February 24, 2007
I don't go out of my way to recommend building your own computer. I do it, but I'm an OCD-addled, pain-loving masochist. You're usually better off buying whatever cut-rate OEM box Dell is hawking at the moment, particularly now that Intel has finally abandoned the awful Pentium 4 CPU series and is back in the saddle with its excellent Core Duo processor. PC parts are so good these days it's difficult to make a bad choice, no matter what you buy.
If you really must build your own computer, sites like Tech Report provide excellent advice in the form of their system guides. However, their guide sets the bar a little too low for my tastes. There are a few baseline requirements for any new computer build that aren't negotiable for me:
- current dual core chip, such as the Core Duo 2 or Athlon 64 X2
- minimum of 2 GB of memory
- modern PCI express video card with 256mb or more of memory, such as the NVIDIA 7600GS, or the ATI Radeon X1650. Both of these cards can be found for about $100. Whatever you do, avoid on-board video, because it's universally crappy. The rule of thumb I use is this: if you're spending significantly less than $100 on your video card, you're making a terrible mistake.
It's not expensive. At today's prices, you're looking at around $800 for a new system based on these parts. Build that up and you've got a machine that can handle anything you throw at it, from cutting-edge games to full resolution high definition video playback. Oh yeah, and it compiles code pretty fast, too. If you're an avid gamer you might possibly want to throw another $50 to $100 at the video card for higher resolutions, but that's about it.
But one of the recommendations I make often gets some unexpected resistance. I believe every new PC build should have two hard drives:
- small 10,000 RPM boot drive
- large 7,200 RPM data/apps/games/media drive
I am a total convert to the Western Digital Raptor series of 10,000 RPM SATA hard drives. Maybe you're skeptical that a hard drive could make that much difference to a computer's performance. Well, I started out as a skeptic, too. But once I sat down and actually used a computer with a 10,000 RPM drive, my opinion did a complete about-face. I was blown away by how responsive and snappy it felt compared to my machine with a 7,200 RPM hard drive. It's a substantial difference that I continue to feel every day in typical use. Don't underestimate the impact of hard drive performance on your everyday use of the computer.
The difference in performance between a 7,200 RPM boot drive and a 10,000 RPM boot drive is not subtle in any way. But don't take my word for it. Surf the benchmarks yourself:
Unfortunately, the Raptors aren't large drives, and they're expensive on a per-megabyte basis. Current pricing is about $140 for the 74 GB model, and $180 for the 150 GB model. But once you factor in the incredible performance, and the idea that your don't need a lot of space on your primary drive because your secondary drive will be the large workhorse storage area, I think it's a completely reasonable tradeoff.
A number of people have expressed concerns that a 10,000 RPM drive will be run hot and noisy. I am a noise fanatic, and I can assure you that this is not the case. According to the StorageReview noise and heat analysis, the Raptor is squarely in the ballpark with its 7,200 RPM peers. I mount all my drives with sorbothane, and I use eggcrate foam on nearby surfaces to further reduce any reflected noise. Once I do this, the Raptor is no noisier than any other 3.5" desktop hard drive I've used.
Setting aside the performance argument for a moment, using two hard drives also provides additional flexibility. Although I cannot recommend RAID 0 on the desktop, there are clear benefits to using two standalone hard drives. You can isolate your essential user data from the operating system by storing it on the larger, secondary drive. This gives you the freedom to blow away your primary OS drive with relative impunity. It's also optimal for virtual machine use, as one drive can be dedicated to OS functions and the other can act exclusively as a virtual disk. There are plenty of usage scenarios where taking advantage of two hard drive spindles can provide a serious performance boost, such as extracting a large archive from one drive to another.
It's gotten to the point now where I won't even consider building a machine without a Raptor as the boot drive. Sure, your computer may have 2 or even 4 gigabytes of memory, but going to disk is inevitable. And every time you go to disk, you'll become thoroughly spoiled by the speed of the Raptor.
You may not know it yet, but you want a 10,000 RPM boot drive, too. In the words of Scott Hanselman: Go on. Treat yourself. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I never had so I can't comment.
What would you guys think of a small SSD drive for OS (16Gb, mayb 8Gb), with the program files etc slipstreamed to a bigger WD Raptor X 150Gb for applications and a bit of data. I don't need much space for data because I am currently building a home server with 1tb, mayb 2tb space?
