Farewell to ‘The Beast’
The Geeky Brummie Laptop a.k.a. ‘The Beast’ has served the Geeky Brummie team well over the past 4 years. It’s been to a fair few conventions as our mobile workstation, edited countless hours of audio and even the occasional video. Plus a bit of gaming when it’s had the chance.
Unfortunately its once high end laptop specs are starting to show their 2015 age. Its combination of an Intel Core i7 4720HQ (4 computing cores /8 threads) processor and a 6GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970M GPU are struggling with modern High Definition gaming.
Audio editing is a task when dealing with multiple WAV/MP3 files (our current recording process in lockdown) and video editing is far from ideal with a Cinebench score of 1148, putting it just about ahead of an Intel Core i5 3550 CPU.
It’s also been co-opted during lockdown as Mrs Geeky Brummie’s work laptop so it will now be spending its days deep in the minefield of remote desktops, web chats and document processing, which is more attuned to its current performance.
With that in mind it’s time to put together a new Desktop PC to replace the once stalwart beast with something a little more modern.
The stipulations for the new PC were the following:
- Budget of approx. £1600
- Workstation / Content Creation focused
- Able to handle High Definition 1080p video editing with ease
- Strong multi-threaded performance.
- Ability to do light – medium photo editing
- Occasional High Definition gaming for the latest titles.
- Plenty of upgrade options for the future.
So after a quick chat to local technology store Box, based in Minworth, and some refinement, a new PC parts box was on its way to GBHQ.
The Parts List – Main Components
Over the last few decades there has been two major players in the CPU market. AMD and Intel. For almost a decade, AMD struggled to match Intel’s performance, but this changed recently with its change to the Zen CPU architecture. Launching its first generation of Ryzen CPUs in 2017 these have gone from strength to strength over the last few years. Now AMD CPUs dominate most of the enthusiast PC market as they have significant advantages over Intel CPUs in all aspects apart from gaming.
Therefore, as we’re more concerned with content creation for the Podcast / YouTube, there was no contest. We chose the Ryzen 5 3600, which sits in the middle of the current stack of Ryzen Zen 2 CPUs.
This will be a significant upgrade over the current Intel i7 4720HQ (4c/8t) CPU. It has two more physical cores, and with multi-threading support it has 4 more overall threads. It also has significantly more speed with a base frequency of 3.8Ghz and a turbo of 4.4Ghz vs 2.6Ghz / 3.6Ghz respectively. The lithography (size of the CPU internally) also takes a massive jump from 22nm on the Core I7 to 7nm FinFET on the Ryzen 5 3600 – making for a much more efficient CPU and more performance per watt of power draw.
If you wanted to stick with Intel, the closest price alternative would be an Intel Core i5-10400F (also £170 ish). This review from Techspot shows how they stack up next to each other https://www.techspot.com/review/2032-intel-core-i5-10400/.
The previous generation for this motherboard, the B450 Tomahawk Max, was very well-reviewed and commended for its power delivery options. The B550 is an improved edition of this with the option to add a PCI-E Gen 4 NVME SSD. For those confused by that word salad, it means super-fast storage drives, allowing for up to a theoretical limit of 64GB per second of data transfer (this is very, very, fast). Adding in the option for two M.2 SSDs (hard drives that mount directly onto the motherboard), allows for flexibility and faster storage upgrades in the future.
The motherboard has 1x PCIe 4.0/ 3.0 x16 slot, commonly used for the graphics card, and allows for future upgrades. It also has a one PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, and two PCIe 3.0 x1 slots allowing for more expansion cards.
Video editing is usually significantly memory intensive, with 16GB being the recommended minimum. As we are matching our aim of this being a budget workstation, we need a little more headroom so the next step up is a pair of 16GB memory sticks. The motherboard we have chosen also has 4 slots for RAM which gives the option to add more memory later.
As Ryzen based CPUs like fast RAM our chosen speed of 3200Mhz and CL16 timings should give us a decent speed in comparison to slower RAM (2400 / 2666 / 3000 Mhz).
Another future upgrade path would also be faster RAM, such as this 32GB 3600Mhz kit (https://www.box.co.uk/HyperX-Fury-32GB-(2x-16GB)-3600MHz-DDR4-_2876301.html) but this is out of the scope of this workstation.
Similar to CPUs there’s only two major names in graphics cards nowadays. NVidia and AMD (who purchased ATI to use their graphics technology way back in 2006).
Our motherboard supports Crossfire which allows for two AMD GPUs to be linked together (though this is a very rarely used option nowadays). As we’re going for a single GPU option this feature isn’t really relevant to us currently.
We chose an NVidia based Graphics card made by Gigabyte. NVidia RTX GPUs currently have a significant edge on video encoding, especially with their NVENC feature. This is a dedicated part of the GPU that performs video encoding, offloading this task from our CPU to the GPU. This will also help if we ever decide to stream games from our new computer as this feature is supported by the larger streaming software out there such as Bandicam, OBS and Wirecast.
Also, this being an RTX series card allows for Ray Tracing and Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) technologies in supported games, it will also have enough power to support VR games also if you wanted to. Though this has the same amount of RAM as our old laptop graphics in ‘The Beast’ will be a significant upgrade to our GTX970M, being two generations newer and using faster GDDR6 RAM vs over LPGDDR5, with much better cooling.
STORAGE (SSD / HDD) – £207 (ish)
Again with the word salad, this is going to be our main drive to host our Operating System and most used applications. The drive supports PCIe Gen3x4 – NVMe 1.3, which allows for very fast (up to 3.5 / 3.0 Gigabytes per second read and write) speeds for data transfer. This will really help with high speed data transfer with video and audio files and will help out with the occasional game or two too.
