In classic Ars system guides, we assumed that everybody wants the same thing out of a computer—the only question is how much you spend. And in that case, the beloved “Budget Box / Hot Rod / God Box” classifications made a lot of sense.
In this latest era of the guide, though, I’d like to branch out a little. System builds are getting more and more task-focused and specific—and that’s not a bad thing. The modern geek doesn’t just have one computer per household, or even one computer per geek.
So in our first guide for 2017, we’re going to look at three separate systems anybody might want: the Thriftstation, the Workstation, and the Battlestation. They still range from least to most expensive, but they also have distinctly different foci. The Thriftstation makes a great silent HTPC (home theater) or unobtrusive, low-cost general-purpose machine. The Workstation steps things up and aims at serious office work, medium design work, and/or light gaming. And the Battlestation gets serious about FPS (c’mon) and pwning noobs.
You’ve waited long enough as is, let’s get to the builds.
Our least-expensive build, the Thriftstation, focuses on getting simple jobs done cheaply, effectively, and unobtrusively. Some Arsians might consider this one cheating, because there’s not a whole lot of “building” to it at all: we’re going to start with the Qotom line of miniature PCs.
You may remember these from my Router Rumble article. These make great routers, but they also make great HTPCs and surprisingly capable general-purpose desktops as well. They’re completely quiet, draw less power than most LED light bulbs, and can even be mounted directly to the back of a standard TV set or monitor for an effectively “invisible” installation.
You can buy a Qotom (or similar) mini-PC of this type fully assembled, but we’re going with a barebones model. Specifically, the Q150P-S108 is a barebone config featuring a Celeron N3150 quad-core CPU preinstalled on a motherboard in a small, rugged chassis. We’ll need to add our own RAM and storage to this config, plus we’ll install the operating system of our choice. This option lets us make sure we don’t get some dodgy off-brand SSD that we might not want to trust… and it allows us to dial in our selection of components even further. If you want an HTPC, for example, you probably don’t need or want a Windows license; instead install Kodi on your new mini-PC and get going. The barebones PC itself runs $160 on Amazon right now, including shipping (from mainland China to the USA).
For most users, we’re going to assume that you’re starting from scratch and that you want a general purpose Windows 10 PC for light office work and Internet browsing. With this goal, we’ll need a Windows 10 license, some RAM, and a hard drive. We’ll also want a Wi-Fi adapter, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. After putting all that together, we’ve got a nice little machine that bolts right to the back of a monitor, is absolutely silent, won’t suck dust bunnies into the case, and is surprisingly competent for light office work, Web browsing, and maybe even a little Web-based gaming.
Parts for the Thriftstation
Qotom Q150P-S108—Note that if this model sells out, you’ll probably see the price jacked way up to $350+ instead of the item simply being marked as unavailable. If that’s the case, don’t panic. Search around the site for other Celeron Mini PCs; there’s probably a newer model available for around the same price. (You can also look elsewhere if you just want to spend a little more money in return for a beefier processor; Qotom also sells more powerful mobile i3 and i5 versions of the same machine.)
ASUS VE248H 24″ LED monitor—In general, 24″ monitors are pretty much the sweet spot these days. There’s not a whole lot of point in buying smaller unless you just don’t have any room on your desk. There are plenty of options in this range on Amazon, most with great ratings and capable of doing a perfectly cromulent job. The features that stand out on this ASUS are plenty of input options (HDMI, DVI, and VGA), easy-to-find controls (buttons on the bottom bezel, no goofiness with touch-sensitive hotspots), and built-in speakers. (Don’t expect to bring down the house with the speakers in this or any monitor, but it’s nice to at least have the option of a single HDMI cable running from your PC to your monitor. You’ll be able to hear the soundtrack to your favorite funny cat videos.)