Ok so some of you are seeing improvement in RAID -0 and some of you are not, those that are not seeing the gains they would like need to take a serious look at the RAID controller being used, even so called on board hardware controllers and a few cheap add on cards do not deliver the throughput needed to realise any kind of performance gains, thus having blisteringly fast drives coupled with crap controllers will deliver dissapointing speeds, a bit like buying a ferrari and limiting its speed to 30mph. Adding a decent RAID controller will however allow the drives to run at full speed and show significant gains...then all that is left to look at is the memory speed, fsb, processor.....
for a machine that mainly does nightly builds a raid0 sounds fine (sources are pulled from version control, so data loss is not an issue). but which mainboard do you recommend for raid0 for w2k?
It's been a long time since this post, but I still want the 10,000rpm drive!
Three words: Solid State Drive.
Fast boot drive and slower storage drive... absolutely.
I've haven't lost data in over 10 years now using this method.
Every time I vary from this I regret it.
If the boot drive gets corrupted it's very hard to resurrect it (heads often crash destroying data)... but I've never managed to kill the storage drive in 20 years.
Even my mates raid array crashed badly. It is a 5 disk raid array with 7 Terabytes. It's been ages and he still hasn't managed to resurrect it. He's a very good system admin and he's been working with the company that supplied the Raid hardware to try and bring it back up... still waiting for an update on this. BTW: This is not meant to happen to raid arrays!
This blog was written before SSD's became available. SSD's can do hundreds of I/O's at the same time... and access is virtually instant... so as a result they are a very good choice for speed (plus they are quiet and don't use much power). There's a bit of a question mark over reliability and price... but both are bound to improve. I'm keen to try one.
The reason most people have no idea about the bottlenecks in their systems is that they very rarely test them. This occurs even with the technically proficient and stretches across almost any other item as well. Only about 1% of the population test.
The only thing I disagree with a bit is the graphics... but that's because my usage is not graphics related... onboard graphics allows me to upgrade the motherboard about twice a year because it's so cheap. The newest integrated graphics chips have also improved onboard graphics immensely (Vista's rating system is helping) my Vista graphics rating is 3.5 (everything else is 5.9) NB. Don't use Vista if you want performance... XP is a better choice.
Other than that I think the graphics recommendation is spot on too. You don't need the fastest card to get pretty good system performance.
If you've got Vista then about 4GB or better (with 64 bit OS) is smart... as Vista seems to use all the available memory for caching when doing things like burning DVD's. Video editing is also likely to suck up as much memory as you can throw at it.
I still haven't decided if faster 1066 DDR2 is going to help... but on paper at least it's got twice the bandwidth of DDR2 800 memory... and that's a HUGE difference. Chances are you'll only notice the difference when you're doing something that the CPU can hold in memory then processes really quickly. It would have to be something fairly big and bulky to give you a meaningful performance improvement.
One thing manufacturers could do to help improve system reliability is to park the heads off the disks when the disk powers down or in between writes/reads. A capacitor to give the drive enough power not to crash in a power outage and give it a few seconds to allow it to park the heads would also be a good idea.
Some drives do park heads off the platters... but I don't know of any that have added a battery/capacitor to give them a few extra seconds of power so they can power down safely. SSD's basically solve this problem... but they're not yet widely available, big enough or affordable enough.
Add a fan to cool the hard drive... makes a big difference to longevity and to speed of the drive (they slow down if they overheat).
Lost a lot of drives (usually at 3-5 years)... until I started to do this.
Hard drive manufacturers are in denial on this. SSD's solve this problem and also lower the temperature of the overall box because they don't generate much heat. Just got to wait for prices to drop!
Be careful as not every computer case allows the fitment of an extra fan to blow air over the hard drives. You generally have to open up the case to check and generally the very cheapest cases don't have this feature... but the better ones all do.
Ok, this is an old post... But here goes anyway:
I recently converted my current system to have a three disk software raid0 configuration with the very average drives I already had in lieu of buying more expensive drives, and the results have blown me away. Like you have said, the differences between an average drive and a faster drive are astounding.
Huh. The biggest single speed jump I ever noticed in my years of building my own systems was going from a 7200 RPM system drive to a pair of 36 GB 10000 RPM Raptors in a RAID 0. Now I know that the speed jump was the Raptor drive, not the RAID. I lived in fear of the nVidia RAID error screen on bootup for years unnecessarily.
