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QUESTION: Hello again.  I asked a question a while back about a custom laptop for Maya and things like that.  I will be getting a desktop instead....  In case you don't remember, I will soon be taking online classes from a visual effects college to work on my future career in video game design. Clearly, I will need a good computer so I can run programs like Maya/3DS Max and Z-brush etc. etc. with ease and efficiency. My local computer shop wanted to build me a desktop with a SSD as the primary drive, a 1 TB 7200 RPM HDD as the data drive, a good i7 processor (don't know exactly what model), and a GTX 680 graphics card (those are the parts that I was told about...in other words, I don't know anything about what fans or anything else specific like that would have been in it) for around $2,500-2,700. This seemed like a lot...

Anyway, I start looking around online, and find ibuypower.com and cyberpowerpc.com, and customize a desktop on each one. Basically, I need to know if all of these parts are compatible, whether or not I can get any part upgrades that are radically better for not much more money, and whether or not this is too expensive for a computer for what I'm doing (if it's overpriced, please let me know why, so that I may change what I need to change).

The one I "built" on cyberpowerpc has these specs:

http://www.cyberpowerpc.com/saved/1FDCQ8

That's the full customization page, as you can see, so the rest of the possible options are there.

The ibuypower one...the computer itself is likely on par, but for only slightly less-expensive, it doesn't have the monitors, keyboard, mouse, or webcam. Here is the customization page:

http://www.ibuypower.com/Store/Gamer_Paladin_D875/w/186025
By the way, I will be doing heavy gaming on this as well as for school.

Thank you in advance for your time. Please try to answer in a timely manner.

ANSWER: In general I would disagree with the suggestions from your local shop - GeForce cards are a poor mate for Autodesk's commercial applications (they are not certified/optimized and will deliver very poor performance). While the machine may be a good gaming system, it would be inadequate as a workstation. Additionally, the price you were quoted is very high for the parts they were offering (so even as a gaming machine, it's overpriced). Without more information about the specific motherboard, power supply, enclosure, and warranty features I do not even feel comfortable suggesting it as a "maybe" machine - I would simply pass along to something else. Finally, the SSD inclusion is more of a marketing "look at us" than an actual benefit to the machine - SSDs only improve performance for data that is stored on them (they are lower latency and faster at reading data than mechanical drives, but if the data is contained elsewhere, this is of no benefit). It has become popular in the last year or so for marketers and similar to push SSDs as a "boot drive" to customers, as it runs up the price of the machine (and therefore how much money they make), and less knowledgeable customers will immediately notice that Windows starts up faster and equate this gimmick with a true performance increase. The reality is, you will not see any benefits for data that is not hosted on the SSD, and in no way does the SSD improve the computer's processing performance (that is, the CPU, GPU, memory, etc are still only as fast as they can be). All-SSD workstations do exist, and aside from being extremely expensive, are very nice options for audio and video editing (where you will often be moving files that are many GB in size on a regular basis, and where you may have streams that require continuous read/write at upwards of 100Mbit/s to be "stable"); beyond that, the benefits are minimal at best. I'm not specifically advising you against SSDs, but if budget is a concern, I would put the money elsewhere.

Regarding "iBuyPower" and "CyberPower" - I would avoid both of these companies (I believe at one time, perhaps even presently, they are the same company doing business under two names - this relationship has never been fully explored to my knowledge). They are notorious for offering "low prices" by skimping on workmanship and build quality, and often ship machines with stability issues or inadequate parts (especially the power supply; I'll come back to this in a moment with more detail). Furthermore, building a machine for playing video-games is very different than building a machine for designing video-games. The requirements are different.  

