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Buying a custom PC through Micro Center, Looking for Advice

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July 22, 2012 9:19:41 PM

To all the PC builders and assorted experts in this field reading this

I’m looking to purchase a new desktop system in the next month through a build-to-order company as I am not quite brave enough to buy the components and assemble the system myself. Also, I like the idea of being able to return the computer for repair/replacement if something were to go wrong with it.

I'm thinking of using Micro Center since they have a retail location close enough to where I live (Ohio) and can build to order with components you can buy in their store (which seems to feature a wide range and are quite competitively priced) for a Labor fee of around $199.99.

Before I go decide on my final specifications I wanted to call upon the community who generously provide their advice in this forum, to help clear up a couple of outstanding questions I have and perhaps provide some input on the spec I’ve put together.

Just to provide some background, I intend to use the PC for a combination of productivity software primarily ArcGIS (similar to AutoDesk AutoCad in terms of system requirements) and some light gaming. I have a budget of up to $2000 to cover all parts, labor and two 23in displays. If I allocate $600 for assembly and screens should leave around $1400 for the actual system.

I have the following specification/components in mind:
  • Intel Ivy Bridge i5 or i7 Processor (Not planning to over-clock the CPU so standard versions of these processors would be fine)
  • SLI/Cross Fire capable motherboard since I may add a second graphics card in a future upgrade (I’m keeping this in mind also when selecting the power supply)
  • Video card should be at least ATI Radeon HD 7770 or GeForce GTX 550 and capable of running dual monitors at 1920 x 1080 resolution.
  • At least 8 if not 16 Gb of 1600 MHz DDR3 memory. (Are there any benefits for going with 1866 or 2000 MHz rated memory?)
  • SSD drive and conventional HDD. Size does not have to exceed 1Tb and Raid 1 Configuration not necessary since I have a pretty large NAS drive and access to remote storage/backup

    Questions
    First off is there anyone who would not advise me to go the Micro Center route I am considering (if you have had a really bad experience with them, or if there is a consensus around one of the custom PC building firms that is recognized as providing extremely reliable systems at a reasonable price).

    I have seen that most Z77 Chipset Motherboards feature 3rd generation PCI express slots. I have noticed that this interface is used by a far wider range of ATI graphics cards then Nvidia who only support it in their top-end gfx cards like the GTX 670 and 680. Does having a PCIe 3.0 supported graphics card make much of a difference, and is it worth choosing a PCIe 3.0 ATI card over a comparable PCIe 2.X Nvidia card?

    Still on the subject of video cards, I am considering the Radeon HD 6850 since it is the current top choice on the videocardbenchmark.net site in terms of price-to-performance. I have read though that this card requires a lot of power and can run very hot. Is there anyone who can confirm/recommend this card or should I consider a different card?

    Finally I’d like to know what if I should take advantage of the Intel Smart Response Technology, offered in most motherboards, to combine an SSD with a standard HDD into a single volume or opt for a separate, SSD based, “System” drive to install the Operating System and a select programs.

    Thank you all in advance for your comments and suggestions. I really appreciate any and all advice you can provide.
    July 22, 2012 9:30:27 PM

    I you're doing that kin of work, a 7770 will be inadequate. A 7870/7950/7970 and i7 3770 will be your best bet. There is no benefit with going to 1866+ RAM. MicroCenter is awesome. PCIE 3.0 is a future technology, and nothing really harnesses it except multi-GPU systems at res. of 2560x1440+. I would not consider a 6850. It's a great card, but it won't satisfy your needs. It doesn't use that much power or get that hot. Intel Smart Response allows you to get a small 32GB SSD or less, but fully enjoy all it's benefits. I'd recommend a 128GB SSD, and just put the OS and a few apps on that. For the CPU, it's a tossup between the i7 3820 and i7 3770. I'd go with the 3820 since it has more cores, can overclock, it's cheaper, and you get $50 off any X79 motherboard. You can also update to Ivy Bridge E next year, if you so desire.
    July 22, 2012 9:44:49 PM

    0) Build

    $200 labor fee seems pretty steep-it should be around $100. I would also advise you to shop around local mom&pop stores if you want a local place.

    Online, I've had good experience with avadirect which also allow you to pick everysingle part specifically.


    People here can give you a newegg build list with a particular budget if you can narrow down your specs and purpose a bit better. Or lurk around and view any of the various $1500 new build configs listed about every other day and it will be pretty close do what you want.

