I had been kicking around the idea of moving back over to the PC world this past year after the introduction of the new trash can Mac Pro was introduced. Like many others, I felt that it was too much of a departure from what I deem practical. I wasn’t really digging on Apple’s new and narrow definition of what a ‘pro’ machine is, considering I’d be locked into a certain GPU and would have to externalize things like extra hard drives or SDI BlackMagic DeckLink cards or whatever. Everyone has their needs and unfortunately, I felt Apple’s offerings no longer suited mine.
I first came to the Mac because of Final Cut Pro around 2000 and since almost every other software that I needed to run had Mac versions, that became my platform of choice. I had built a few PCs before, but they all seemed to get in the way when it would eventually crap out by sometimes just breathing on it. Maybe I was around in PC-ville too early before Microsoft really worked the kinks out of the user experience but having used Macs at work, I knew that for me, they were easier to troubleshoot and seemed to need less tinkering with. But when Final Cut Pro got its revamp into uber iMovie (with no traces of the technology from the previously acquired Shake), when QuickTimeX killed off extended editing features of QuickTime 7 Pro, and when all the phones and tablets replaced most of the actual computers in their retail stores, I felt Apple was too deep in consumer electronics cash to really care about the pro market. With FCP7 marking the end of me being tied to the Mac platform and with my shift into more 3D content creation, it was time to start looking else where for gear to make my living with.
I looked at the offerings from all the major high end workstation makers, notably BOXX, Dell and HP and while they offered the expandability and power, they too, like Apple, came with a crazy price tag. I knew enough about building a computer to be dangerous and I liked geeking out over the idea of hand picking all the components.
While I create content with a number of apps, I spend most of my time in Cinema4D and so a good part of my next machine would be spec’d towards that. There’s a number of forum threads around the internet that detail C4D favoring the fastest single CPU and the fastest GPU you can get to generally speed up the viewport. So I went off to look at Cinebench and Geekbench scores since they could provide a cross platform for speed. I opted for the new x99 Haswell-E generation i7 5930k as it was around $500 and seemed to be a good mix of fast single and multi CPU speeds. It’s a 6-core chip with overclocking capability and looks to be the best bang for the buck of the new crop. The x99 being the latest chipset, I figure I can upgrade to the current fastest 5960X a few years down the road for cheaper than the current $1000 price tag and extend the life of this current build.
What’s the fastest PC I can build for around $2500?
GPU-wise I went with a EVGA Geforce GTX 780 with 6GB RAM. Sites like gpuboss.com helped iron out that decision. Again, with bang for the buck in mind, this seemed to do the trick and had the bonus of already coming overclocked with 6GB coming in handy to load big Octane scene files should I go that route in the near future. Adding another graphics card or two to this computer in SLI configuration is definitely an option down the line should rendering Octane really take off in my workflow. The 2304 CUDA cores should help out in Premiere Pro as well.
I was going to need a case to stash all this gear in but it wasn’t something that was going to aesthetically be blah. After all, Apple had spoiled me with their design for years, I figured some of that good design sense should trickle over to the darkside. I share an office with my wife who went to great lengths with me to design it and I wasn’t about to let an eyesore of a PC gamer case spoil the view. It’s amazing how very few PC cases come in a subtle white design. Most everything I came across screamed LED-laden, black pieces of Death Star. I narrowed it down to NZXT’s H440, because it has great looks, great cable management, included 4 fans and had internal padding to dampen sound.
So that was pretty much the mindset of my researching what to get.
As it had been over 15 years since assembling my last PC, I did a quick refresher on youtube of some walkthrus of other builds. Most assembled the CPU, RAM and CPU cooler onto the motherboard first before tackling the rest.
First up was putting the CPU on the motherboard. I had a little trepidation of mis-seating the chip in place and bending pins. There’s a little triangle on the chip and a corresponding triangle mark on the CPU latch thingee on the motherboard to help in the orientation.
It takes a little pressure to put the two arms that held down the chip and once that was in place, I moved on to the CPU cooler.
