It used to be that building your own PC was a way to save money. Then it became a way to create top-performing machines. Now, for me at least, it’s mostly a way to make sure I get the components I want, in the configuration I want. Oh, and it’s still fun. So when my four-year-old main Photoshop and AI machine started having some sort of motherboard issue, I decided it was time for a rebuild.
Deciding what to keep and what to update
My Thermaltake Level 10 case is big, has plenty of bays, and enough fans so it was a clear keeper. Similarly, my Corsair TX750 power supply is enough for anything I wanted to build. My boot SSDs and backup drives were also worth keeping, but I wanted to get a duplicate boot SSD just so I could keep the old one for an emergency. So I snagged another SanDisk Ultra II 1TB drive for $ 270. Most importantly, my nearly-new over-clocked Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU was well worth preserving. My new 10-Gigabit network adapter was also important, of course.
That left my motherboard, CPU, and cooler as obvious candidates for the upgrade. Once you update those, you’re also usually going to need to do something about RAM. In my case, the newer CPU and motherboard meant trading up to DDR4 RAM.
Picking out new components
I’m partial to Asus motherboards. I honestly don’t know if they’re the best option these days, but it is the devil I know, and their tech support is not too far from us. I knew I wanted a high-performance motherboard, partially to support my computing needs, and partially because I’d rather pay a bit more to get better components and hopefully better reliability — particularly because replacing a motherboard is painful. So I went a little more up market than I really needed.
I talked myself into a Asus ROG Maximus IX Hero board ($ 224). It has more overclocking capabilities than I’ll ever use, but I’m a sucker for all the buzz around its ROM features. For the CPU, I wanted an Intel 7th Generation Kaby Lake processor. No specific reason, but it seemed silly not to have the latest, and the 6th Generation chips didn’t seem to be any less expensive. The i7-7700K (unlocked version) seemed like the best price performer at $ 330. It starts with a great base clock at 4.2GHz, and offers good overclock possibilities.
I was stumped by the variety of cooler choices, but the staff at Central Computer was awesome. They were even better than Fry’s Electronics was in the 80s when they actually had staff that knew about computers. They helped me pick out a CoolerMaster Hyper 212 Plus. The LED version was on sale for a dollar less than the plain one, at $ 24, so I went for it.
Since I’m not planning on extensive overclocking, a simple cooler seemed fine. Lucky for me, I assembled the motherboard, CPU, and cooler before mounting the motherboard in the case. I hadn’t realized that newer, high-performance coolers require mounts on the back side of the motherboard. That means you have to assemble the cooler before you put the motherboard in the case. So you definitely want to pay attention to the sequence in which you assemble parts. For RAM, the 32GB I had before seemed about right, although of course I now needed DDR4. I decided to use 16GB x 2, so I can expand more later. I went with Corsair Vengeance LPX 3000MHz sticks at $ 259 for 32GB.
As always, paying attention to detail matters during assembly
In some ways, building your own PC has become much simpler. Connectors are almost always keyed, and many of them are labeled. However, there are a lot of connections and wires: plenty of LEDs, a variety of fans, several different power connectors, USB headers, and then all the other peripherals. So I started by taking photos of my old system’s connections, and labeling every cable that connected to the old motherboard. That paid off later as I tried to find where on the new motherboard to plug everything in.
Putting the pieces in place
Assembling the cooler was more complex than I’m used to. That said, the instructions were clear and the process wasn’t hard, since I did it with the motherboard outside the case. The motherboard holes easily lined up with the case mounts. The hardest part of attaching it was getting all the cables out of the way.
For me, the most difficult part of a new build is connecting all the small cables that connect the motherboard to various parts of the case. Fortunately, Thermaltake conveniently stenciled what each of the wires do, so matching them up with the jumpers on the board was pretty easy. My only moment of panic was when I discovered there was no way I could get the USB 3.0 header cable from the case to reach the needed socket on the board. Fortunately, for less than $ 10 I was able to order an extension cable that worked fine.
Asus: motherboards, yes; drivers, yes; utilities, no!
My build worked fine when first assembled, but I knew I wasn’t getting maximum performance or features from the default Windows drivers. So I stuck the Asus software CD in the drive, and loaded up their drivers. That worked really well. All the various drivers installed properly, and added various bits of functionality and performance.
Then I became overconfident, and decided to do the same with the Asus utilities. I should have known better, as I’ve lived through this before. The utilities are a mix of somewhat-broken bits (its overclocking suite), some that have buggy drivers that keep Virtual Machines from running, and spamware (items like WinZip that look like you’re getting fully licensed software when you’re just getting a trial).
It took me a while to sort out the buggy bits, especially the several utilities that featured a driver that wouldn’t let me turn on virtualization in the ROM. Lesson learned again. Please remind me when I do my next build.
GPU: EVGA Nvidia GTX 1080 FTW
One of the components I wanted to keep was the Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU I bought when it first became available. It is hard to overstate how important GPUs have become for a wide range of computing tasks. If you still think that only gamers need a good GPU, you may be missing out. In my case, in addition to massively accelerating Photoshop, Lightroom, OpticsPro, and a variety of other specialized imaging software, it allows me to train neural nets 10 or 20 times faster. And I can’t imagine trying to develop a game in Unity without a really good GPU.
Now that I’m working more extensively with 4K videos and 360-degree panoramas from my drones, having a great GPU makes even more of a difference. If you’re on a budget, you can definitely trim back to a GTX 1070 or 1060. Conversely, with a little extra cash, now you can get an Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, which would be my choice if I was purchasing today. I stuck with Nvidia because of the range of applications I use. Nvidia has far more support in GPGPU (General Purpose GPU) computing because of the popularity of CUDA.
Storing and sharing a million photos without sacrificing performance
My colleague Bill Howard wrote about how he built a monster Photoshop machine in 2014. He dealt with the need for high-speed access to his million image collection by creating a massive (at least at the time he built it) internal RAID array with an SSD caching drive. I’ve gone a similar route before, using a drive enclosure from 3Ware. But I hate having to leave a big machine on 24 x 7 to access files, as the power usage is substantial. So I took the plunge into 10-Gigabit networking and a high-performance NAS unit for my main photo library. That project was an adventure in itself, which I detailed separately in this article.
Smooth and steady: the payoff
As usual, getting applications settled in on the new build was one of the more time-consuming parts. Plenty of software freaks out when you replace the motherboard and CPU, requiring new activations. But once things were working, I was quite pleased with the system’s performance. I went to PCMark to get some numbers to compare with other systems.
Of course I also wanted to know how much I’d gain in day to day performance over my old system, and was pleasantly surprised here as well:
Overall I’m really happy with this build. From a pure price-to-performance standpoint, it would almost certainly have been better off to keep using the old system, if the motherboard hadn’t developed issues. But for about $ 1,000 I took a four-year-old build and brought it entirely up to date. The build itself only took a few hours, and half of that was driving to the store to get the parts, which I could have done online. Getting the software sorted out took a few more hours, mostly because I made the mistake of installing the Asus utilities and then had to undo the damage.
[Image Credit: Annie Cardinal]