Windows 10 Home, x64—You can download it as an ISO, or order a USB thumbdrive ready-to-install that ships to your address. Note that you also may very well be able to find Windows Home OEM at a lower cost from a reputable vendor—I usually pay around $80 per license. When you buy OEM, though, you’ll need to burn your own thumb drive to install it, and you can’t legitimately transfer the license from one computer to another later. Finally, keep in mind that it’s ridiculously easy to accidentally buy counterfeit Windows if you search for OEM versions online. So unless you really know what you’re doing, we’d recommend playing it safe, making it easy on yourself, and buying the full version from the Microsoft Store.
Corsair Value Select 8GB DDR3L SODIMM—You could choose to “thrift out” a little further and go with a 4GB stick for about $20 less. But unless you’re planning on a Linux HTPC instead of our general-purpose Windows build and working on a really tight budget, I’d recommend sticking with 8GB.
SanDisk SSD Plus 120GB SSDA-120G-G26—Yes, you can get smaller SSDs for less… but not for a lot less, and the smaller ones may give you trouble with Windows Updates stacking up and eating too much space in a few years (not to mention, they may generally have lower performance). I’d advise you to be a little picky about brands here, too. I’ve had good luck with SanDisk and Mushkin on the low end, even Adata if you’re not too picky about performance. But there is some real garbage floating around in the under-$50 category from overseas brands you’ve never heard of and likely don’t want to. Caveat emptor.
Logitech Desktop MK120—This is a no-frills, but high-quality wired USB keyboard and mouse combo. I’ll probably catch some flak over this, but I like wires. They don’t need batteries, they don’t have interference problems, and they keep you from losing the mouse on your desk. You also don’t have to wonder about somebody wirelessly snooping and capturing your keystrokes. If you really hate wires but don’t want to throw out the budget, choose the MK270 instead. It’s basically the same keyboard and mouse, but it comes with a 2.4 GHz USB transceiver and a few AA batteries instead of the wires.
Linksys Dual-Band AC1200 USB3 WiFi Adapter (WUSB-6300)—You might not need Wi-Fi at all. If you used wired Ethernet (like a civilized person), the Qotom mini-PC’s motherboard already has you covered. If not, you’ll need to bring a Wi-Fi adapter to the table, and I highly recommend this Linksys USB3 adapter. This is what I selected as my “reference adapter” for the series of Wi-Fi testing pieces I’ve done here and for the Wirecutter; the WUSB-6300 got the nod there for having the best and most consistent speeds, both upload and download, out of all the 2×2 adapters I tested. As a bonus, its design is relatively slim and lightweight. You could also choose to go with a mini-PCIe adapter (such as the $26 Intel 7260), but it won’t have the range or speed of the WUSB-6300. You’ll need to fiddle around with antenna connectors, and you won’t be able to easily swap it between devices. Your call.
Where our Thriftstation focused on getting basic tasks done cheaply, quietly, and unobtrusively, the Workstation aims at doing them faster and more efficiently. You can do some light gaming on the Workstation if you want to, but its real job is running an office suite and light design tasks. We’re still working hard not to go overboard on cost, but we want more CPU grunt, more RAM, more storage, and dual monitors to let us work on one screen and refer back to an e-mail / research on the Internet / waste time with social media on the other.
I’m going to assume you don’t need a Wi-Fi adapter since we’re doing srs bzns… but if I’m wrong, you can always tack on a refurbished WUSB-6300 like the Thriftstation uses for another $17. (I still recommend the USB adapter over monkeying with an internal PCIe adapter for the same reasons—and in my experience, in-chassis desktop Wi-Fi adapters tend to perform really badly.) I’m also going to assume you don’t need an optical drive, because seriously, optical disks in the late 2010s are where floppy disks were in the late 90s. If you disagree, second-guess me and burn an extra $21 on an ASUS 24x internal DVD-RW drive.