My cooler came with some thermal paste that I was to apply to the chip, but in researching the actual how to apply it, I found there’s a couple of approaches. As I was assembling this with my son, he proceeded to empty the whole thing on to the chip like he was adding syrup to pancakes. Big LOL. I took an old plastic card and scraped off the excess and evenly spread it out across the chip. More experienced builders might scoff at that but whatever. I’m not sure how much more or less can be gained by doing the dot approach vs the spread approach but its on there in some capacity and it seems to not have fried my CPU just yet so it is working
The brackets that hold the cooler to the chip seemed a bit flimsy when first attaching it to the CPU which didn’t inspire too much confidence. However the screws only attach into one place and once it was all screwed in, it felt much more secure. One thing I had read early on was to incrementally screw the 4 screws in a clockwise fashion and not to screw in any one screw all the way in before moving on to others as that will leave the CPU cooler unbalanced across the CPU itself.
The Asus x99-deluxe board has color coded RAM slots so that made it pretty easy to put in the 4 sticks of RAM. I chose 4 sticks of 4GB RAM to take advantage of the quad channel RAM feature. Apparently you get increased performance this way vs doing 2 sticks of 8GB that results in dual channel.
The EVGA GTX 780 video card was next up. This particular card has 6GB RAM and 2304 CUDA cores which is way beefier than the Quadro 4000 I was running in my 2010 MacPro. Surely this thing will get speedier C4D viewports! And if I ever get around to getting into Octane, the 6GB RAM should leave plenty of room for any huge scene thrown at it. It also has a different fan than some of the other vendor’s builds and is missing the spiffy GTX 780 letters in LED green. I wasn’t exactly sure how to setup the power cables to the card as the documentation had a few different configurations. In the end, google suggested putting two cables in to the card and so far so good.
Next up was securing the motherboard to the case and attaching some power and data cables. This had me going back and referencing the motherboard instructions to match up the slew of cables that came with it and the Corsair AX860 power supply. What is this? Do I need it? Where does the end plug into? Where is that on the motherboard? Is that one or two separate cables? Basically this is the part that took the most time since I obviously didn’t wanna screw something up and fry it with too much power ( if that is even possible). So, much Googling took place. Turns out I don’t need about half the cables included and luckily many of them are marked with some kind of descriptor to match up to some part in the diagrams. I think the hardest part was physically handling and connecting some of these cables as they are freaking tiny, so take care not to exert too much pressure as you don’t wanna any bent pins!
The hard drives were pretty simple to install and cabling it was pretty easy too. The data cables, and for the most part all the cables, don’t bend really easy. In some areas I felt like I was putting a lot of undue pressure on some cables to get them to bend into where they needed to be. The NZXT case also has a bit of a funky design for their hard drive trays in that they don’t slide into place on little rails like on a Mac Pro. Instead you kinda hang the far end on to hinges that basically hook into place. Not that big a deal but it is a balancing act as you have to get a clear view of where you need to go.
I noted a few drawbacks to the NZXT H440 case. While the spaces for cable management are great and allow for a very nice and tidy arrangement, the cables that run on the backside of the motherboard can get a bit bulky once tied down. The side door then has very little clearance to those cables and as such, the cables end up pushing on the silencing foam on the inside door. Seems NZXT could have allowed for just another inch somewhere.
The other thing that proved really cumbersome was the the space underneath the power shroud. I do love the feature of hiding all the nasty cabling behind this shroud but it was very difficult to get power cables plugged into the power supply itself as there was very little clearance for my hand to reach. I’m holding a cable and effectively making a fist by doing so and I can say there definitely should be more room to do this as this part will get even trickier for bigger hands.
Once I got my hand in place holding whatever power cable, it became very difficult to actually see where that plug was gonna go. I ended up having to look thru the lowest front fan to see what I was plugging into. Not impossible, just not easy Also, it didn’t help that the markings on the power supply are upside down for my case configuration. Double sad face.
Lastly, the motherboard’s USB 3 plug is toward the bottom, near the power shroud and the cable being fairly rigid consequently sticks out and over the power shroud and into one of the two additional hard drive bays. Not sure if there’s a way around that but I’m OCD enough to want to have that cable be tidier and impede less onto a potential hard drive spot.
Build-wise I’m pretty happy and learned quite a few things. It’s definitely not gonna match a Mac in the design department but I think it is a pretty good looking and functional PC. There’s room to grow with this case and to be honest, after a few weeks, the LED lights that illuminate the back panel ports as well as in the NZXT logo have kinda grown on me. I can see the appeal of decking the interior all out with glowing fans and all that, but for now I’m keeping this guy on the subtle side.
