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Building a Desktop Computer for Math/Physics

  1. Jul 11, 2016 #1


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    Hi all,

    Over the summer I have been working hard to net some extra cash to acquire a desktop computer for education based purposes. Physics research, modelling, and coding is what to be expected. I am hoping to have this computer be my main setup for the end of undergraduate (2 years) and graduate school, so I am looking at around a 6-8+ time frame for relevant usage.

    I want a dual-monitor set up.
    I also want to use a Linux operating system on this desktop. This is to save money on any OS, but also to finally learn Linux OS as much as I know windows. I also feel better coding on Linux.

    I figure my budget will be around $1000, but I can make more money if the difference in performance is worthwhile.

    For now, I am trying to get ideas of what I should expect.

    1) Would you plan on building your own desktop or having it already built for you?
    I like the idea of building my own desktop as a learning experience. Is the price to build your own much cheaper than the alternative?

    2) What would be the necessary components to a desktop computer for this particular usage? What type of RAM would you want on your desktop computer that you will want to use for the next 6-8 years. Any 'must-get's' ? etc.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 11, 2016 #2


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    I just built my own desktop very late last year and it was, as I knew it would be, a huge effort on my part. I haven't done a build in over 25 years so had to read up on modern components.

    My main advice is to go with 16gigs of ram and a Solid State Boot drive plus a 1TB hybrid drive to hold most of your non-system stuff. You likely will need only a 256Gig SSD unless you want a dual boot system in which case you should go with 512gigs.

    My build was about the same price as a comparable pre-built system but there just wasn't any pre-built system that had exactly what I wanted and reconfiguring them to do exactly what I wanted made them MORE expensive than what I ended up with. I have a fabuous (by my standards at least), very fast i7 desktop with a 23" monitor and exactly the configuration I wanted and it was about $1200 plus a LOT of time researching parts and seeking out good tradeoffs between quality and price. With a dual monitor, assuming any decent size, you're likely to spend about the same amount (some of my other costs were an extra 2TB drive, a low-end graphics card and a low-end sound card. One thing about my system is that I am not a gamer. They spend huge amounts on graphics drivers but I did not.

    My main program utility (of my own, to build a huge we site) used to take exactly one hour on my old lapotp. It now takes 6 minutes. Most of my standard utilities run about 5 times faster than they used to.
  4. Jul 11, 2016 #3
    This could be a good Insight if someone wants to really break it down.
  5. Jul 11, 2016 #4


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    It would require putting in a LOT of option/variations since no two people are likely to want the same thing and you'd have to explain the pros/cons of a whole bunch of options. Nice if someone wanted to do it. I'd consider it but it would be approximately 2031 before I get to it given my current TODO list and since I figure I'll die before then, you'll need to get someone else :smile:
  6. Jul 11, 2016 #5


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    Important point: if you plan on number crunching, good graphic card can be much better than the processor itself (google GPGPU).
  7. Jul 11, 2016 #6
    Yes, I would and the price is usually higher than that of one sold in a computer store because I would want to build one with more RAM and a different type of HD (i.e SSD) which is more expensive, for example.
    All things are planned based on your own requirements. Prices of related components can be considered later after you finish your planning because they vary a lot according to types and their makers.
    As for a general computer, you need
    a motherboard (mobo)
    a power resource
    a fan
    a HD
    one or more RAM bars
    2 monitors

    I prefer Intel chip-set and CPU so I often choose a motherboard with them already installed on it. It often also includes removable monitor, sound and network cards. Monitor card is also important if you would want to use your computer to play games making use of heavy graphics or physics modelling. So you may pick a good one with more memory to handle drawing buffers ($150-$250). The main point in building your own stuff is that you need to guarantee everything is working well or compatible with each other (ram bars and purchased mobo, monitor card with mobo, etc)
    A good pair of monitors (22"-27") may cost you about $250 - $500.
    Intel CPU (I suggest core-i7) is pretty expensive. ($350-$500)
    You will probably need 8GB-16GB of RAM for your study. Prices are varied.
    An intel chipset mobo may cost you around $200-$550.
    How much others cost is depending on your preference and budget then, but they are less important than the few components as said above.
  8. Jul 11, 2016 #7


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    That's an excellent point that I forgot to mention in my post. Making sure everything was compatible (and this can be a non-trivial exercise) was a big part of my research into modern components.
  9. Jul 11, 2016 #8


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    Some online stores will custom build a system with parts that you order, and usually it's not that expensive. I happen to live within driving distance of one of them, so I don't have to pay for shipping. As an option, Windows 10 OEM version isn't that expensive. I don't know if you can get Windows 7 OEM anymore. As mentioned, some software can use graphics card and/or multiple cores for improved performance, including libraries for software that you write, so which software packages you plan to buy will be a factor.
  10. Jul 20, 2016 #9
    Very true. if you are new to building computers.
    get to know your scrap man. you will see a van with fridges!
    I get old computers for parts for £5 to £10.
    you can pay that for a fan or conneting cables.
    sores like cex(second hand) and ebuyer(new)
    sell good and cheap stuff! good luck.
  11. Jul 28, 2016 #10


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    Hey all,

    So I keep researching away here and there. I'm currently looking for CPU's since I am completely in the dark here.