Parts for the Workstation
Corsair Carbide Series 100R, Silent Edition, with VS500 power supply —This great little chassis is about the size of one of the old “mini-tower” form factors while still technically being a “mid-tower.” It’s sleek, quiet, and has a pretty decent amount of room inside with tool-less bays for 5.25″ and 3.5″ drives, and with built-in adapters for 2.5″ SSDs to mount directly into the 3.5″ bays. It’s got plenty of fan mounts available, including pre-installed 120mm intake and exhaust fans. (I like big fans and I cannot lie.)
Intel Core i5-7500 CPU, with CM 212 EVO cooler—This Kaby Lake processor boasts four cores without hyperthreading, a clock speed up to 3.8 GHz, and support for up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM. It also includes Intel’s HD Graphics 630 GPU chipset with support for 4K resolutions and up to three displays.
This is important: the Workstation isn’t directly designed for hardcore gaming, so we’re going to need that relatively beefy on-die graphics support to drive our desktop. The i5-7500 isn’t quite as muscle-y as AMD’s FX-8350 CPU when looking at a synthetic workload using all available cores, but it drinks a lot less power, runs much cooler, and its single-thread performance—which is crucial to an awful lot of what you do with a PC from day to day—is a whopping 33 percent faster.
Gigabyte GA-H270-HD3 motherboard—It’s easy to get lost looking through motherboards, and some vendors use crappy components that will have you looking sadly at blown capacitors leaking electrolytic fluid in a year or two. Gigabyte has a good reputation for quality, and this no-nonsense board offers us a lot of flexibility. In theory we don’t really need any PCI Express expandability, since our Workstation is mostly business and uses the Intel GPU… but the GA-H270 still has us covered even if we want to go Crossfire and put dual discrete GPU cards in later. It also offers 4 DIMMs for up to 64GB RAM, Intel gigabit ethernet, PCIe x4 M.2 connectors, and HDMI, DVI, and VGA connectors to let us hook up as many as three monitors simultaneously without even adding a video card.
16GB (2x 8GB SODIMM) DDR4-2400 SDRAM—I went with Corsair Vengeance LPX just because it was a good bang for the buck. You take your chances with dodgy memory vendors, but Corsair is one of your safer bets, along with Kingston and Crucial. If you see a particularly good deal on any of these three vendors’ RAM, snag it. We’re making sure to get DDR-2400 to max out the memory bandwidth our CPU can support, and 16GB so that we’ll have plenty of RAM left over for file system cache even after opening a few heavy applications (and a shameful set of Chrome tabs like mine).
Samsung 850 EVO 2.5″ SATA-III SSD, 500GB—I’m going to catch some flak for this, I’m sure. Why not a super-duper-fast PCIe SSD?!
Well, I’ve had quite a few of those burn out entirely and need replacement due to overheating. For the most part, I haven’t seen much better real-world speeds out of those when they work, likely also due to overheating. Meanwhile, the trusty old SATA form factor just does what it’s supposed to do, reading and writing my dataz while giving me no trouble. Our motherboard supports PCIe x4 M.2 if you want to second-guess me… but this is my build. I’m sticking with SATA for now.
Windows 10 Home, x64—You can download it as an ISO, or order a USB thumbdrive ready-to-install that ships to your address. Note that you may very well be able to find Windows Home OEM at a lower cost from a reputable vendor (again, I usually pay around $80 a license). And as a second reminder, it’s ridiculously easy to accidentally buy counterfeit Windows if you search for OEM versions online. TL;DR: unless you really know what you’re doing, play it safe, make it easy on yourself, and buy the full version from the Microsoft Store.
2x ASUS VE248H 24″ LED monitor—Like the Thriftstation, we’re going with 24″ monitors here. There are plenty to shop from on Amazon, most with great ratings, and most will do a perfectly cromulent job. The features that stand out on this ASUS are plenty of input options (HDMI, DVI, and VGA), easy-to-find controls (buttons on the bottom bezel, no goofiness with touch-sensitive hotspots), and built-in speakers. In this build, we’re buying a pair of them.