    From my experience, you should be able to negotiate with any custom build shop and bring in a newegg shopping cart total, and they should at least match that price+(their build fee) if not outright beating the price buildfee included.


    1) i5 or i7. I am not familiar with your software but if you have tasks that actually take time to do, render or whatnot, where you go and have to wait for the CPU to catch up, then you will benefit from the stronger processor. Otherwise, most people here do GAMES which are GPU bound, where the "weaker" processor is fine so people can give that portion of their budget to the GPU.

    2) Memory, 16gb is cheap. You should get it since it seems you will have a purpose of it. This should be least of your worries as getting 16gb of ram is not expensive and a small part of your budget. Getting good 16000 ram is good; there is no need to get more expensive memory except for extreme overclockers. Even mild overclockers can get by with the same-priced "performance" ram.


    3) You definitely should have at least a 128gb SSD as OS/Apps drive.
    SRT you do not need to do, unless you have a large majority of data on your data harddrive that you ALL want to be sped up. Even if you are working with video editing and such, you are only working with a (relatively) small set of data at a time. Your "smart" editing software should be caching that to RAM, or you can copy your current working workspace to the SSD and be your own control of the SSD. Or setup a ramdisk should you really want to work with speed there.
    Despite the promise, people here still report occasional errors with SRT and "some" complexity setting it up. If you are ok managing your storage yourself, then no need to add complexity. Plus this is all in windows software, so you can decide to set it up or not later down the line.

    4) GPU and heat. I am not sure how much your software requires the GPU, and how much is for games. If you want something cool and quiet, check out the 7770 series. At reference speeds, it is maybe 10% slower than 6850; but the overclocked editions may be on par at less heat and noise.
    All of these cards are relatively mid-ranged now, so "heat" is midranged as well compared to the top-of-the-line cards. So I'm not sure if that really is an issue you need to worry about.
    I suspect even this mid-ranged gaming card will blow away all the GPU requirements for your work software too by the way, but might not be enough for your gaming needs.

    Techpowerup has good charts, check out this one for this overclocked 7770.

    http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/Sapphire/HD_7770_Vap...

    Also, generally read the best video cards for the money article they have every quarter. Unless you have specific requirement such as heat and/or noise, just get what your budget affords you for your purpose.
    Related resources
    July 22, 2012 10:05:11 PM

    An i7 with 7770? Just doesn't go together. A 7850 or higher will be multitudes better.
    July 22, 2012 10:09:41 PM

    obsama1 said:
    An i7 with 7770? Just doesn't go together. A 7850 or higher will be multitudes better.


    Not everyone plays games, and their computers don't revolve around games and FPS dude.

    7850 is only about 65% more powerful so not quite 1 multitude, but if you're not playing games, you just spent an extra $150 to make your farmville run at 2000fps?

    If you're more of a console gamer, that's a bunch of console games you could've had instead
    July 22, 2012 10:12:57 PM

    I know. But, for the software he's using go with a better GPU. For a budget of $1400, why get a 7770? He's also running dual monitors, so a 7770 is a bit weak in that regard.
    July 22, 2012 10:16:27 PM

    Quote:
    for a Labor fee of around $199.99

    My advice, build it yourself. Putting together hardware is like Legos for adults and $200 is enough money to move a person up from a Radeon 7850 to a 7970. If you are going to run dual monitors at 1920 x 1080 resolution an ATI Radeon HD 7770 or GeForce GTX 550 will run dual monitors at desktop but you will never get good performance in any 3D application; a higher end GPU is needed to do this, something like a 7970 or dual GPUs of a lesser make. As for the 6850, I've owned the 6870 and was thoroughly unimpressed by it and its power consumption, IMO there are better cards now.

    Quote:
    Intel Ivy Bridge i5 or i7 Processor (Not planning to over-clock the CPU so standard versions of these processors would be fine)

    As you aren't planning to overclock, you have an interesting option available to you which is only possible through building your own system. This option is to actually use an Ivy Bridge Xeon E3 processor on a Z77 chipset motherboard (yes this is possible, a lot of ASRock and ASUS (Gigabyte as well, I believe) motherboards natively support E3 xeon processors - the support just isn't "official").

    Intel Xeon E3-1230 V2 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz (3.7GHz Turbo) 4 x 256KB L2 Cache 8MB L3 Cache LGA 1155 69W Quad-Core Server Processor - $235
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...
    vs.
    Intel Core i5-3550 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz (3.7GHz Turbo) LGA 1155 77W Quad-Core Desktop Processor -$210
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...