I've extolled the huge performance benefits I saw when I moved to raptors a couple of years ago:
I'm also going to agree with Mike...RAID'ing a set of raptors is beyond fast, and most motherboards have built in support for hardware RAID and are dirt easy to set up.
All new drives that I buy are raptors at this point...for the $/MB it's the easiest way to speed up a slow machine.
I would only consider building one instead with
FOUR (4) hard drives , mirroring the pairs:
(2) small 10,000 RPM boot drive
(2) 7,200 RPM data/apps/games/media drive
I VERY MUCH DISAGREE! :)
The best hard disk configuration for an enthusiast machine is FOUR (4) identical hard drives in a RAID 0+1 configuration. This gives you MUCH BETTER performance than a mirrored pair of raptors (I've confirmed this), it gives you this performance for ALL of your hard disk space, and you get a lot more capacity for your dollar.
I do a lot of heavy Photoshop work on my box, so I also happen to have a striped pair of raptors for scratch disk space. But I discovered that it was totally unnecessary -- the performance increase I measured in Photoshop compared to the RAID 0+1 was marginal at best.
With my RAID 0+1 set, I partitioned it to separate my C drive from the rapid flow of multi-hundred-megabyte files throughout the week. This is good practice as a preventative measure against disk fragmentation (and it means defrags are much faster if you ever feel the need to run it).
There are many ways to get to an optimum system for deep enthusiasts (developers, designers, high end gamers), but...
** Jeff is dead on right here **
I completly agree with his initial remarks. Do not underestimate what a Raptor will do for you. After building about 5 or 6 machines for myself over about 7 or 8 years, my current main box has been solid and incredibly optimal for about 1.5 years now, and I don't see a compelling reason to alter anything:
AMD X2 4800 (I'm really an Intel fan, but got to try out everything)
150GB WD Raptor (system data as C:)
500GB WD Caviar (media as D:)
ATI Radeon 1800XT
Viewsonic 22" widescreen
Windows XP (not in a rush to run Vista for myself)
I'm a developer and a gamer (hardcore on each), and this setup has been just incredible for quite a while. Of course, I will select Core 2 Duo or Quadro for my next, but I can wait a bit.
A few other points:
- I don't agree with Jeff on having C: only for teh OS; I have teh OS all key data there, and its the only drive I back up; pusy come to shove: I am willing to lose what's on D:
- I use True Image (awesome product) to do complete image backups of C: to another hard drive (5" bay plugin SATA -- full speed hotswap)
- I use to run RAID 0 and RAID 1 at different times in the past - 2 drives IMHO is a safer and cooler approach
- I thought Sushant Bhatia has a lot of good comments above
The boot drive is NOT the one that matters for performance. It is the drive where the most commonly used data is, especially swap space. I have split my swap across multiple drives, and that was a huge help. Then I made sure that those drives were not the ones being hit for large files (whether it is applications or data that are large depends on what you are doing) and found another huge boost.
In your case, using things like Vista and Visual Studio, the applications are much larger than the data, but imagine, instead transcoding video on a Linux machine with no GUI. Now the data is significantly large than the applications.
Choose what to put on your fast drive by access patterns, not blindly making it the boot drive. The reason it is working for you is that Windows, by default, puts the swap on the boot drive. I am not even sure if it is reasonable to change it, but if it is, try moving the swap to a second drive away from your large applications, and you should see another substantial jump.
Can I please say it again -- RAID 0+1. RAID 0+1. RAID 0+1.
Hard disks are cheap. RAID 0+1 gives you significantly better performance than a raptor over ALL of your disk space, not just the part you boot from. It gives you security against hardware failure. And gives you oodles of contiguous storage. If you buy fluid-bearing hard disks and mount them on grommets, they're quiet. And most motherboards support it.
(RAID 5 is not the answer, without an expensive controller it's outrageously slow)
Do you recommend short stroking the raided raptors? or would this not make a difference.
10k Boot drive, for faster booting? I did a test between a my Toshiba laptop with a entry level SSD 64GB hdd with a Core i7 720QM CPU @ 1.6GHz and 6GB RAM; and a home built tower, running a 1.5TB WD Raptop with a Core i7 920 CPU @ 2.6GHz and 12GB RAM. Both systems run 64Bit Win 7 Ultimate with pretty much the same programs. The tower boots in a paultry minute, while the laptop boots in a blistering 15 - 20seconds every time.