Though this drive is only PCIe Gen 3 vs Gen 4 that our motherboard can use, it’s still a very fast drive over a standard SATA SSD and allows for a future upgrade path too.
Our second hard drive is very similar to the above just double the storage. This will be occupying the second m.2 slot on our motherboard and will be used partially as a scratch disk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scratch_space) for larger video files when overflowing from our system memory.
Note – with this motherboard and storage combination – the second M.2 slow shares bandwidth with the second PCI 16x slow and the first PCIe x 1 slot so these will become unavailable, however we still have one usable PCIe x1 slot which will be used for our Audio card detailed further below.
This is more what people will recognise more as a hard drive over the more recent m.2 standard. This gives us additional capacity and will be mainly used for game storage and more recently accessible files.
One of the few items on this list not purchased from the excellent people at Box. These hard drives popped up on a deal on the Dell website and excellently priced. These give us some additional RAID 1 (Both drives are identical copies), for more reliable storage. we’ll house our less frequently accessed files such as older video files and podcast episodes. But this still allows for reasonably fast retrieval when needed.
Outside of this we also have a WD MyCloud storage in a separate location which gives us another 2 Terabytes of storage.
Look out for future articles as we are considering migrating to a NAS soon.
Though motherboard audio has come on leaps and bounds since the days of my first build on an nForce2 motherboard back in the AMD Athlon days. But, for audio editing and production a soundcard will always be a worthy upgrade.
The SoundBlaster Audigy Fx is a good balance of price to performance. It features a 24-bit 192kHz digital-to-analog converter (for playback), 106dB SNR and a high-end 600 ohm headphone amplifier for studio grade monitoring.
The Parts List – Case, Power and Cooling
As this system will be under load frequently when being as a video and audio workstation, we need something covering both high airflow and a decent amount of space to house all our components.
A mid-priced case, this has enough space to house our ATX sized motherboard, CPU cooler and selection of storage comfortably. The case also comes with a mesh front to help draw air through the 3 included 140MM RGB fans to give a lot of airflow and a bit of flair to our PC.
Our system in total should draw less than 400W in total, but we’d like to give ourselves headroom for future upgrades such as a faster processor or a new graphics card. A 650W PSU gives us some breathing room in the future. As the PSU is 80+ Gold certified, this should also make for a more efficient too.
This Seasonic module is also fully modular, meaning that we only need to add the power cables we need, improving airflow in the system whilst giving a tidier look. It also has a hybrid silent fan feature meaning the fan can be actually switched off in low workloads allowing for a quieter PC.
The Ryzen 5 3600 CPU does include a cooler as stock luckily, the Wraith Stealth. This would be more than sufficient for most end users, especially if not looking to overclock the system. However, with our intended goal of being a workstation we’ll be seeing sustained CPU loads. We’ll also be avoiding adding water cooling via an AIO CPU, as though the risk is minimal there is still a potential for a water leak which is a point of failure we’d prefer to avoid.
The cooler is a very well-reviewed budget CPU cooler and adds addiitonal RGB to the mix too. It’ll also allow for a bit of modest overclock and an aftermarket option of adding a second fan later down the line to give increased thermal performance.
The Parts List – The Monitor
Our monitor of choice is the BenQ PD2700Q, an entry level design monitor. We’ll be taking a more in depth look at this in a future article, but this is a 1440p / 2K monitor. Essentially mid-way between 1080p and 4k, this offers a great monitor for editing 1080p footage on. The monitor gives reference-grade colour Performance with 10-Bit , 100% sRGB and Rec. 709. It also has a USB hub allowing for the motherboard and mouse to be plugged in directly and freeing up ports on the PC.
Though we could have purchased a 144Hz gaming with HDR, rather than a 60Hz non HDR monitor. Our goal is primary an editing workstation with gaming as a secondary focus, the colour accuracy is therefore more important.
Overall Spend and Reflections
Overall spend would be approx. £1,578 allowing for extra cash on peripherals. So did we achieve our stated goals?
We think it is a well-balanced system allowing for multiple upgrade paths. The CPU, RAM, GPU and Storage are future upgrade paths to elevate our budget workstation. But this will be a very significant upgrade over the current laptop we’re using. It’s also well-equipped enough for high end 1080p gaming or mid 1440p gaming and should allow for solid AAA gaming for a few years without much trouble. Perfect timing for Cyberpunk 2077 (if it doesn’t get delayed again)!
We also could also purchase a second, gaming focused, monitor at some point too if we feel the PD2700Q doesn’t give us the high refresh we need.
If you wanted to build a similar system from Box or want more information on these parts, head on over to https://www.box.co.uk/products/area/geekybrummie to view the PC we put together.
If you’re not willing to risk building your own PC (I don’t blame you they’re expensive bits to put together, then Box also offer custom PC building service with Cube – https://www.box.co.uk/blog/cubes-new-custom-pc-configurator . The Cube team has over 20 years’ experience in building PCs, and they’re all built in Birmingham by hand. Cube’s new also cleverly ensures that the parts are all compatible too,and build pricing is very reasonable.
We’ll be back with Part 2 which will be assembling the PC. In Part 3 we’ll be bench-marking performance to see how this stacks up against ‘The Beast’.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this more long form article from us here at Geeky Brummie. Let us know if this is something you’d like to see more of.
Disclosure – A small discount was given by Box on the items shown. Geeky Brummie is not affiliated with Box and does not earn income via the links given. Box has had no editorial control over this series of articles.