Quarter 1, 2012: Home Theater, Home Server, Gaming, & Personal Computer System Design Guide & Suggestions! Or, The Omnis-System Guide: Mark One!
Hello! This will be a little (but epic!) foray into the hardware realm here at Ainer.org. If it is well received I may update this on a semi-regularly basis in the future. For now, this post will provide some suggestions on what hardware components, what peripherals, what display and audio components, what supplementary networking gear, and yes, even what cables I currently suggest for a single system that can provide solid Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) functionality, excellent 1080p resolution gaming (Gaming PC), adequate room and connections for several storage drives (Home Server), as well as general purpose personal computer (PC) usage (Web browsing, document editing, et cetera).
Since this is such a broad, but targeted set of criteria, I have chosen to give it a bit more memorable (and searchable!) name, the Omnis-System.
This system design should be compatible with the latest versions of Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Fedora (likely with additional work, and third-party repositories). However, I am currently unable to test all the hardware, devices, and components I suggest below. As such, peculiar issues may arise that I’m unaware of.
With that said, up-to-date GNU/Linux based operating systems have excellent hardware support and with an ever-growing user-base, manufacturers are providing more and more support for their hardware on these operating systems (NVIDIA is a great example of this). This notice isn’t to scare you, or to let me off the hook as I do make an effort to verify that the components I suggest here are reported working with the latest version of Ubuntu (when relevant), but beware!
Throughout the system, I will try and pick components that will save you energy and money over the long-term while at the same time reducing the heat and quite possibly the noise that your system creates! I will prioritize low-wattage options whenever reasonable and offer related suggestions whenever possible. Similarly, this system will prioritize system stability. Where relevant (and cost effective), server grade components will be considered and brand recommendations will be made based on my own (anecdotal!) experiences.
This system is not designed with over-clocking in mind (at all!). Due to the increased power consumption, the increased heat generation, and the subsequent decrease in component life, this is not something that will be in the scope of these suggestions or my considerations. All components that are selected are expected to be ran at their manufacturer’s recommended configurations! In other words, if you prefer to overclock you will likely need to choose different components in certain categories to get more benefit from your planned (desired) overclock. This is just not something I am interested in taking into account.
My Method, Some Caveats & Considerations
These suggestions are based off of much continued and regular research, years of experience with designing and building personal computers, workstations, and servers, and a reasonable use of the benefits versus costs analysis. The computer system itself will likely cost around $1,750, but relatively small sacrifices in performance should be able to get it down to the $1,000 range. If you budgeted much less than this, a complete system redesign will likely be needed.
Note: With that said, a very sound system can be built for around $500 dollars. So don’t fret if you currently don’t have the funds that the below system calls for! Use this design guide as a source of inspiration, and use other resources such as Tom’s Hardware, Renethx’s HTPC Guide, and PassMark’s Benchmarks to design yourself a great system at your current budget.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you end up spending much over the $1,750 mark for our stated uses (HTPC, HS, Gaming, PC) and it is likely that money could be better spent elsewhere! The name of the game here is benefits versus costs! Nearly anyone can hop-on Newegg and throw two to three-thousand dollars at a system and it will be fast, but it likely wont be the fastest system for that price point, and a system that is half the cost might be nearly as good (especially if there are bottlenecks in the more expensive system) or a less expensive system may meet all the needs and desires that we have for it (without the need for bigger and more expensive components!).
So, with the above in mind, and to help keep us on track (as a general guideline), we’ll aim to spend not much more than $200 dollars on any one area of the computer (CPU, mobo, GPU, RAM, SDDs, HDDs, case, etc.). We may not always hit this mark, but it will give us a consistent point to aim for!
Again, the above cost is for the core system only (the functioning computer itself, nothing else). Additional storage, a display, audio-components, etc., can all increase the costs of the total setup by a large amount!
Please remember, what follows are suggestions only! Simply put, this is what I would likely buy at this moment if I was designing a system to fill these four key roles in a single system. If you don’t need to fill all four of these roles, have a tighter budget, or other constraints then consider downgrading or downsizing relevant components (if you don’t need RAID 5/6 level storage space I suggest going with a microATX case and motherboard!).
Conversely, if you have additional roles or higher demands for your system, opt for a faster Central Processing Unit (CPU), more CPU cores (or virtual cores), more Primary Storage (DDR3 SDRAM), a faster Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), more Secondary Storage (HDDs and SSDs), or whatever you think might be needed to increase the system to make it more functional and more enjoybale for you!
Take your own needs, wants, and desires into consideration and adjust accordingly! To that end, I’ll try to provide tips and tricks throughout as well as oodles of links for your further-reading convenience (similar to my guides).
Speaking of which, this is not a “how to build a computer” guide. If you need help in the assembly and connection phases of your project, that is outside the scope of this article as we are mainly focusing on the design, planning, and purchasing phases here!
Note: If you are interested in the Addendum I will try to provide options for those that are unable or unwilling to custom build their own computer. There are also other resources that may be able to get you up to snuff if you have the time and are feeling courageous as we all had to start somewhere!
Before we start we need to address the elephant in the room. For a gaming system, Windows 7 (or, if you’re a power-user, Server 2008 R2) may be an unfortunate necessity (simply for DirectX/Direct3D 11 and 10 compatibility). It’s a shame, but the latest versions of Wine and CrossOver Games are still targeted at Windows XP and DirectX 9 compatibility (and even for these they are still not 100% perfect, though they are very impressive!).
If DirectX 9 is acceptable to you (and you don’t mind a few bugs and not being able to play every Windows XP compatible game guaranteed) then Wine, or its commercial and more polished variant, CrossOver, may be, at present, the best solution for you. At least until the mainstream commercial game producers begin to release their games en masse with OpenGL and GNU/Linux support (or even just provide tier-1 support for them on Wine/CrossOver Games!).
If however, you do care about the pretty effects and other benefits that DX 11 brings with it (as I know I do), I would then suggest running a dual boot with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit or Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (compare these here) and the latest Long Term Support version of Ubuntu 64-bit (soon, Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin).
Note: For power users with a lot of time on their hands, do some reading on gaming using a hypervisor. This can essentially provide a “dual-boot” environment without the need to reboot to switch between Ubuntu and Windows. It’s still a bit rough (at least on the software side) for my preferences at present, but I’m hoping by the end of the year or so it may be a bit more polished and a bit more accessible. Just something to consider if you’re technically proficient and like to tool around since there is no perfect solution for us GNU/Linux nerds that want to also do full-fledged mainstream commercial PC gaming.
With that bit of ugliness out of the way, I recommend giving the Metaguide a quick read as I will be approaching this design guide in a manner similar to that of my other software focused guides (and reading my Metaguide will help to ensure you get the most out of the content that follows!).
Once you are done with that, we should be ready to move on to the system design suggestions! On the next page we’ll briefly look at some of the resellers and tools I recommend and then on page 3 we’ll start to get into the good stuff starting of with the “brain” of the computer, the CPU!