficiency and enough headroom to potentially add more graphics cards in the future, so the Corsair HX-1000 (1000W) seemed a good reliable choice.
The computer component most likely to explode, kill you, catch on fire, or all of the above. Buy reliable.
And… with held-breath, I poked the start button. And lights came on! And fans spun! And the BIOS showed up on my monitor! I checked a few things, flashed the BIOS to the most recent version so that my processor was properly supported, and shut it down again.
The CPU fan started and stopped a bunch and freaked me out.
Cut to a few days later when my case arrived. Actually it got dropped at a postal outlet many blocks away so I lugged it home in the snow because I'm cheap and don't like taxis and don't have Uber/Lyft and whatever. And exercise is good. The Fractal Design Define R6 Blackout without side-window with USB-C top panel (there are a lot of different configurations) was my choice of case and I'm pleased with it. It's a very understated and quiet black metal box. One would hardly know there's anything happening under my desk right now.
It's bigger than it looks. But I didn't go crazy and get a Corsair 1000D.
I finished the assembly inside the case and made sure the system still booted. It did, yay!
If you see blue and red, your computer's not dead.
After installing and updating Windows, drivers, and some applications, I moved my hard drives from my old computer to the new system (2 SSDs and 2 HDDs) and did a bunch of cable management. I've been using this new machine for the past few weeks, getting everything installed and configured, and I must say I am very happy with the new system. I haven't pushed it too hard yet beyond some initial benchmarks and mini projects, so the biggest noticeable difference so far has simply been the noise. It is so much quieter than my old machine, it's hard to believe.

And that's it! I'll need to upgrade my monitors and mouse (circa 2007-2008) next, but that can wait another few months or years.

I hope with this post I struck the right balance of detailed enough but not boring. If you're down here instead of on Instagram, then perhaps it was okay. I'm happy to answer any and all questions via blog comments, Twitter, Instagram, Email (stuart at biocinematics d0t com), or wherever. You know: "Stuart, you simply must tell me, is your VRAM GDDR6 or HBM2???"

Teaser: My next post will the last one on this blog. What? Why? How? Wherefore? Come back next week!

Thank you for reading.

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