Sunday, November 25, 2012

Building a low power 24/7 server + gaming rig from the scratch.

If you are one of those people who want to run your high-end gaming PC as a home server as well, then you should be concerned about the power draw of the PC. In the previous blog post, I discussed about things that you can do to lower the power consumption of your existing PC. Since you have already bought the hardware, most of them were software tweaks.

But if you have not yet bought the hardware, we can do a much better job. You can of course apply the same software tweaks to this build as well. I thought the previous article was too long, so I will try to be brief on this one. (But alas, I managed to make it even longer. Sorry for that.)

Please note that I would not be talking about peripheral devices. There is too much to cover and that is way out of scope for this article. I would not even cover displays, because the main target of this article is to build a PC that would also serve as a server while consuming least power doing so - which means, you can simply turn off the display when you do not need it. Further, I would not talk about the chassis either, because it doesn't directly affect power consumption of the PC.


CPU

Buy an Intel IvyBridge CPU. Since we are building a gaming PC, it would be beneficial to buy an unlocked CPU so that you can overclock it. Depending on what you wanna do with your PC, you can either buy the Core i5 3570K or the Core i7 3770K. If gaming is the soul purpose, then go with the i5. If you do some video editing, transcoding and rendering, the Core i7 would be the better choice. "AMD" and "low power consumption" don't go well together these days - (no) thanks to Bulldozer.



If you want hyper-threading, get the Core i7 3770K.
Else get the Core i5 3570K.

Motherboard

Lesser the components, the better. But there are other things so. Usually mini-ITX would be the best choice, but you will have to stick to on-board audio. However, motherboards based on the Realtek ALC898 audio chip seems to give dedicated audio cards a real run for their money. My choice would be the ASRock Z77E-ITX.

There doesn't seem to be a noticeable power consumption difference between
micro-ATX and regular ATX motherboard. There are regular ATX boards, such as ASRock Z77 Extreme4 that uses much less power than the high-end ASUS Maximus Gene V board.

If you want to use a dedicated audio card, get the ASRock Z77 Extreme4.
Else get the Z77E-ITX.


Video card

Currently, nVidia seems to be a tad better at power efficiency. But if you really care about idle power draw, ATI is the way to go because at idle they will just use 3W of power thanks to Zero Core technology. nVidia isn't that far behind, and if you care about the load power consumption, nVidia is much better. Not to mention that only nVidia supports Adaptive V-Sync, which is one of the software tweaks we did in the previous article to lower the power consumption while gaming. All in all, nVidia cards get my vote.

Get the Gigabyte GTX670 Windforce 3 edition. According to this review, it uses the least power out of 7 factory overclocked cards, and overclock the most thanks to the brilliant cooler.


Power Supply Unit (PSU)

If you care about the efficiency of the PSU, there are two things that you need to know.
  • efficiency function of the PSU.
  • how much power will the components in your PC use at full load.(a general idea would suffice)

80PLUS certification system certifies whether the efficiency claimed by the manufacturers is valid. (For more details, check here.) 80PLUS Titanium is the highest certification, even though I am yet to come across such PSUs in the consumer realm. (I guess they are just for servers). Currently, 80PLUS Platinum is the best you can find in the consumer realm. Then 80PLUS gold, silver and bronze and so on. Obviously, try to get an 80PLUS Platinum or a 80PLUS Gold rated PSU. They are not cheap though.

But you can further optimize for efficiency. Get a PSU with the capacity that is twice the amount of power the PC would use at gaming load. (not stress testing load). PSUs are most efficient at half load. Efficiency falls at low power levels as well as high power draw. Obviously you cannot choose the size based on the idle power consumption because idle power draw is many times less than the power consumption at full load. (you would get 200W PSU and it will burst into flame if you try playing a game.) The point is, if your average power consumption is 250W, don't get a 850W PSU. Get a 500W PSU. Not only you are wasting money upfront, but also dropping the efficiency if you go overboard with a PSU.

Always read a review on how the PSU performs. The PSU you chose might have a 80PLUS Gold rating, but it might be very inefficient at 10% the load. 80PLUS certification system only looks at efficiency at 20%, 50% and 100% loads.

Seasonic X660 80PLUS Gold rated PSU (which performs pretty well at 10% load as well)

Or

Silverstone ST60F-PS 600W 80PLUS Silver rated PSU. It has awesome low load efficiency but (only) falls at 80% and beyond. (that's why it gets just a Silver rating.)

