Building Your Own Graphics Workstation, Part One
I remember my first PC after I sold my beloved Apple IIgs, when I decided to part ways with Apple (for its decision to drop the Apple II line in favor of the "Macintosh," yeah, as if that would ever take off). It was a mutt PC that I pieced together after pouring over tomes of catalogs and articles and weighing all sorts of advice and arguments from my older brother (who ended up doing this sort of thing for a living, but for networks and crap that makes my head hurt).
I handpicked the beige desktop Baby AT-style case. I picked the Baby AT motherboard to fit the AMD 80286 20MHz chip I ordered and the four -- yeah, count 'em, four -- 1MB SIMMS for 4MB of RAM. I got beige 5 ¼" and 3 ½" floppy disk drives from Teac to match the case. I decided on a 120MB full height RLL hard drive and ISA controller card and the 512Kb VGA card and 14" color VGA monitor. I was a badass mofo on my block; nobody could out-compute me. I almost felt like I had friends.
The night when the last of the pieces arrived, the UPS guy pulled up in front of the house with a big brown box. It was a snowy night in January and I already had everything else in hand but the case. There it was. I grabbed my screwdriver and got to work only to be hit with the first stumbling block of many in my now long PC building life. My 3 ½" floppy's front bezel -- the front plastic thing that has the slot for the disc in it -- was too big for my case, it was for a 5 ¼" bay, and my case's only two were to be used for my 5 ¼" floppy drive and my hard drive. Refusing to admit defeat, I took my mom's best kitchen knife and an hour later I had learned how to beat the system and win against almost certain defeat. It's been a bitter struggle since.
Eighteen years later, I'm a professional special effects animator, taller, fatter, balder and working on some of the most powerful tweaked-out machines reasonably available (which is not so hard these days, to be honest). So when the opportunity arose to spec out and write about building a graphics workstation for home use, I jumped at the chance, nostrils flaring, chest flung forward, butt cheeks clenched tightly and quivering slightly in the cold breeze. Bring it on!
Having already built a few systems for myself, I'm pretty familiar with the things I need for this rig ("rig" -- a cool vernacular of the geekspeak for custom PC). But I knew the toughest stumbling block would be versatility. High-end workstations aren't really flexible enough or even well-priced for home use.
I've worked on plenty of 3D workstations before and I've always come across this lack of versatility, whether it was an SGI or PC (I'm leaving out Macs, yes I know, but bear with me here). These units have always been geared for the office, so some important consumer uses are kept out of them, ostensibly to increase their reliability under fire (the broader the function for a PC, the less reliable it can become). Since this rig is for my home, it has to be able to do at least a good measure of what I do at work (3D and compositing) in addition to what I like to do at home, which, aside from roving around the net for porn, includes gaming, home video editing, sound recording, MP3 burning, downloading, writing, web page building and so on. Did I mention porn?
I told my friends of my plan to build this top-class graphics system, and my pal Scott looked at me directly without blinking (which he usually never does) and said, "So you're buying an Apple, then?" Well, without starting an Apple-PC war, I respectfully told him no, broke eye contact, and slowly backed out of the room, covering my jugular with my arm.
Truth is, I have a 450 G4 Mac (yes, it's older), but it frankly doesn't do the things I need it to at the speeds I'm accustomed to, nor have I read any reviews that indicate that capability of the new G4s. So Apple would have to be put aside for now as I focus my thoughts on building a Windows-compatible system. Now don't get me wrong, Apples are nice and powerful, but the 3D functions, versatility, reliability and speed I rely on cannot yet be matched by a G4 running the same packages I run as a pro, especially Maya. At least, not to my knowledge. Now if Apple wants to send me a new dual 1.2GHz G4 for speed testing against my workstation rig, I won't turn it away. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Call me
The next question is,"Why not a Linux system?" Well, I don't have much experience running Unix on a PC, and I prefer to stay with what I know. Plus, the issue of versatility comes up. Will Linux run Maya, After Effects, Shake, Premiere, Photoshop, Snood, and Starcraft (among others)? Also, will Linux be fully compatible and optimal with the hardware I will be, or may be, getting? Besides, the PC rig I'm planning will be able to run Linux alongside Windows, so it's a moot point. I would rather aim it to be a solid Windows box first, and the rest is icing. Though I would never recommend icing on a PC. Cupcake yes, PC no. Mmmm, cupcakes .
Now what flavor of Windows do I aim for? No question about it. Windows 2000 Pro. Windows 98, ME and regular XP are consumer level and won't run some of this workstation software, so they're out. XP Pro is too new for me to feel comfortable and is not up to par, in my opinion. Windows 2000 Pro has been stable, very versatile and fully compatible with everything I already have and plan on using. Yes, it's older than XP, but I usually don't trust a new version of software till it's more battle-hardened. XP is still very wet behind the ears in my eyes, so I don't have a nose for it yet. I'm sorry. From the bottom of my heart.
Now with that out of the way, let's get to the fun stuff: porn. No, sorry, I mean specifying the hardware. First we should identify the kinds of components we need for any system, workstation or not.
First thing we need to pick out a CPU. There's essentially Intel and AMD, and I chose to go with Intel this go-round. I have used AMD before, I like their processors, they're quite fast, but I decided an Intel Pentium would be the best bet for me right now. Using Xeons I thought will boost the overall cost too much for the system, so the regular flavor P4 it is. The 2.53 GHz is one of the newer ones out (and just manages to best AMD's top performer right now), and that is what Intel kindly sent me, but anything from a 2.0 on up will work great in a system like this.
Price/performance-wise at the time of this writing, I would definitely recommend the 2.53 GHz P4 over the faster ones. But I'm sure the prices for the newer CPUs will be dropping down rather quickly. Usually, newer CPUs emerge and kick the prices of older models down a few steps like an old lady carrying groceries, and that creates a big gap between the new generation and the last one. The trick I find to get the best value is to buy the fastest CPU right before that big price jump.
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