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PC upgrade - big box, custom or DIY?

Discussion in 'Hardware' started by Replytoken, Dec 28, 2015.

  1. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound
    Ken
    I have been slowly looking at replacing my Thinkpad T420 as my primary machine. Most of my non-photographic use is pretty light, and I will probably replace the HD in it with a new SSD to buy a bit more life for general use. However, I would like a bit more horsepower for Lightroom, my primary editing software. I am aware of what LR needs to run reasonably well (fast CPU, RAM and an SSD), and have been considering some type of desktop chassis since it is not that easy to configure a laptop the way I would like at a reasonable price.

    I value reliability and have little patience for poor support when it is needed, so I am a bit gun shy of the big box units (HP, Dell, Lenovo, et.) despite their aggressive pricing, although my HP Elite desktop at work does seem to run like clockwork. I could go with a custom build, but the premium is not that small, and one compact chassis that I like is somewhat limited for future upgrades/improvements. Or, I could go DIY, but I do wonder if that would be similar to what they say about a lawyer who represents himself having a fool for a client. I am not exactly mister handy, and I hear stories about all kinds of hardware/software/driver conflicts from folks, so short of installing a drive or ram, I am not exactly rushing to that option. Having said all of that, I am wondering about the experiences of others with these types of options.

    My preferences would be a Haswell i7-4790 or a Skylake i5 or i7 with 8-16GB of ram and a Samsung 850 Pro 512GB SSD. And, I need 2 DVI, Displayport and/or VGA ports for my monitors. USB 3.0 is also a must, as is wireless capability.

    --Ken
     
  2. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    Barry
    Hi,

    I'm a big fan of DIY... all you need to decide upon is a motherboard, case, and power supply.

    If you don't want to build it yourself, find a reliable white-box shop in your area that can give a decent warranty. Find out what components they sell, and choose the better ones. Most shops (and OEMs such as Dell) will advertise systems with lower-end components to compete, but they often stock better brand components as well.

    My favorite motherboard brands:
    ASUS
    SuperMicro (mostly servers & workstations)
    MSI
    GigaByte
    AsRock

    Most will have a 1-year warranty, but after 30 days you'd have to send it in to the manufacturer if it fails.

    The most important thing on the motherboard (besides a decent brand) is that it have quality capacitors; preferably Japanese and non-electrolytic.
    Electrolytic capacitors have limited lifetimes, and cheap ones often fail early due to leaks and poor materials.

    Power Supplies: anything made by SeaSonic.

    You don't need a video card as the onboard graphics in the i5/i7 CPUs can easily handle dual monitors; just make sure the motherboard has DVI + Displayport. I don't recommend VGA.

    As far as compact systems go, there's lots of options for Mini-ITX cases, but they are definitely harder to work with due to the cramped size. Also, many have PSU size restrictions.

    My friend and I built an i5 6600k Skylake system last week with the following (links go to NewEgg):

    COUGAR QBX Mini-ITX Computer Case
    Not too cramped, but definitely on the large side of mini-ITX. Has room for 4 120mm fans; Includes an 80mm fan; I'd recommend adding at least one quiet 120mm fan, preferably PWM such as the Noctua below.
    Note: PSU MUST be no more than 140mm (5.5") or less on one side; e.g. 140mm x 150mm x 86mm is OK. Non-modular PSUs are recommended for this and most mini-ITX cases.

    GIGABYTE G1 Gaming GA-Z170N-Gaming 5 LGA 1151 Intel Z170 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.1 USB 3.0 Mini ITX Intel Motherboard
    Has WiFi + Bluetooth + USB 3.0 and 3.1 (new connector), and good capacitors.
    Alternative: AsRock has a similar board (but no USB 3.1) for much less $: ASRock H170M-ITX/ac LGA 1151 Intel H170 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Mini ITX Intel Motherboard

    Noctua NF-S12A PWM 120mm Case Fan
    Very quiet; variable speed if using motherboard's PWM fan header. Includes a splitter so you can run 2 fans off 1 header. 1 120mm fan should be enough unless you're running a high-end video card, in which case I'd install 2 of these fans.

    i5-6600k CPU (the cooler 6600 non-K would be fine too, or one of the slower i5s; the i7 is pointless for almost all users as nearly nothing is going to run more than 4 threads)

    Seasonic ATX Power Supply. 300watts is more than enough if no vidcard; otherwise add TDP of vidcard + 20%. See comments above about 140mm PSU size.
    Non-modular likely to fit better, especially if adding a large vidcard.

    16GB DDR4 RAM (2x8GB) - or get 1 8GB now and add another later if needed. I only have 8GB in my PC and do not run low on memory despite having lots of programs open even while editing.

    SSD
    HDD

    Optional:
    ODD (DVD or BluRay)
    Card reader. I have an AFT PRO reader in my PC, but there's no room in many of the mini-ITX cases for one.
    Video card (I don't use one; they're overkill for most users but if you use software that takes advantage of GPU acceleration, it could speed some things up a bit.)

    Barry
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2015
    • Like Like x 1
  3. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound
    Ken
    Thanks for the detailed recommendations, Barry. Lots of good suggestions to chew on.