Memory

Now that 8GB sticks are widely available, there is no reason to buy 4 x 4GB RAM sticks if you want to get 16GB RAM. 16GB is the sweet spot these days if you look at the prices, even though it is overkill - even for a high-end PC. But 8GB just feels so last decade. =)

Get the Corsair Vengeance 16GB (Low Profile) CML16GX3M2A1600C10. Always try to buy low profile sticks so that it won't prevent you from buying a big CPU cooler.

SSD

SSDs usually use very little power compared to HDDs. But there are some SSDs that stand out from the rest. The recently released Samsung 840 Pro series SSDs not only is very fast (if not the fastest), it also uses the least power according to this review.

Don't forget, Samsung is one of the most reliable SSD brands together with Crucial and Intel.

Samsung 840 Pro 256GB is my choice. But it is a big expensive. If money is a problem, go with the Samsung 830 256GB. It is possible that you won't notice any real world difference.

HDD

You have two options here. Either to get a 5400RPM drive or a 7200RPM drive. 5400RPM drive will obviously use less power but will be slower than the 7200RPM drive. But since we are going with a SSD for the OS and all the apps, you will not notice much of a difference. But if you really need the speed for whatever reason, don't worry about the difference in power consumption here. Besides, HDD is the slowest component in the PC, thus going with the slower drive is not going to be that great.

I would get a second (external) drive for backups. You can unplug it when not needed, hence you not only save power, but also reduce the chances of something going wrong with your data.

For power saving: Get the Western Digital Green 2TB (model: WD20EARX)
For performance: Get the Toshiba 2TB (1TB per platter) drive (model: DT01ACA200)

Optical Drive

For most people, the only reason they need an optical drive is for installing the operating system (i.e. if they don't already have a USB stick that can install the OS from.). For ultimate power savings, an external optical drive is recommended. You can unplug it whenever it is not needed and hide it in some dark corner in the house.

But if you plan on using the PC for BluRay playback, there is no choice but to get an internal BluRay player. 

Don't get an optical drive if there is no need. 
Else get a DVDRW drive or BluRay drive, depending on the requirement. There is no right drive. Just get the fastest and aesthetically most pleasing drive that fits your budget. 

CPU cooler

Go with an air cooler, if you want low power consumption. Water coolers would use more power than an air cooler because it has one additional components: the pump. Besides, you can get a single fan air cooler that performs exceptionally well (eg: Thermalright Archon), but a single fan water cooler will not perform that well (eg: Antec Kuhler 620). If you compare the Antec Kuhler 620 and Thermalright Archon, you will see that the noise performance of the Archon is also miles ahead of the Kuhler 620.

But there are three things you have to look at before you go and buy the biggest and most bad-ass air cooler out there.
1. See if you can fit it over the RAM
2. See if the case can handle the height of the cooler
3. See if there is anything on the motherboard that is obstructing the cooler ( including the expansion cards)

Get the Thermalright Archon, if you are going with an ATX motherboard. For a smaller motherboard, get the   Thermalright True Spirit 140 (or 120).

Case Fans

Fans don't use that much power, but once you install 5 or 6 fans in the case, they can add up to 10-20W. There are some fans that don't require that much power. You don't really need high performance case fans. You should be able to do with fans running below 1000RPM. The power requirement of a specific model will be determined upon the resistance to the movement of the fins. Number of fins, the shape of the fins, the bearing, the size of the fan and speed of the fan will determine the power requirement. Take a look at the following diagram (courtesy of xbitlabs.com).


My suggestion is, get only the fans you need. There are many places you can install the fans inside the case, but installing fans in addition to the stock case fans usually don't improve the overall cooling performance of a case. They can, however, cool a specific component - such as the video card or hard drives - if they are running too hot. 

It would be beneficial to buy a fan controller so that you can run them at low speeds and even turn certain fans off completely if they are not needed, for example in the winter. But don't buy a fan controller that uses up lots of power, for obvious reasons. You can even use the motherboard's inbuilt fan controller.

Further, illuminated fans would use up more power. So, if you can buy ones that have LEDs that can be turned off when needed, they would be ideal. Otherwise, decide which is more important to you. Power consumption or looks.

Buy fans with speeds less than 1200RPM and you should be fine. There isn't much of a point stressing too much on things that might not show any noticeable power draw. But use fans purposefully.


So there you go. Shoot away any questions you have in the comments section. I will try to answer them or I'll try to find someone who does. (Like the Tekzilla style. XD)
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