    Based on this guide: http://techreport.com/review/30291/the-tech-report-system-guide-june-2016-edition/2

    They say that the sweet spot is the Intel Core i5-6500 for ~$205.00.
    I like this price. I'm also interested in Intel Core i5-6600K and, if necessary, the higher budget one of Intel Core i7-6800K.

    My question is: Am I going to be satisfied with these? Are there any distinct problems with these? Is this old information?

    Any recommendations for the CPU? What would you be looking to spend on this part in say a $1000-$1500 budget desktop build.
  12. Jul 28, 2016 #11
    Are you sure you don't want to also use it for gaming?
    And how much physics modelling do you intend to do? Probably just a small simulation once in a while.
    You could in fact get yourself a low cost PC for far less than $1000 and it will be more than sufficient. You don't even need a graphics card if you have graphics built into the CPU.
    You really only need an expensive machine if you want to play the latest blockbuster games or you do some really intensive calculations on there all the time.

    Anyway, here is a list of benchmarks that can help you compare different CPUs. https://www.cpubenchmark.net/
    What you definitely should get is an SSD and at least 8GB of RAM.
    If you decide for a processor from the K line which can be overclocked quite a bit, you may also want to get a motherboard with a Z170 chipset.
    And for the type of RAM - either DDR3 or DDR4. But those two are not compatible and since DDR4 is the future and the price is similar I'd go with that.

    btw. if you want to make your decision easier just go to newegg http://www.newegg.com/Components/Store and sort the products there by "best selling". Then pick an item from the top 10 or so. That way you are unlikely to make a bad choice.
    And don't buy a cheap power supply. You don't want to burn your house down or have a power surge damage your computer.
  13. Jul 28, 2016 #12


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    @DrZoidberg Thank you for the tips.

    I have no interest in gaming with this machine. I do want to be able to perform any simulations and processes that relate to physics research. This may just be simply calculations and beyond, but I plan on using this desktop for all my work remaining in the 2 years of undergraduate and the years of graduate school. I'm really coming around to the idea of a desktop that's less than $1000.

    I will need a desktop that runs linux and 2 display monitors.
    I definitely aim to get an SSD and at least 16 GB of Ram.

    Any idea on what I can do with the graphics card situation or what my 'aim' should be based on this information?
  14. Aug 1, 2016 #13


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    Let me ask this:

    Is it possible for me to build a desktop with:

    a SSD, 16 to 32 GB of Ram, Linux operating system (free), a decent graphics card capable of producing two displays and some basic modeling, amongst other necessities

    all for under $800?

    Keep in mind, I am a fan of buying quality goods now for longevity, so I'd prefer to spend more if it meant that it will last me longer, but if I can do this for $800 or under, I can do it very soon.
  15. Aug 1, 2016 #14
    $800 should be no problem.
    case: $40
    power supply: $60
    motherboard: $100
    cpu: $200
    ram: $140
    graphics card: $50
    ssd: $150
    DVD drive: $20
    total: $760
  16. Aug 1, 2016 #15


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    That seems highly reasonable from what I can tell with two key issues:

    1. A $50 graphics card will allow my computer to perform at a high level for calculations/basic mathematical modelling?
    2. A CPU at $200 is something like the i5-6500 as presented in the link you posted above. Will this type of build keep me future-ready for the foreseeable future (~4-6 years).
  17. Aug 1, 2016 #16
    1. I don't know if you want to do any calculations on the graphics card. If so you need to decide how much processing power you need there.
    2. Do you expect your demands for processing power to increase in the future? CPUs will not get significantly faster in the next 5 years anyway. They have been developing very slowly for the last few years.
  18. Aug 7, 2016 #17


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    Hi @DrZoidberg and Physics Forums,

    Now that I have raised a reasonable amount of money, I am starting to look at a build.

    Using this as a nice base:

    And using the following link: http://techreport.com/review/30460/the-tech-report-system-guide-august-2016-edition

    I've created the following:

    CASE: $60.00
    PSU: EVGA Supernova G2 550W $90.00
    MOBO: MSI Z170-A PRO $115.00
    CPU: Intel Core i7-6700k $360.00
    RAM: G Skill ripjaws V 32 GB DDR4 $113.00
    GPU: EVGA Gefore GTX 950 $130.00
    SSD: Crucial MX300 525 GB $130.00
    DVD Drive: ASUS DRW $20.00
    CPU COOLER: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $30.00
    OS: Linux, free

    TOTAL: $1050.00

    Optional: Soundcard Asus Xonar OSX $54.00

    Your estimations were pretty much spot on. The two big differences were in CPU and GPU. CPU, I'm looking at the i7-6700K ($360) vs. the i5-6600K ($250) and felt that i7-6700 might be the better buy for longevity. As for GPU, I am not sure how to get by on a $50 GPU. It seems like a sweet-spot of performance really occurs at around the $200 mark. While I have the EVGA Geforce GTX 950 ($130) in my build, I realize that some new GPU's hit the marker recently. Most notably, the Sapphire Radeon RX 480 4GB for $200.00 seems to be the ideal GPU for my build (although I have to do more research on it).

