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Building a performance desktop... Xeon, i7 (one or two?), video cards?

Posted on 2011-09-06
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Last Modified: 2012-06-27
This is possibly a terrible question, or absolute madness, but hear me out. :)

So I'm looking to build an beast of a system to serve two main roles:
1. 3D modeling and rendering
2. Gaming -- nothing fancy honestly, pretty much WoW/Rift/EVE/StarCraft. Anything else that I have interest in is played on my 360 or PS3.

Originally I was looking at an i7-2600K processor, 16 GB PC3-10666 RAM, a 2GB GTX560 video card, and a 64GB SSD as my boot/OS drive with a pair of 2TB 7200RPM HDDs in a RAID-1 for everything else. The OS that I have in mind is Windows 7 Ultimate (which as I understand supports two physical processors with a total of 256 logical processors), and maybe a dual boot with Ubuntu for the hell of it. The point of the SSD is to make for faster boot/startup time. I figured I'd use the SSD for only the OS and for any other programs that would really benefit from being on it. I'd redirect the Users and Program Files folders through group policy to the RAID-1.

Now that ought to be adequate. But then I got thinking, how much of an improvement in performance would I get by going up to two physical CPUs? Two Xeons? Or is there a motherboard out there that allows me to use two of the i7's? If not, would two Xeons give a notable improvement in performance over a single i7-2600K?

On top of this, the question of video cards: Should I use one or two? The ideal goal is to reasonably improve render times, but also to be able to play my games with all settings maxed. :)  

I know the games I listed really aren't demanding games at all (and on the machine that I have now, I can already play them maxed), but I suppose it's worth clarifying what my intentions are in case one  goal conflicts with the other somehow. I've never sat down and really thought about the detailed hardware specifics when building a performance machine, so I don't really know the exact pros and cons of the various CPUs and motherboards out there. Some examples of the software that I use are Blender, Maya, MudBox, and LuxRender.

Lastly, is cooling. I'm always really wary with cooling but with a machine like this, I imagine it is going to build up some serious heat so any advice on heatsinks, cases, or fan configurations to maximize cooling would be helpful.

I feel like a n00b asking these questions, but hardware tends to be my weak area so any advice would be greatly appreciated!
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Question by:elorc
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by:athomsfere
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You would benefit more by getting a Quadro or FirePro card then you would by getting 2 XEON's. If you can go 2 XEONs and a workstation graphics card, do that!

Whats your budget?

What Rendering programs do you use?
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by:skinnyquiver
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You may want to look into the nvidia tesla line for your rendering. The c2050 is a beast of a card for rendering. I would use your current setup but have a tesla for added rendering support.
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by:elorc
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athomsfere: I've been working primarily with Blender using LuxRender and found that it's pretty heavily taxed my system and render times are significant. My current system is an AMD Phenom X4 9850, 8 GB DDR2-1066 memory, and an nVidia GTS250 with 1 GB memory. It's a few years old so it's certainly far from the latest and greatest, but it's also not a crappy machine. :)

skinnyquiver: I'm not familiar with the Tesla line, but it looks pretty beastly. I suppose that's an option to consider, but the thought of having a single component that costs $1600 does make me a bit nervous. heh. The Tesla card would just replace the GTS250 then, right? The rest of my system would be adequate for use with it?

Regarding budget, I'm not really decided. Many of the configurations I was looking at fall in the $1500-$2000 range so I suppose that's roughly the budget that I'm comfortable with. I'm not looking to run PIXAR out of my house (I'm not that good at 3D art anyway, lol), so I don't need to go too crazy. Like I said, these types of hardware decisions are something I'm not so strong with, so it wouldn't surprise me if I'm attacking the problem in completely the wrong way. I may be able to solve my problems much more simply and inexpensively than what I'm looking at now.
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by:athomsfere
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I don't think Tesla is practical here... Tesla is for supercomputing, high end simulations and the like... The Quadro and the FirePros are specifically for rendering.

I believe with Blender you want good OpenGL performance and a fast clock speed. I am not sure how well it threads... so a good fast Quad core might be every bit as good a 6-8 core with enough RAM and good OpenGL Quadro or FirePro card.
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by:athomsfere
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Check out this chart and decide if you want Tesla or a Quadro / FirePro
http://www.nvidia.com/object/quadro-3ds-max.html
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by:elorc
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Are there any particular Quadro or FirePro cards that you would recommend?
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by:elorc
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Ah you ninja'd that link in while I was writing my reply. :)  I'll take a look at it.
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by:elorc
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Interesting. So from the looks of it, the 2GB Quadro 4000 should be a good option. Now the question is the rest of the hardware. Would you still recommend moving up to the Intel i7, or do you think the hardware I'm running now is adequate to get the most out of the Quadro 4000? I'd kind of like to upgrade the system memory anyway, but unfortunately the motherboard I'm running now is maxed at 8 GB so I'd have to replace the board as well. I'm not sure how many options I'll have for an AM2+ board for my Phenom, since it seems like everything now on the AMD side is using AM3.
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athomsfere earned 212 total points
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If you can afford the i7, sure...

Another option would be get the Quadro, and the SSD and see if that meets your needs. If not you can then spend the rest for the i7, mobo and RAM, as the SSD and video card will drop right in.
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by:elorc
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That's a good point. I'll try it with just the SSD and the Quadro in my current machine first. I can always move them into a new machine down the road anyway. The cost of the i7 doesn't really bother me. From what I can tell it's well worth the cost. I just wasn't sure how it matched up against the Xeon line for this sort of work, particularly against a pair of Xeons.
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by:Callandor
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Xeons will not give you an advantage (they ARE required in multi-socket systems, since i7's can only run in single socket configuration).  An i7-2600K is very powerful, has 4 cores and is hyperthreaded to double that to 8 logical processors - there are few Xeons that will outperform it.

As already mentioned, for 3D rendering, you should get an OpenGL card like the Quadro series for maximum video performance.  SSDs will also help, but they are expensive and limited in capacity.  Get the ones with a SandForce controller like the Corsair Force GT for top performance, but the OCZ Vertex2 is very good and may not be noticeably slower.
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by:elorc
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Thanks for the clarification on Xeon vs. i7, and for the info on SSD recommendations.

I think I'll just start with a Quadro 4000 and an SSD on my current machine, then in a few months I can decide on buying a whole new system to put them into instead. I really appreciate all of your advice, it's been really helpful.
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