Logitech Desktop MK120—Yep, this is also same kit from the Thriftstation and with the same comments. This is a no-frills, but high-quality wired USB keyboard and mouse combo. (Again, I like wires—they don’t need batteries, they don’t have interference problems, and you don’t have to wonder about somebody wirelessly snooping and capturing your keystrokes.) The MK270 remains a good option for those who hate wires but want to stay within the price range.
Logitech Z313 speaker/subwoofer combo—I am not going to wax elegant over this. It’s an inexpensive speaker/subwoofer combo; it’ll sound totally decent playing some tunes or sneaking in a level of this or that—and that’s about it. This is a super personal decision, and if you feel strongly about it, you should shop for what you really dig. I just wanted to make sure we had something significantly better than the tinny little squeakboxes in the monitors for the Workstation.
The Battlestation is a serious gaming machine. It’s also quite competent at most design work including multimedia editing and composition and even some moderate CAD work. It’s definitely going to be a bit pricier than our other two builds—but it’s not a “God Box” like the guides of yore, either. Just like our other two builds, the Battlestation has a job to do—and it intends to do it well, for a reasonable cost. Hardcore gaming just happens to be a more expensive job.
Generally, we’re going to spend more on CPU, on monitors, and on mouse and keyboard here. We’ll also need to dump in a serious gaming GPU. If gaming is important to you, but the Battlestation is out of your price range, consider the Workstation instead—just add in an inexpensive EVGA GeForce GTX 1050Ti. It’ll do you right. Either way, we’re still not going to waste our time on a DVD-RW drive, and for the same reason. (Optical media is dead. Fight me.)
Parts for the Battlestation
Corsair Carbide 330R Blackout, Ultra-Silent, with 650W Power Supply—This case is basically the big brother to the Workstation’s Carbide 100R. It’s still quiet, it’s still got nifty toolless bays, it’s still got large diameter fans. But it’s got a beefier power supply, more room to work inside, and in particular, greater depth / fewer obstructions to slide a big ol’ GPU or two in there.
ASUS PRIME Z370-A motherboard—We can’t reuse our otherwise-excellent motherboard choice from the Workstation, because we’re going with an 8th-generation Intel CPU that needs a newer chipset. That’s going to set us back an extra $80 or so… but we do get some other features besides “works with our CPU” in return. Those upgrades include metal-framed GPU slots to support heavier cards and “AURA Sync RGB lighting, additional RGB header, and 3D-printing mounts.” The latter doesn’t do anything for me, but it ought to make you happy if you want to swap out your case for something with glass panels and make your machine look like it escaped from The Fast And The Furious: Psychedelic Disco Rage.
Intel i7-8700 Hex-core CPU—This one’s a beast. Those six cores are legit; you get twelve virtual cores after hyperthreading. You’re not really giving up anything by going for tons of cores, either. The single-threaded performance of the 8700 is higher than last generation’s faster-clocked i7-7700K, too.
The only downside? They’re kinda hard to find right now. Amazon shows them as coming back into stock in late November, but if you get itchy, you might decide good enough is good enough and go for the i7-7700K at $290 instead. Sure, you’re giving up two cores, four threads, and a little bit of single-thread performance… but the emphasis there should very much be on little. Most workloads won’t see too much difference. (You can also save some money by using the Workstation’s motherboard instead of the pricier 8th-generation compatible ASUS board listed above.)
Last question, why go for the vanilla i7-8800 and not the higher-clocked i7-8800K? In our eyes, it’s just not worth it. The 8700K costs more than $200 more than the vanilla 8700 for less than 10 percent extra Passmark score. That’s a pass. The i7-8700 comes with a retail heatsink and fan, which should be sufficient for anything short of overclocking.
32GB (2x 16GB SODIMM) DDR4-2666 RAM—I went with Corsair Vengeance LPX because it was a good bang for the buck. Stop me if you heard this one before: Corsair is a safe bet, just like Kingston and Crucial. If you see a particularly good deal on any of these three vendors’ RAM, snag it.
