The $1000 Workstation – Intel i5 Edition

1000_workstation_FarnsworthCGI Artists, architects and engineers often seek to improve on their workstations, or build one from scratch meeting performance and most likely budget criteria that cannot be met by off the shelf solutions. This is one of the many posts to discuss part selection for the budget conscious workstation builder.

Disclaimer: Since this piece was written, prices have changed, new CPUs and boards have been introduced. The most important change of course was the radical increase in RAM prices, as factories lowered production significantly to match the lower than expected demand. Thus, the $1000 title might not be exactly met, yet the intent of this article – educating decisions when building your own affordable 3D workstation PC – is still stands true. Also keep in mind the date this posts are made.

This build is aimed to fulfill the role of an affordable 3D CAD workstation, capable of mainly modeling but also casual rendering tasks.

Outside of general believe, most modeling programs today are not heavily multithreaded, which means that single core performance is still very important and in many occasions it outweighs the slight benefits of multiple cores and/or threads that are noticeable only during rendering – the task that most obviously reaps the benefits of high thread counts.

The 3rd generation of i5 processors, and especially the top tier 3570K is a proud example of the above paradigm: its high clock and great IPC, allows for impressive single thread performance in most applications: there are not a few occasions where non HT optimized applications prefer the i5 over a similarly clocked 3rd gen i7, and quite similarly the lower clocked 3930K 6C/12T being SandyBridge (SB/2nd Gen) based , will often drag behind the 3570K, as Ivy Bridge (IB/3rd Gen) intel processors will lead at around 10% clock per clock over SB.

In this configuration we wont’ aim for motherboards and coolers that would allow us high overclocks, but instead focus on a good processing platform that will provide us stability and allowing the budget for other premium components, like a proper GPU and PSU. Unfortunately it is hard to squeeze an i5, a $300+ GPU etc, so unless you got a cheap Win 8 Pro license, this ding will be extra.

  • CPU Cooler: No additional cooler is required, as the i5-3570K is sold in retail package accompanied by a factory cooler that works fine at stock speeds. For the ease of mind or overclocking, a very good price/performance choice is Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus.
  • Motherboard: ASUS P8Z77-V LX . Decent Z77 board that doesn’t compromise performance. It is a value offering
  • RAM: G.SKILL Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin SDRAM DDR3 1866.
    You can get 1x or 2x of these kits for 16GB and 32GB respectively.Planing ahead is wise. Most motherboards for intel i5/i7 and AMD FX CPUs have up to 4 slots for RAM. CPUs can support up to 32GBs. Even if you don’t see the need for 32GB of RAM, opt for 8GB sticks unless you want to go for a special speed etc. This will allow room for growth without parting out your initial investment (often the case with 4GB sticks). Prefer low profile heat-spreaders. Those offer little to no gains in reliability and stability, but might cause installation issues obstructing the use of large CPU heasinks, and even airflow to the CPU in tight situations. G.Skill Ares and Corsair Vengeance LP are good examples.
  • Graphics: This is a tough one. Depending on the direction you will move, this is the second most important component after the CPU, and in many ways the most important. I will list 3 options, trying to keep everyone happy:
  1. The CUDA Renderer: for CUDA optimized applications, like CUDA accelerated renderers like iRay, VRay RT GPU and Octane (among others), you have to opt for nVidia. 2GB of Vram is enough buffer for any viewport, but GPU renderers can ask for more in complex scenes. I would prefer the Galaxy GeForce GTX 660 Ti GC 3 GB or MSI Twin Frost 660ti 3GB. Open shroud, twin fan designs are usually cooler and quieter. Games ofc run great too 😉
  2. The viewport spinner: Radeon drivers appear to naturally work better with OpenGL viewports. The 7950 is a beast of a card that will work great in most OpenCL accelerated applications – other than VRay RT OpenCL where drivers are still not working as fast as it does with nVidia, despite the theoretical massive advantage of the 7950 in computation. That said, in 3D CAD under OpenGL like Maya or even SkechUp, the 7950 will beat most GTX cards easily (regardless of cost). I would recommend the Gigabyte Radeon 7950 3GB. What MSI does well with 2 fans, Gigabyte does a tad better with 3! And ues, the 7950 is also a great overclocker and very good in any gaming situation.
  3. The entry pro: If all you do is 3D Cad and you don’t care about games or GPU accelerated rendering, then I would recommend considering raising you budget for about $80-90 over the above cards, and opt for a nVidia Quadro 2000. Technically it is inferior to both the 660ti and 7950, but the optimized drivers will allow it to provide a much more fluid viewport experience in most programs. It will do the occasional GPU accelerated task, but 1GB of 128bit RAM and the smaller core count will be less impressive. Its doesn’t look the part, but trust me, especially in OpenGL viewports, this card will be embarrassingly faster than the gaming cards. No surprises, even the Quadro 600 is faster!
  • HDD: Western Digital Caviar Black 1 TB WD1002FAEX. Most >1TB 7200rpm drives are fast, but the WD Black line is the only one offering 5 years warranty, while competitors (and WD Green/Blues) give 2-3years. I would get the extra coverage over 5% performance any day.
    I would not worry for a SSD at this price point. I would not trade the powerful GPU, or downgrade the PSU or Motherboard to get faster windows boot and app loading times.
  • Case: NZXT Source 210 – Elite Black. This is a great value case, offering many high end amenities, like front panel USB 3.0, cable management slots, ample room for large GPUs and good airflow / fan options. It won’t support a dual 120mm closed loop water-cooling system like the H100 should you wish to add one, but the H80i that easily matches the H100 in most occasions will work just fine, just like large air coolers. I really like the minimal aesthetics of the case, which would fit in a professional environment.
  • PSU: NZXT Hale82 650 Watt Modular. 80+ Bronze, Single rail 650W PSU, with 4x PCIe connectors capable of powering 2x high power GPUs without issues. This is a quality unit with consistently good reviews.
  • Optical Drive: Optical Drives (ODs) are rarely utilized the last few years. Broadband connections, cloud storage and affordable flash drives are replacing them. For most ODs are limited to installing new software and OS. A Lite-On IHAS124-04 or Asus DRW-24B3ST would do the trick.

The OS would be hard to squeeze in a $1000 budget with the above components. Still the natural suggestion:

  • Operating System: Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM) Windows OS is guaranteeing compatibility with most rendering packages, including 3DS Max. If your distributed rendering will be focused in Maya, you could actually get away with Linux as client packages for VRay are available.
    Windows 7 Home editions are limited to 16GB of RAM. Professional and Ultimate versions allow up to 128GB, and offer some additional networking/remote access features that are desirable.

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