Regarding the power supply concern - the power supply is the "heart" of the system, and provides the machine with all of the DC electricity it needs to operate. In a high-performance machine (such as a graphics workstation or gaming system), the power needs are generally very high, and this is generally a constant load (a top of the line workstation can easily demand more than 1000W continuously while working). Unfortunately, many manufacturers produce sub-par products that are dramatically over-rated (so they may take a 500W unit and call it a 1200W unit). For average home users this is generally nothing they will ever notice - web browsing doesn't incur a substantial processing load, nor does it require high-performance hardware. However for power users (such as yourself), this is a very serious concern - the power supply in the machine needs to be very robust, and appropriately mated to the hardware the machine carries in order to stand up to years of heavy usage. Generally the "custom built PCs" you will find online and elsewhere cheap out on this component, to try and appear competitive with larger companies like Dell or Falcon Northwest (who leverage their size to get parts at a discount relative to what an individual can buy).

My advice for you would be to contact your institution regarding what applications they specifically need you to run, and if they have a specific machine or configuration they would like you to have (as it will probably increase compatibility with their instruction). They probably can also leverage an educational discount for you, which should save you money. If they do not have such guidelines, or their guidelines are very generic, I would steer you towards Dell's professional line of computers: the Precision series. These machines will come equipped with Quadro or FirePro graphics (which are optimized for Autodesk and similar professional application suites), and carry various industry certifications for professional use (such as ISV). They will also be appropriately outfitted to handle the cooling and power requirements of their included hardware, and (depending on how much you'd like to spend) can include outstanding warranties.

Within your $2000 budget range, something such as this would be a much better candidate:
http://configure.us.dell.com/dellstore/config.aspx?oc=swct365&model_id=precision

The base configuration should be perfectly suitable for a student, however options that may be worthwhile would include:

- Additional memory (you may note that the "gaming machines" you've seen are offering more than 8GB of memory - this is generally more of a gimmick than a legitimate upgrade; memory is very cheap (but that doesn't stop manufacturers from charging a lot for it), and can be used as a "put a big number on the box" spec; 8GB of memory is generally more than enough for most users, and only the most demanding power users will truly need more (again, this is generally for audio or video editing workstations)).
- A more robust graphics card (the Quadro K3000 or K2000 SLI options would be reasonable choices; the "high end 3D" options will give you much better performance, but are substantially more expensive)
- More hard-disk storage (however keep in mind that this is relatively easy and inexpensive to add later-on, on an as-needed basis, so if you currently do not use 1TB of space, you should be able to safely live with the base 1TB drive, and upgrade as your needs expand)

If you have no monitor or other peripherals, you will need to add those as well. Multiple monitors would likely be an advantage (as it will let you see and do more at once), but does incur additional cost (as you need to pay for each monitor). This is something you can add later as well (in other words, you can start with one, and add displays as needed down the line).

If you have further questions, feel free to ask.

-bob



---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for the in-depth information and very quick response.  I actually did contact the school I will be taking classes from (which I probably should have mentioned...my apologies), and the man I spoke with specifically told me to simply go for a gaming machine, as I am just starting out.  He acknowledged that, while the Quadro cards are ideal, they are expensive.  I don't really know for sure which branch of designing I will be going into yet.  Knowing this, he told me pretty much to just go for a good gaming machine, and then upgrade components further down the line as needed, as I start to focus more on specific parts of the industry, for lack of a better word.  The on-campus desktops there do have Quadro cards in them (or a lot of them do), but he said that recently, and this surprised me, they've been replacing some of their machines with Alienware machines.

I talked about what you said in my other question, about how the GTX cards would generally perform poorly with programs like Maya and the like, and he said that, while, of course, the graphics card will affect the computer's ability to run the program to a degree, what will really determine the computer's ability to run it well will be the processor, RAM, etc. rather than the graphics card.

Anyway, he assured me that, pretty much, if I "can run of all my favorite games that are coming out right now, you should be fine," and then went on the say "Yeah I have like a $120 Radeon in mine and it runs everything fine."

That's interesting about the SSD's.  I wasn't aware.  So putting the OS and programs like Maya on the SSD, and the rest of everything else on the standard HDD, that won't make anything faster?  Regardless, what harddrive setup would you suggest?