    So basically the extra $25 buys you lower power consumption, 2MB more cache and Hyper Threading (useless for games, but very useful for any kind of productivity or graphic design programs). Otherwise once you hit the $300 barrier for a CPU you might as well buy an i7 as the cheaper Xeon processors are more or less just lower clocked i7 processors, IIRC.

    As for RAM, for what you're doing I'd suggest 16GB (2x8GB) simply because RAM is cheap and you can always use more RAM. The speed of the RAM is more or less of a moot point, unless you're using applications that specifically benefit from faster RAM there is no reason to buy anything faster than a low CAS latency DDR3-1600 kit.

    Quote:
    Does having a PCIe 3.0 supported graphics card make much of a difference, and is it worth choosing a PCIe 3.0 ATI card over a comparable PCIe 2.X Nvidia card?

    The way things are now, there is no graphics card that can completely saturate the PCI-E 3.0 interface with a full 16 lanes. However, on PCI-E 3.0 you will get slightly better performance as there will be less of an overhead during the throughput of data, better signaling, and slightly lower latencies. For what you're doing, I'd suggest buying an Ivy Bridge processor to take advantage of native PCI-E 3.0 (this can be done on Z68 or Z77 by the way, it's dependent on the processor as the PCI-E lanes are internal to the CPU. All secondary PCI-E lanes run through the northbridge, but this is usually only done for I/O devices like LAN and audio controllers).

    Lastly, Intel Smart Response Technology is a gimmick. Trust me when I say that it would have been a cool technology two or three years ago when SSDs were a lot more failure prone. As things are now, it'd be foolish to buy a nice SSD then expose it to the tortures of constant write cycles which greatly reduces the performance of an SSD. For example, in my own testing on a 60GB OCZ Vertex3 - after 3.25TB of total host writes my write speed is ~54MB/s, slower than my Samsung Spinpoint F3. Read speeds are still ~400MB/s but as my testing continues the performance just degrades more and more (all the testing has been done on the Z68 chipset with AHCI on and all other SATA/SSD commands enabled). My advice, buy at least a 120/128GB SSD and use it as a system drive.

    Hopefully I didn't jump around too much in this post, there were a lot of things to cover! :o 
    July 22, 2012 10:17:15 PM

    i think you're underestimating the 7770. Heck my 10year old card could do dual monitor 1920x1080 just fine.

    As well as overestimating the software's ability to take advantage of a gaming GPU.
    I don't think 3d non-gaming software come even close to requiring expensive gaming card setups, but I could be wrong.

    If you have personal experience with that specific software though, i defer to you..
    July 22, 2012 10:19:33 PM

    What s3anister said.
    July 22, 2012 10:19:40 PM

    Any card can do dual-monitor, but as soon as you start playing a game....
    July 22, 2012 10:34:30 PM

    First off thank you for the responses so far, some really good info especially concerning the cpu, SRT SSD drive and memory.

    I think graphics card wise I want to go with the best card I can afford since I do play some games, and the AMD 7850 would fit into my budget. I had also been considering going for a single Nvidia GTX 560 Ti or GTX 570 and then adding a second in 6 months to a year's time as part of an upgrade, but I'm guessing that I could do this with the AMD 7850 card also?

    Is there a good way to calculate the power requirements and additional case cooling (if necessary) for running two graphics cards? The spec I have in mind currently uses an 850 Watt PSU, do you think this would this be sufficient?

    I had not heard about the new Ivy Bridge E line of processors before now? Will they use the X-79 socket that the current "Sandy Bridge" line of processors use? I figured that newer (Ivy Bridge) equals better when it comes to computer hardware but realize that this is not always the case. Since I started composing this reply I just got another suggestion for using a Xeon processor, which I will have to check out, though I thought they were more popular in Server and Work Station systems.

    Thank you all again for your advice!
    July 22, 2012 10:34:35 PM

    raytseng said:
    i think you're underestimating the 7770. Heck my 10year old card could do dual monitor 1920x1080 just fine.

    As well as overestimating the software's ability to take advantage of a gaming GPU.
    I don't think 3d non-gaming software come even close to requiring expensive gaming card setups, but I could be wrong.

    If you have personal experience with that specific software though, i defer to you..

