Workstation Build (Part I): Planning

, Tormaid

I'm finally done with school for the semester. It's been rough, so that's a huge weight off my shoulders. Now that I have some semblance of free time, I'd like to start posting here more often. So, what I'm going to try is holding myself to a schedule of one post per week. The subject matter may be a bit scattered, but you weren't really expecting it to be otherwise, were you? This week's topic is the new workstation I'm putting together. I hope you enjoy it.

A little over a year ago, I scrapped the first computer I'd ever put together entirely from scratch in order to pay for much-needed upgrades to my server. The old girl was getting on in years anyway, and it was time to let her go. This happened to coincide, though, with my busiest year yet at university, so I haven't gotten around to replacing my primary rig until now, although I have been tossing ideas around in the back of my mind.

For a while now, I've been interested in compact computer building. After you build a few standard computer towers, the process looses its mystique. One resource I came across that did have a lasting impact on me was this excellent series of articles by kureshii. There, I came across the HDPLEX H1, a fanless micro ITX case with an impressively small footprint. For several months I toyed with the idea of trying to cram what I considered an acceptable level of performance into that little box. Intel's BGA Xeon-D low-powered 8-core systems-on-a-chip were on my radar, but their low clock speeds and astronomical price eventually caused me to sour to the idea. I was hooked on the concept, though, so I didn't give up on my pursuit of a small, fanless system.

I think that fanless computers appealed to me for the same reasons that I started gravitating towards small-form-factor systems. My previous workhorse was not only huge—weighing in at over 60lbs—but also obnoxiously loud. Couple this with their relative rarity, which excited me, and my long-standing interest in getting into high-end headphones, which are most often open-backed (meaning they do not block out environmental noise), and I decided that that was the direction I wanted to go in.

Fortuitously, HDPLEX released their updated H5 case late last year, and this checked all the boxes for me. It certainly was a step up in size compared with the H1, coming in at over 15 Liters, but it offered a level of expandability and cooling performance (the primary limiting factor for any passively-cooled chassis) that remains unrivaled. Furthermore, Intel was beginning to roll out their Skylake architecture, and workstation variants were on the way. I bit the bullet and purchased the case, along with a 250w DC-DC power converter that I will couple with an Alienware 330w laptop AC adapter, of all things, for some serious silent power-delivery.

Image Credit: HDPLEX

Much of the remaining hardware that's going into this build is quite straightforward, though. I'll be running Intel Xeon E3-1230 v5 3.4GHz Quad-core CPU, 16GB of 2133MHz DDR4 RAM, and a 500GB Samsung 850 EVO M.2 SSD. I'm leaving myself an upgrade path by starting off with one DIMM of memory, which lets me go up to 64GB in the future. Similarly, I opted for a SATA SSD as a placeholder drive to tide me over until Samsung releases a 1TB version of their PCI-E based 950 Pro drive and the prices come down a bit. As a bonus I can transfer the 500GB M.2 drive to my Macbook (which desperately needs it) when I do upgrade.

Because of a fiasco with my Dell 4K monitor (that's a story for another time), I'm also in the market for a new panel, and after doing some soul-searching I decided that I cared more about color than I do pixel count, so I'm going to be getting an Eizo CS2420, a beast of a monitor with 10-bit inputs and an internal 16-bit look-up-table. In order to push 10-bit color from my computer, however, I'm going to need a workstation-class GPU.

Quadro M4000

I could settle for just about any card in Nvidia or ATI's lineups, but I want to splurge a bit and justify the 200+ watts of heat dissipation the H5 is capable of handling, so I set my eyes on the Quadro M4000, a card which shares the Maxwell core of the GTX 970, but has an entirely new 8GB frame buffer and a TDP of only 120 watts—the same as a GTX 960! It's going to cost me a whopping $850, though.

I'm still in the process of ordering parts, and it's going to be another few weeks until I can put together enough cash for the graphics card. I'll be posting build-logs and other information here as I go, though, so keep an eye out for that.