In regards to the power supply, I could simply purchase that component from somewhere like Best Buy or the local shop.  I was planning to, after I purchased the computer from cyberpowerpc (ibuypower costs less, but not enough so to make me choose that one, seeing as I added in two 24" monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and a webcam.), take it to a local computer shop with a list of the components and specs, and have them make sure everything is correct and well-put-together, which shouldn't cost too much.

ANSWER: I would have to disagree with the institution in this regard - not only because of the performance differential, but because GeForce and Radeon are not qualified solutions (that is, Autodesk doesn't generally certify them to run Maya, CAD, etc, so compatibility is not guaranteed). The Quadro card will perform better, and given your budget, I see no reason to shy away from it (it will also handle games; it's not an either/or with Quadro). If you were on a tight budget, I'd probably agree with the advisor to an extent (mostly because it's the lesser of two evils), but at the $2000+ mark it is not really a debate in my mind.

Regarding Alienware as a workstation, there's nothing at all surprising about that - historically they've provided equipment both to developers and high-demand users. Additionally, now that they're part of Dell, the support and service is much more robust. That having been said, I would still steer you towards the Precision workstation.

Regarding the SSD question - yes and no. If you installed Maya and Windows on the SSD, and kept all of the data you work with in Maya on the SSD, then yes you would see improvements in anything that is disk-related, which will mean application start-up, and loading of files, but in terms of actually improving rendering performance or similar, the SSD has no influence on that (because it is not a processor). The "memory and CPU over anything else" line is an old one, and to an extent has some roots in truth (traditional CG rendering is still done via CPU, for example), but in the last decade GPUs have advanced considerably, and what GPUs can do has advanced considerably (especially with Quadro and FirePro) - even Adobe applications can run with GPU acceleration now. It's very much a benefit to have a "good" graphics card, but a fast processor and memory are important as well (however, those components are relatively inexpensive compared to a top-tier Quadro board).

Regarding your "plan" - I'd have to advise against it very strongly. I would not trust "ibuypower" or "cyberpower" to assemble a competent machine, and I would not waste the $150+ to have GeekSquad or similar come behind and clean up after them (GeekSquad will charge $50 + parts for hardware install, $100+ for "tune up" or "checking over" - local shops often charge more, and themselves are generally not trustworthy, unfortunately (it's really unfortunate, but the majority of "computer repair" places are nowhere you want to take your money, as many of them only get by financially through borderline fraudulent practices)), especially when you have the money to have the machine done right from the beginning (again, you aren't on a shoestring budget at $2000 - you can buy a professional-level machine, or a top-of-the-line gaming machine from a reputable and respected manufacturer like Alienware for that money). Past experience with machines from "ibuypower" and "cyberpower" is often that users have constant problems, delays in getting the actual machine, problems dealing with the manufacturer's customer service, and ultimately end up spending more than the performance is worth to live with hassles - it just isn't something I can suggest or encourage.

If you're opposed to the Precision workstation, given your budget you can easily go with an Alienware machine to "match" your university's equipment (and while it will work to an extent, it isn't the "ideal" situation). For example, from Alienware (right off their website as of this writing), for $2500 you can get a machine with a Core i7 3820, 16GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 690. It also includes an SSD. Not only is that going to be more robust than the $2000+ that your local shop is charging for a lesser machine, but it's going to have a top-flight warranty and top-flight build quality behind it (in other words, assuming your postal carrier doesn't destroy the box in transit, the machine will work right out of the box, and there's no need to pour money down the drain at Best Buy to have it "checked over" (somewhat unrelated to the idea of technical support: I really cannot suggest dealing business with a company that you intend to pay someone else to "come behind" to ensure that they were honest with you)).

HP and VoodooPC (Voodoo is an HP subsidiary, and is a similar company to Alienware) will offer similar options at similar prices to what Dell offers, if you want more machines to consider (from experience, both make very competent top-end machines).