    I never once mention the software's (ArcGIS) need for a high end GPU, I'm still unsure if version 10 actually needs a powerful GPU. What I was specifically addressing was the fact that if you go beyond 2D with a low end video card on dual monitors (which will probably be running at least 1920x1080) you will get horrendous frame rates if the game even runs. So if his specific programs do not take advantage of OpenCL then a high end GPU is a moot point, however, if they do or he would like to play Metro 2033 on a sweet dual monitor setup then he's going to want something like a Radeon 7970.
    July 22, 2012 10:50:11 PM

    Davros399 said:
    First off thank you for the responses so far, some really good info especially concerning the cpu, SRT SSD drive and memory.

    I think graphics card wise I want to go with the best card I can afford since I do play some games, and the AMD 7850 would fit into my budget. I had also been considering going for a single Nvidia GTX 560 Ti or GTX 570 and then adding a second in 6 months to a year's time as part of an upgrade, but I'm guessing that I could do this with the AMD 7850 card also?

    Is there a good way to calculate the power requirements and additional case cooling (if necessary) for running two graphics cards? The spec I have in mind currently uses an 850 Watt PSU, do you think this would this be sufficient?

    I had not heard about the new Ivy Bridge E line of processors before now? Will they use the X-79 socket that the current "Sandy Bridge" line of processors use? I figured that newer (Ivy Bridge) equals better when it comes to computer hardware but realize that this is not always the case. Since I started composing this reply I just got another suggestion for using a Xeon processor, which I will have to check out, though I thought they were more popular in Server and Work Station systems.

    Thank you all again for your advice!

    Glad to help! :D 

    As for video cards, I have to strongly suggest you buy something from the current generation (Radeon 7xxx or GTX 6xx) as trying to crossfire/SLI with an older GPU a year from now is going to be absolutely overpriced as the retail channel will be nearly void of supply (supply and demand - prices skyrocket). I'm a fan of the 7850 and 7950 for mid-range GPUs and they can be had for decent prices and offer good GPGPU capabilities, something that the GTX 6xx series lacks.

    A good way to get a ballpark estimate of the maximum that your graphics cards could possibly draw would be to look at how many PCI-E power connectors it uses. A single 6-pin PCI-E power connector can only deliver 75W of power whereas an 8-pin can deliver at maximum 150W in addition to the PCI-E slot being able to deliver 75W of power. So let's take a high end GPU that has two 8-pin power connectors, the maximum theoretical power draw is going to be 75W+150W+150W=375W. If we have a card with two six-pin power connectors the maximum then is 75W x 3= 225W. So let's say you want to run dual 7850s, as each only has one 6-pin PCI-E power connector the maximum possible power draw that two cards in crossfire could draw would be 300W (75x2 + 75x2). As for case cooling, it varies, all you really need is a good case like a Fractal Define XL or some decent 120mm fans in an average case.

    Ivy Bridge-E will not be out until sometime in 2013 if Intel stays on their current schedule so if you plan on building for X-79 you're going to be looking at the more power hungry Sandy Bridge-E architecture but yes Ivy Bridge-E will still use socket 2011 so it *should* work in a current X-79 board. As for Xeon processors, they are a lot more popular now since they are easy to integrate into a desktop platform which leads to a lot of people being able to essentially make cheap workstations by combining a Xeon processor with a Z68/Z77 board. But yes, obviously they are more popular in servers, but most servers use E5 processors whereas E3s get used for normal workstations.

    EDIT: The majority of cards will never come close to their maximum power draw which is a good reason to research the individual card you want. However, out of caution, I make it a habit to buy a PSU that can handle the maximum possible draw for whatever setup it is that I'm building/using.
    July 22, 2012 11:06:15 PM

    s3anister said:
    Quote:
    for a Labor fee of around $199.99

    My advice, build it yourself. Putting together hardware is like Legos for adults and $200 is enough money to move a person up from a Radeon 7850 to a 7970. If you are going to run dual monitors at 1920 x 1080 resolution an ATI Radeon HD 7770 or GeForce GTX 550 will run dual monitors at desktop but you will never get good performance in any 3D application; a higher end GPU is needed to do this, something like a 7970 or dual GPUs of a lesser make. As for the 6850, I've owned the 6870 and was thoroughly unimpressed by it and its power consumption, IMO there are better cards now.

