New Editing Rig Build
March 23, 2016
My last editing PC was a custom Dell XPS that in its time was an absolute beast. Intel i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM, 1TB hard drive and a 1Gb gaming graphics card. Meager by today's standards perhaps, but this was 7 years ago.
It's generally worked very well over the years with the exception of heat management, a factor I suspect greatly affected the reliability of the machine. Parts eventually started failing and I found myself replacing the graphics card (and due to lack of availability on the island the replacement was utter garbage in comparison), memory modules and a hard disk.
The last straw for me was when it started dropping SATA drives and memory modules randomly. Each photo was taking me multiple hours to edit, with Photoshop crashing upwards of ten times a day. Due to the age of the PC there was no way I could get a compatible motherboard locally, and even online was proving challenging to find a replacement.
The time had come to start fresh. It was time to build a new machine.
I went with a case from NZXT called the S340. It was a great price, got solid reviews and had a clean, minimalist design. I'm not big into the futuristic cases with weird lines and funky materials. Matte black with subtle red highlights fit my style perfectly. Plus it was made to accommodate a large CPU water-cooling system which I knew I was going to be using. Nice cable management means internal airflow is good and everything runs efficiently.
The PSU I originally chose was a 600 watt unit that would easily have been good enough for my needs, but I wanted to "future proof" this build a bit, and multiple graphics cards are a real possibility in the future so I upped the spec to a 750w model for very little extra. EVGA was highly recommended, had a nice finish and was semi modular, allowing me to reduce unnecessary cable clutter inside my case.
Gigabit was my original choice for this system as I've had generally good experience with their boards previously. After much research however, the Asus Z170-A had much more bang-for-your-buck than any of Gigabit's offerings. Plus it had an M.2 slot which meant I could better utilise my two SSDs. On top of all that it seemed to offer a better UI for overclocking, which I was keen to do.
Here's where I had to make my first compromise. My original intention was to go for the i7-6700 chip from Intel but at $150USD more it was affecting my budget. I opted for the i5-6600k unit as its single core performance is as good - maybe better - than that of the i7, and being a "k" series chip it meant I could overclock it pretty easily.
Based on my previous struggles with overheating I knew I wanted to water cool my CPU. Corsair's H100i GTX came highly recommended, fit my case well and my budget ever better.
One of the more important bits in this build, I knew I wanted to overdo it with respect to memory. My photo edits regularly are in the gigabytes and editing 4K videos from our aerial rig is about as demanding as it gets. 32Gb of Corsair Vengeance should be plenty.
* The photo shows 8 modules but in reality my configuration uses 4 pieces at 8Gb each.
Since my motherboard had that neat little M.2 slot I figure I'd put it to good use and bought a Samsung 250Gb M.2 SSD. Good speed, good price and no extra cabling to affect airflow.
I also got a good deal on my Sandisk 250Gb SSD drives so I decided on two of them configured in a RAID 0 setup. This effectively doubled the size of my working drive as well as offering the nice little bonus of much improved write speed. The downside is reduced reliability, but as it's not holding critical data or my OS I think it's worth the risk. It's also backed up nightly so I should be able to replace a faulty drive and be up and running again with relative ease. Emphasis on the word relative.
Since this machine was primarily going to be used for intensive editing as well as some gaming I had to spec a decent graphics card. This was the single biggest cost involved though, meaning once again I had to compromise a little. I ended up settling on an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 4Gb card from EVGA which, although not the best in the range, was still a very capable card. My options for upgrade are numerous, from going with a better single card to buying another identical card and running an SLI setup. When that time comes I'll weigh the pros and cons of both to decide on the most cost effective solution
Here's a quick timelapse of the first build. I say first because the proper graphics card and both SSD drives were left out, there was no cable management, etc. This was simply to get post, configure the UEFI BIOS, and install Windows 10. Once that was all done and everything was confirmed to be working well I started to add the remaining hardware and finish the build.
This buid includes two RAID setups: one RAID 0 for my working SSD drives, which doubles my effective storage and greatly improves write speed; and another RAID 1 on my long term storage drives SATA drives, which offers great data redundancy as well as slightly helping with the read speeds. Write speeds on the RAID 1 aren't great, but as this volume is really only for long term storage of completed files I wasn't too concerned about that.
My RAID solution used Intel's Rapid Storage Technology, software based for the most part but well implemented with good overall reviews. Now that it's up and running I'm quite happy with it, but setting it up nearly caused me to pull out my hair. Unlike hardware based solutions, software based RAID takes longer to initialise and rebuild. My PC estimated 12 hours to initialise and a similar time to build. About 8 hours into the process a disk would drop out. The software simply wouldn't acknowledge its existence. After a few attempts and days of wasted time I finally figured out what was causing the issue. A power saving feature called Link Power Management was the cause of the drives dropping out. Disabled that and everything initialised and built without a problem.
I'll have to come back and update this section once I find a point where reliability and performance are both solid. As this build has set me back quite a few days already I couldn't risk having it crash constantly, and my first overclock was achieved using the automatic settings on the motherboard. It ended up with the system freezing at least once a day, and as that method of overclocking basically adjusted everything at once (CPU and RAM) I had no way of diagnosing what the issue was. Right now I've reset back to defaults until I can overclock it manually and stress test each change in a methodical manner.
6 weeks on and I'm very happy with how everything performs. My next upgrade will be the i7 CPU which should improve video rendering times significantly, then a 4K monitor for the ultimate photo editing experience. Further down the road I'll also change the graphics card and upgrade my long term storage. This build has met all my expectations and should be relatively future proof, at least for a few years.