Regarding the monitor, keyboard, etc - none of that has to cost very much. A keyboard and mouse can be had for under $10 if you aren't picky; if you have more of a preference, I'd suggest going to a retail store like Best Buy or Wal-mart and trying out a variety of keyboards and mice, and purchasing whatever suits you ergonomically. Monitors cost a bit more, depending on what you'd like, and are available from a variety of sources. Dell produces some of the best monitors in the business (this is one area where HP is not as competitive), but you should also look at Samsung, Hannstar (sometimes also trades as Hannspree and Hanns-G), and (if you need more accurate calibration/precision), Barco and Eizo-Nanao (both of these companies exclusively make professional-grade monitors, with prices to match).

My advice at this point would either be the previously suggested Precision workstation, or an Alienware Aurora desktop. Both will be very competent and robust machines, and both will be well built and should give you years of reliable service. If you want more specific input on a monitor, I'd need more details about what you're specifically looking at.

-bob








---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Alright well we know the situation with the graphics card.  What about the rest of the components?  Is everything there worth the money?  Will it all work together correctly?  Overall just how is the build, aside from the graphics card being a GTX?

About the SSD, the sizes I see them come in (128 GB, 240 GB, etc.) seem very small, and I can assume that it's not a 1:1 comparison with a standard HDD.  How is the space "measured", for lack of a better word?  Is 128 GB enough?  I will be putting the OS and Maya (and related files and programs) on it, at least, along with high-end games that I can fit on it.  If I need to, I could always add more of them I suppose.....absolutely dreading touching anything inside the computer though...don't want to screw something up.

As far as people having problems with cyberpowerpc (I've kind of given up on ibuypower...can't seem to get as good of a deal), I have read stories of people's bad experiences with them, including the issues you have mentioned.  However, what is the actual percentage of people having these issues?  This site would suggest the contrary to your statement: http://www.resellerratings.com/store/CyberPower
I am not necessarily defending them, but the possibility of a positive experience, as no company is perfect...I don't get how so many people have had such radically different experiences.

I understand what you mean by the "...(somewhat unrelated to the idea of technical support: I really cannot suggest dealing business with a company that you intend to pay someone else to "come behind" to ensure that they were honest with you))."  You got me there.  However, I, personally, don't have any quarrel or trust issue with the company, and was only planning to have the machine checked out due to the bad reviews I had read (not all bad, though).  To be honest, I would build the computer myself, but I have never attempted anything like that before and do not intend to start with this computer.

Also, regarding the Alienware...why would you suggest the Alienware over the build that I have (not necessarily getting it from cyberpowerpc or anything), when the Alienware has a GTX card in it as well, and at that rate, one that isn't as good?  Simply reliability?

As for the monitor, just as other advice I suppose, the ones (two of them) I have put into my cyberpowerpc are: 24" Widescreen 1920x1080 ASUS VS247H-P 1080P (23.6" Viewable) 2ms LED Backlight, DVI, HDMI Input.  Not sure if that's a good monitor or not.  Also, I was reading a bit about back-lit vs. edge-lit monitors, and I THINK I would prefer a back-lit one, but I'm not sure.

Answer
You'll have to clarify which machine you want a review over. Having said that, both the Dell and Alienware that I have linked, and the machine you first mentioned, have very robust Intel CPUs that should give you very respectable performance in all applications. Honestly as long as you're looking at a top-flight quad- or hex- core CPU you should not have any major concerns.

On the SSDs - space is measured in the exact same way. 128GB is 128GB. They are indeed small for their price, and this is a serious limitation. 128GB will feel very small with Windows 7 installed (~25GB by itself) and a few "big" applications (most modern games are 10GB or more, the same goes for professional applications). Also consider that SSDs are not considered to be as reliable over time, as the flash memory does wear with use (they have a finite number of write/read cycles, and are estimated to last for a few years at best (some people have worse luck) - the general suggestion is that you don't keep any data that you really need, exclusively on an SSD; make copies). Adding a hard-drive is a very simple process, and you could easily do this down the road as needed (be that hard-drive an SSD or mechanical disk).