The Intel i7 5930k is a speedy CPU and feels a bit on par with my 2010 12 core Mac Pro. Of course with this new PC, I’ll be able to take advantage of any new x99 2011 v3 processors that may come out in the future and is one of the reasons why I didn’t opt for the flagship 5960x chip which would have run me another $500 ish bucks. I was trying to keep it under $2500. Plus having access to a 90+ core render farm to lean on, kinda negates the need for having the top end chip for just one workstation.
Still, I wanted some kinda apples to apples comparison of this build vs it’s Mac counterparts and so I used both Cinebench and Geekbench as a means for comparison since both benchmarking apps are crossplatform. Now, I’m sure there are more legit ways to go about doing this so school me if this is way off. First, I should mention that I haven’t delved too deep into the overclocking world and as a result, I’ve gone with the auto settings on the Asus motherboard which tells me that I’m gaining an extra 16% on CPU performance. With that said, and for what it’s worth, here’s the geekbench scores:
I just took my PC numbers and looked for the closest matching Mac. Granted, I’m using the free version of geekbench which limits my testing to 32-bit single and multi core tests, but I suspect these numbers might more or less be in similar ranges for the 64 bit scores. Next up, Cinebench R15 on my 12 core Mac Pro:
and on my PC:
Again, I’m not overly concerned about the CPU score as I’ve access to a farm, but holy moly those GPU numbers are pretty sick! I also have access to a Quadro 4000 for Mac that scores 36.15 fps on Cinebench.
After a few weeks, one of the biggest things I’ve had to adjust was the muscle memory in my keyboard shortcuts. For me, the simple act of copy/paste is a change of how my left hand presses the keyboard. On Mac, I hold down the command key with my left thumb and reach for the C or V keys with my index. On PC, I need to use my pinky to hold down the control key. While that’s relatively simple, it’s more challenging with all the other apps whose shortcuts I need to unlearn/relearn and so my speed to complete some tasks has taken a little hit while I contemplate the different hand contortions.
In Chrome, mistakingly hitting command L thinking I’ll be able to type out a URL instead takes me to a Windows login screen. Doh. Pinky= control = that functionality you’re looking for like on the Mac.
I do like that I can dock any window screen left or right by hitting the windows key + left or right arrow, and that I can maximize or minimize a window by hitting windows key + up or down arrow. Hitting the windows key and starting to type is also an easy spotlight-like way to launch apps or get to particular control panel sections.
Things I miss from OS X:
quicklook: being able to hit the spacebar to quickly preview a file without opening an app is really a big boost to productivity. I didn’t realize how much I use it until I don’t have it.
screen sharing with other macs: doing this from mac to mac is so easy and just works. Hitting all the modifiers works as you’d expect. Dragging a file from my desktop to the remote computer does an easy file transfer. I’m not sure what the best solution for controlling a Mac from a PC is but I stumbled on a Google Chrome extension that allows for cross platform remote desktop thru the browser. The only snag is that it doesn’t respond to modifier keys sent to the remote computer so doing things like command + tab cycles thru the PC’s open windows and not the remote mac’s open applications.
Apple Pro Res: I mostly work in large, non-standard resolutions and am really accustom to throw any sized resolution into ProRes and get a high quality & decently sized file. I know there’s a writeable ProRes solution for any windows quicktime based application from Miraizon that I’ll need to look into as well as other 3rd party converter solutions.
The first month:
Overall I’m pretty happy with a piece of the dark side sitting on my desk next to my trusty old Mac. In the hopes of the PC continually being as solid as the day I first installed all my apps, I’ve cloned off the boot drive to a partition on a separate disk just in case it crash and burns and I need to get back up to speed quick. As it sits on my desk, I’ve noticed that it’s a much quieter machine. A combination of the Quadro 4000’s fans and the Mac’s fans really pushed the decible meters even under a mild load, whereas this PC is whisper quiet until rendering (but even then is no louder than my Mac). Lastly, the NZXT case has the cool window off to the one side so you can geek out over the guts of your build, but unfortunately for me, that’s the side that’ll face the wall Is there really no way to make this thing reversible?!
For anyone interested building this rig for yourself, here’s a list of the parts! At the time of writing, Nvidia has released a new crop of GPUs which pretty much pulls my GTX 780 off the shelves, but the good news is for the same $550-ish, you can get a mo-bettah GPU! woo!
Hopefully this helped some would-be first timers who may be on the fence about building their own (or maybe confirmed for others to stick with Macs 😉 Thanks to @polygonsandwich, @justinyounger, @thomaspasieka & @creativebloke for initial build feedback! If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below!