We’re making sure to get DDR-2666 to max out the memory bandwidth our CPU can support, and 32GB so that we’ll have plenty of RAM for heavy gaming with enough left over to keep your filesystem cache humming (and avoid nasty leveling lag, among other things). This is also enough RAM to support some pretty serious virtualization, not to mention enough cores to throw a few at your VMs without really feeling the lack on your desktop when you do. If 32GB still isn’t enough to whet your appetite, you’ve got the support on motherboard and CPU both to handle another pair of these, for 64GB total.
GeForce GTX 1070 SC—I went with the EVGA “SC Gaming ACX 3.0 Black Edition.” There are an absolute welter of GTX 1070 powered cards online, though, with far more hype made about whose is which than any of them really deserve. This EVGA version sports twin cooling fans, an SLI bridge if you’re crazy enough to buy two of them (be warned: few games actually benefit from SLI, and quite a few perform significantly worse with SLI), and overclocking support. You can spend $650+ for a GTX 1080 powered card instead if you like, but personally I think you’d be well past the point of diminishing returns.
Samsung 850 Pro 2.5″ SATA-III SSD, 1 TB—That’s right, I’m still not going for the PCIe m.2 SSDs, and for the same reason I didn’t in the Workstation. They tend to run way too hot, making them more likely both to die and to simply thermally regulate themselves down to the point where you don’t see any performance differences anyway. They also compete for PCIe lanes that you might desperately need for GPUs in a gaming box like this one.
I cheerfully upped the ante for the Pro version of Samsung’s 850 as well as a capacity bump to 1TB, though. The Pros perform significantly better in demanding real-world situations than the EVOs do, they’ve got a better warranty, and 1TB is hopefully enough to keep you from feeling cramped even when you can’t bear to uninstall any games from year to year.
Windows 10 Home, x64— Just want the cliff notes? I usually pay around $80 a license. And unless you really know what you’re doing, play it safe, make it easy on yourself, and buy the full version from the Microsoft Store.
2x AOC Agon 27″ Gaming Monitor, 2560×1440, 144Hz—These AOCs will check off your gamer wishlist: 144 Hz sync rates, 350 cd/m2 brightness, 2560×1440 resolution, and 27″ screens. That said, this is a great place to chop a few hundred dollars off if you’re wallet’s starting to squeal. The Workstation’s monitors are perfectly cromulent for gaming, in my opinion. They’re 1080P and don’t support 144 Hz sync, but you could save yourself $650 with that option. (Honestly, 27″ monitors are just enough bigger than 24″ to notice if you’re paying attention.)
Corsair Gaming K55 Backlit RGB Keyboard, with Corsair Harpoon Gaming Mouse—You want backlighting on your keyboard for night-time gaming with the lights out? Done. Programmable macro keys? Sure, why not (even if it isn’t tournament-legal, ya poser). 6000 DPI mouse tracking, extra buttons, textured rubber side grips? You betcha. My choice is still wired, because you’re damn right it is. If you want to throw a match because you let the batteries run low or it’s been too long since you put the mouse on its charger, you go right ahead. But that will not be happening with this kit.
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 THX Certified Speaker/Subwoofer set— At $160 from Amazon, this is not a ridiculously expensive speaker set, which makes sense. Please don’t buy ludicrously expensive computer speakers. If you absolutely must go completely nuts with PC audio, you need to be feeding it into a real discrete component setup, with a powerful receiver and real speakers for grown-ups. If you’re not looking to deal with all that, this Klipsch powered subwoofer/satellite set is absolutely what you’re looking for.
This Klipsch will fill the room with clean, vibrant sound from deep bass to sweet high notes, without being a pain in the butt to set up, or a huge drain on a wallet that really would rather be buying expensive CPUs and GPUs anyway. For reference, this is exactly the kit I’ve got on my own machine. It rocks.
Powered by WPeMatico