    Quote:
    Intel Ivy Bridge i5 or i7 Processor (Not planning to over-clock the CPU so standard versions of these processors would be fine)

    As you aren't planning to overclock, you have an interesting option available to you which is only possible through building your own system. This option is to actually use an Ivy Bridge Xeon E3 processor on a Z77 chipset motherboard (yes this is possible, a lot of ASRock and ASUS (Gigabyte as well, I believe) motherboards natively support E3 xeon processors - the support just isn't "official").

    Intel Xeon E3-1230 V2 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz (3.7GHz Turbo) 4 x 256KB L2 Cache 8MB L3 Cache LGA 1155 69W Quad-Core Server Processor - $235
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...
    vs.
    Intel Core i5-3550 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz (3.7GHz Turbo) LGA 1155 77W Quad-Core Desktop Processor -$210
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E168...

    So basically the extra $25 buys you lower power consumption, 2MB more cache and Hyper Threading (useless for games, but very useful for any kind of productivity or graphic design programs). Otherwise once you hit the $300 barrier for a CPU you might as well buy an i7 as the cheaper Xeon processors are more or less just lower clocked i7 processors, IIRC.

    As for RAM, for what you're doing I'd suggest 16GB (2x8GB) simply because RAM is cheap and you can always use more RAM. The speed of the RAM is more or less of a moot point, unless you're using applications that specifically benefit from faster RAM there is no reason to buy anything faster than a low CAS latency DDR3-1600 kit.

    Quote:
    Does having a PCIe 3.0 supported graphics card make much of a difference, and is it worth choosing a PCIe 3.0 ATI card over a comparable PCIe 2.X Nvidia card?

    The way things are now, there is no graphics card that can completely saturate the PCI-E 3.0 interface with a full 16 lanes. However, on PCI-E 3.0 you will get slightly better performance as there will be less of an overhead during the throughput of data, better signaling, and slightly lower latencies. For what you're doing, I'd suggest buying an Ivy Bridge processor to take advantage of native PCI-E 3.0 (this can be done on Z68 or Z77 by the way, it's dependent on the processor as the PCI-E lanes are internal to the CPU. All secondary PCI-E lanes run through the northbridge, but this is usually only done for I/O devices like LAN and audio controllers).

    Lastly, Intel Smart Response Technology is a gimmick. Trust me when I say that it would have been a cool technology two or three years ago when SSDs were a lot more failure prone. As things are now, it'd be foolish to buy a nice SSD then expose it to the tortures of constant write cycles which greatly reduces the performance of an SSD. For example, in my own testing on a 60GB OCZ Vertex3 - after 3.25TB of total host writes my write speed is ~54MB/s, slower than my Samsung Spinpoint F3. Read speeds are still ~400MB/s but as my testing continues the performance just degrades more and more (all the testing has been done on the Z68 chipset with AHCI on and all other SATA/SSD commands enabled). My advice, buy at least a 120/128GB SSD and use it as a system drive.

    Hopefully I didn't jump around too much in this post, there were a lot of things to cover! :o 




    I have to say he has a valid point however there are benefits to having more ram in excess of 32 GB or more Its called a ram drive .. and if you look in the forums there are some benches me and one of the moderators posted in relation to the benefits this has .. to the typical user ram greater then 1600mhz is pretty much a no contest issue and plenty but ram such as 2133 mhz or 1866 has a direct benefit in relative performance gains a good example is to get the realtive performance of a ramdrive set up like we tested you would need to have at least 2 to 4 ssd drives in raid 0 to get the same speeds.. so ill just list the link as well .. http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/forum2.php?config=tom...
    July 22, 2012 11:20:33 PM

    goodguy713 said:
    I have to say he has a valid point however there are benefits to having more ram in excess of 32 GB or more Its called a ram drive .. and if you look in the forums there are some benches me and one of the moderators posted in relation to the benefits this has .. to the typical user ram greater then 1600mhz is pretty much a no contest issue and plenty but ram such as 2133 mhz or 1866 has a direct benefit in relative performance gains a good example is to get the realtive performance of a ramdrive set up like we tested you would need to have at least 2 to 4 ssd drives in raid 0 to get the same speeds.. so ill just list the link as well .. http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/forum2.php?config=tom...

    Very valid point! Surprised I forgot to mention a RAM drive. I myself actually use my spare RAM as a drive through the program ImDisk Virtual Disk Driver. Most definitely if you can swing for a four-stick RAM kit (4x8GB) that really is the way to go these days. Unless you go X-79 in which case you can easily double that and have a truly massive RAM drive.
    !