    --Ken
     
  4. PacNWMike

    PacNWMike Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 5, 2014
    Salish Sea
    guess?
    As am I but for someone less inclined to tinker probably a custom build shop is the way to go. One advantage of DIY is the option to pull the usable bits out of your old box or to scrounge. e.g. old cases can be had for free, all my HD's just switch over to the new box, I have a rock solid PP&C power supply and video card. Just need new MB, RAM, CPU.

    re power supply. Only thing in Barry's list that I might upgrade. Power supplies are an overlooked item and a place where a lot of OEM systems cheap-out. 300w is probably enough if it is a high quality PS. A lot of them aren't what they are rated. I'd go a quality 500w for a little headroom. Especially if you are running multiple spinning disk drives and/or a separate video.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2015
    • Like Like x 1
  5. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    Barry
    BTW, that case has removable dust-filtered 120mm intakes on the bottom and on one of the 80mm mounts.
    Almost all of my PCs and servers have dust filters now (some home-made with nylon stockings); I find it quite helpful as long as you clean them occasionally.

    Barry
     
  6. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    Barry
    @PacNWMike@PacNWMike, fyi many of PC Power & Cooling's power supplies were made by Seasonic. Nonetheless, PCP&C had some unique options for cable lengths, etc.

    PCP&C has recently changed names (to FirePower Technology), and I'm not sure who's building them now, but only a few (large) models seem to be widely available atm.

    Barry
     
  7. davidzvi

    davidzvi Mu-43 All-Pro

    Aug 12, 2012
    Outside Boston MA
    David
    I prefer DIY. I wouldn't bother with an i7 unless you plan on video editing or large batch image processing.

    Micro-ITX boards can be limiting, but with all the on board features it may not be an issue, check max RAM and SATA ports, most are 2 sticks and only 4 SATA ports.

    A 300w PSU is probably enough but I would go 400-450 for two reasons.
    1. Their are more options.
    2. It also gives you some extra power if you want to add a GPU at some point in the future, not a high end card, but a nice entry / mid level.
    I would be concerned about a really small case since that can also be limiting unless you're REALLY sure it's all you need. If you do go for a really small ITX case I would use a SFX power supply like SILVERSTONE ST45SF-G 450W SFX12V. It's modular and a smaller form factor while still being 80 PLUS GOLD Certified.
     
  8. tkbslc

    tkbslc Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    I think the DIY recommendation is easily made by people who are experienced and have the time and inclination to tinker. But they forget that many people don't find it fun or exciting when they spend over $1000 on parts and a couple hours putting it together only to have it just beep when they power it on. I personally would not recommend DIY unless you are interested in the experience and comfortable with the potential challenge that comes when you plug the wrong part into the wrong place, leave a cable unplugged, install the wrong driver or get a defective part.

    I've got 15 years in I.T. and at least that long building my own PCs, and I had a real bugger of a time on my last build. I had a memory chip with some flaky addresses that were in the higher ranges. So my computer would run fine 95% of the time, and any time I gave it a real workout and filled up the RAM, it would hang and blue screen. But my standard memory diagnostic tools did not find it until I finally got desperate and left it running for over 24 hours! Normally it would not take that long. I got it sorted when I replaced the RAM, but it was a real pain.

    Now granted you can run into problem with ANY system, but if I'd bought it from someone else, I'd have returned the whole system within the first 2 weeks and started over. When you build it yourself, It's too late to return most of the parts by the time you have put it together - unless you can prove they are defective.

    I'm not saying you can't handle building your own. Most people who are even a little handy could do it. But I just don't like the casual recommendations like it is as easy as making brownies from a box.


    I
     
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  9. budeny

    budeny Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 4, 2014
    Boulder, CO
    If you never put together a computer from parts, then I would suggest someone more experienced to overlook your work. I saw and had my own share of mistakes in early years.
    Either DIY or boxed - go with best and most powerful parts (yes, i7 cpu). You can be sure that future hardware requirements will only increase and upgrades are major PITA.
    Think very carefully about data safety - hard drives (SSD and HDD) are still the major point of failure and data is the most painful to lose.
     
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  10. Turbofrog

    Turbofrog Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Mar 21, 2014
    I tend to agree. I've been comfortable with computers for a good 20 years now, and whenever I upgrade my DIY box, I always feel like it should be the last time I do it myself. It's kind of stressful.

    I just installed a larger SSD today, and had a bugger of a time getting it to boot properly because the cloning software I was using had not actually done its job properly. (Note to others: do not use EaseUS Todo for cloning. Use Macrium Reflect, instead. Much more robust)

    The last time I upgraded my whole system, I spent $700, got everything put together with all the fiddly connectors, flicked the switch, heard a loud noise and an even louder *POP*, and then the screen went blank. Turns out the OEM wiring on the Intel i7 CPU fan had been a bit too tight, and was encroaching on the fanblades. The fan motor couldn't spin freely, drew too much current, and fried the power supply. I've had enough experience with PSU failure over the years to suspect that that was what was the problem, but if I'd just spent $700 and was left with nothing but the smell of smoke and not even a hunch to go on, I would not be a happy camper...