Regarding Cyberpower in general - it's tough to say. I'm not doubting that there are some customers who are satisfied, and that is not (and was not) my point. However that doesn't change that customers do report fairly polarized experiences with the company, which speaks to inconsistency in their products. This is nothing I would tolerate at the professional level, or at the price point you're talking about, especially when you can completely side-step the issue and potentially save money in the process, by going with a reputable and established manufacturer like Dell or Hewlett-Packard. I see no reason to "cut corners" when it doesn't save you any money.

Building the machine yourself is actually fairly straight-forward, as long as you take your time. You can easily build a new computer in a few hours, even if you aren't the most mechanically inclined person. Look at this article from HSW and see if it looks like something you could do: http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/how-to-tech/build-a-computer.htm

Regarding the Alienware - the $2500 Aurora that I mentioned has a better graphics card and processor than the builds you have mentioned (it features a six-core Intel chip, and very robust graphics adapter), for the same (or less) money. It is a better value for your dollar, especially considering that Alienware has a track-record for delivering excellent machines over the last ~20 years. If, specifically, what you're referencing is that the Alienware comes with GTX 690, and the machine you found locally has a GTX 700 series board, this does not explicitly mean that the 700 is a better card. It is just a generation newer (it's all marketing). The GTX 690 is among the fastest graphics cards in the world, at least from the perspective of gaming. See more about that here:
http://www.guru3d.com/articles_pages/geforce_gtx_690_review,13.html (browse around the article for more)
And compared to GTX Titan and GTX 700 series:
http://www.guru3d.com/articles_pages/geforce_gtx_780_review,13.html

The "trick" to the GTX 690 is that it is a dual-GPU product, which is how it is able to achieve such high performance. The GTX Titan is generally regarded as the most powerful "single chip" part, but is cost prohibitive for the majority of users. AMD's equivalent hardware would be the Radeon HD 7990.

While the Aurora is not a true workstation, like the Precision, it would be well suited to your professional needs, and would still handle gaming and other power-user tasks with ease. Additionally, the GTX 690 is one of the very select few consumer-grade cards to carry an Autodesk certification for Maya:
http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/syscert/card?siteID=123112&catID=18254205&i

If the Precision is not to your tastes, the Aurora with the GTX 690 option is probably the best compromise and will give you the best balance of gaming/enthusiast performance to professional capabilities (I would not at all be surprised if the higher-tier Quadro K cards will still put up better numbers in ViewPERF, but keep in mind that a top-flight Quadro K will run you something approaching $5000, and the GTX 690 will provide better performance for real-world gameplay). Honestly I'm sensing that the Aurora is probably your best bet, as you also seem keen on gaming performance and other enthusiast-oriented features, which the Aurora will deliver in spades.

On the monitors: the Asus displays you're looking at are fine monitors in general, although they have less of a long-term reputation in the marketplace (Asus has only started making displays in the last few years). In general they tend to be well reviewed, and are often among the most power efficient offerings. The backlighting question: edge-lit displays are LED based, and use LEDs around the perimeter of the display panel to illuminate themselves, while back-lit displays are more conventional CFL based systems. Both can produce very good images, the primary advantage of the LED feature is improved power efficiency. If you prefer a back-lit monitor, however, their efficiency has improved substantially in recent years, and there is nothing "bad" about them. The Asus displays are available individually from Amazon, if you would like:
http://www.amazon.com/Asus-VS247H-P-23-6-Inch-Full-HD-LED-Lit/dp/B005BZNDS0/ref=

-bob  

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner. I have a personal interest in PC gaming, and can apply my experience to such an end. Questions related to 3D games on OS X or other platforms are less likely to get answered.

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