    Any helpful tips/recommendations/questions/concerns on my first put together? Obviously, I have to do a lot more work here to make sure everything works well with each other and I hope to find these items at a better price with some deal-shopping.
  19. Aug 7, 2016 #18


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    You will find that a 550W PSU is massive overkill. I have a system quite similar to yours but with a two hard drives in addition to the SSD, two DVD drives instead of one, a sound card in addition to the GPU, a big case with 4 fans, plus the MB powers several external USB devices. All of that and the UPS says that the most power it ever uses is about 90W and normal running is 75W. Modern parts just don't need much juice, it seems.

    Also, I bought a Coolmaster CPU cooler, like you, because all the online stuff said that the one that comes with the i7 is insufficient. I think that's a joke. The extra cooler turned out to be so very clearly not needed that I felt silly looking back on it. It LOOKS very impressive though. :smile:
  20. Aug 8, 2016 #19


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    Latest build:

    CASE: H440 Black + Green $120.00
    PSU: EVGA Supernova G2 550W $90.00
    MOBO: ASUS X-99 A-II $230.00
    CPU: Intel Core i7-6800k $440.00
    RAM: G Skill ripjaws V 32 GB DDR4 $113.00
    GPU: EVGA Gefore GTX 960 $180.00
    SSD: Crucial MX300 525 GB $130.00
    DVD Drive: ASUS DRW $20.00
    CPU COOLER: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $30.00
    OS: Linux, free

    TOTAL: $1353.00

    Optional: Soundcard Asus Xonar OSX $54.00

    Some notes:
    1. Big question on the GPU. Do I go with the new Radeon Rx 480 (supposed to be at price of $200.00) or a Nvidia GTX 960 for ~$180.00? Well, the Radeon RX 480 seems to perform better, but it is almost impossible to find online for the price of $200.00. It's going upwards of $300.00 which is not suitable for my needs. GTX 960 so far is the winner as it is easily accessible at the price I want for my GPU.

    2. The Processor is the big money difference. I am debating between i7-6700k ($360.00) vs. i7-5820k ($390.00) vs. i7-6800k ($440.00). The i7-5820k seems to lose simply because the 6800k is a superior CPU for only $50 more. The notable thing here is that the i7-6700k uses a Z1ZO mobo while the i7-6800k and i7-5820k uses a x99 motherboard. I am highly interested in the future-proofing of the 6800k with x99, which is why my latest build chooses this. However, this is a major $$$ difference in $200.00+. The likely fact is that either computer will suit my needs. Needless to say, I would love the x99+6800k tho.

    3. I can save some minimal money from the case as well. Currently the NZXT one is just a placeholder. I like the NZXT cases and for $120.00 I would happily buy a great case. I'd be interested in seeing some cases for around $40.00 tho, but I'm going to research this further later when I know what parts I want to fill it.

    Any opinions on my build and my 3 main comments? Any other suggestions?

    Thank you.
  21. Aug 10, 2016 #20
    I've built over a dozen computers within the last 5 years (mostly gaming oriented).

    Don't skip on Windows if you're just now learning Linux.

    You're not at CERN crunching data, yet, so you can get away with something quite moderate to carry you through your undergrad/grad school.

    I've used my custom computer for all of my physics labs/programming assignments thus far and have had 0 issues. Let me give you some advice for your latest list:

    CASE: H440 Black + Green $120.00 // Find a mid-tower for around 50-100 bucks on Newegg/Amazon
    PSU: EVGA Supernova G2 550W $90.00 // Great power supply; no recommendations.
    MOBO: ASUS X-99 A-II $230.00 // You can save quite a bit by getting something in the 110-130 dollar range; Asus/Gigabyte are great.
    CPU: Intel Core i7-6800k $440.00 // You definitely don't need an i7, but they are awesome. Find a much less expensive i-5.
    RAM: G Skill ripjaws V 32 GB DDR4 $113.00 // 32 GBs is overkill. 16 GBs will be more than sufficient.
    GPU: EVGA Gefore GTX 960 $180.00 // Solid card; no recommendations.
    SSD: Crucial MX300 525 GB $130.00 // SSD is the biggest QOL upgrade you can make and this one is great.
    DVD Drive: ASUS DRW $20.00 // Good
    CPU COOLER: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $30.00 // Stock cool is more than enough; don't over clock and you'll be fine.
    OS: Linux, free // Drop the $100 for Windows until you get comfortable with Linux.

    TOTAL: $1353.00

    Optional: Soundcard Asus Xonar OSX $54.00 // You can skip on the sound card.

    If you like, I can build you a sold computer for less than $1000 shipped.
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