    ...All that to say, I'm still happy to have saved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over the years building my desktops myself, not to mention keeping tons of electronics out of the landfill as a result by only upgrading what I need. But it's not all sunshine, that's for sure.

    And that's just hardware, to say nothing of software issues...
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2015
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  11. PacNWMike

    PacNWMike Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 5, 2014
    Salish Sea
    guess?
    translation: better have a big case to fit all that cable :)
     
  12. tkbslc

    tkbslc Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    I think a nice middle of the road solution is buying a fairly open prebuilt and upgrading some components where it makes sense. For example, installing your own SSD and RAM upgrade instead of paying too much at HP, etc.
     
  13. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    Barry
    Actually, iirc, they offered a service to make cables longer or shorter
     
  14. PacNWMike

    PacNWMike Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 5, 2014
    Salish Sea
    guess?
    I managed to stuff it all in the box without blocking the airflow.
     
  15. Turbofrog

    Turbofrog Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Mar 21, 2014
    Incidentally, anyone have ideas for what the best use of a 2nd 120GB SSD is? I now have a 480GB SSD for my boot drive (thanks Black Friday!) and I'm wondering where I'll get the most benefit from the old drive.

    It doesn't seem like Lightroom needs or takes advantage of scratch disks the way that Photoshop does...
     
  16. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound
    Ken
    Rather than put a like on each post above, I am just going to give a big THANK YOU to those who have offered advice above. You have confirmed a few things that I was concerned about, like DIY and picking a motherboard with a bit of room to expand. Puget Systems offers a number of systems that have interested me, and they offer what seems like good support, but leaving DIY out of the equation, are somewhat of a jump from the cheap boxes that flood the retail channels and mail order sites. I also compared them to some of the premium business desktops (HP Elite and Pro) and the price gap reduces, but I was wondering if I was "over purchasing" by buying a custom rig, especially if I go with a small for factor which does not easily allow expansion and /or upgrades. But, I know that Dell had horrible service in the 90's when I had one of their laptops, and I guess there is a price to be paid for some sanity. I wish there was some mid-ground that I knew was a good compromise. B&H sells HP business machines with HP's 3-year on site service, but I do not know how easy it is to get hold of somebody on the phone first. Costco offers their 6 month coverage, but again, I am not certain how easy that is to access. I suspect that I should just look at a small tower at Puget Systems as that offers the best long term options for upgrades, but fitting that into our office is going to take a bit work to get the WAF (wife acceptance factor) seal of approval as we are a bit space-challenged until I can find homes for a lot of files and paperwork that has accumulated of recent. But in all, it seems like most of you are supportive of better made PC's and I have not heard much support for cheap and cheerful solutions that are constantly on special.

    --Ken
     
  17. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    Barry
    Hi, mini itx is a standard and is upgradeable. At the moment, with the case and motherboard above, it can also handle:
    32gb RAM
    2 3.5" HDDs
    3 2.5" HDDs or SSDs
    1 ODD
    Video card or other pcie card

    In the future, any components could be upgraded to the latest generation.
    Everything keeps getting smaller, so I wouldn't worry about the future.

    Barry
     
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  18. tkbslc

    tkbslc Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    I've got no problem buying a regular brand name PC - even a cheap one - if you know it has all the expansion you will need. I ran a simple Dell Inspiron desktop for a long time because it was far and away the best deal for the Q6600 CPU and 8GB of RAM that I wanted at the time and I knew I wouldn't need a power hungry GPU. I alternate, honestly, depending on my mood at the time.

    I've been really tempted to buy this HP Phoenix i7 5820k HexaCore "gaming" computer deal. I tried really hard and I can't build this PC for this cheap even if I go with the cheapest options:

    HP Phoenix 850se Core i7-5820K Hexacore Desktop w/ 256GB SSD $979.99 - Techbargains (I normally don't like to link to other deal sites because I want this forum to get credit, but it has specific details and coupon codes)

    The only thing I'd change is replacing one of the 4GB with an 8GB so you have Dual channel pair.

    Here's a very similar one with an i7-6700 using same coupon codes:
    HP ENVY 750se Intel Core i7-6700 Quad-Core SKYLAKE Desktop w/ 16GB DDR4, 256GB SSD, GTX 960 $845 - Techbargains
     
    • Like Like x 1
  19. davidzvi

    davidzvi Mu-43 All-Pro

    Aug 12, 2012
    Outside Boston MA
    David
    There's no question that building a system is not for everyone. When I talk with anyone about getting a system I try and help them figure out which of 3 groups they are in:
    1. Build it from scratch, it's fun
    2. Buy online, generic or custom, they'll help you if you have a problem
    3. Buy at you're local custom / Best Buy / Staples so you can bring it in and say "fix it please".
     
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  20. PacNWMike

    PacNWMike Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 5, 2014
    Salish Sea
    guess?
    FWIW in my experience HP's customer service sucks. My wife has a "buffet style" notebook and the few calls to support have meant excruciating hold times. "support" for a wireless printer consisted of an offer to purchase a new one for $50 more than the current online price on their own website!