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Good personal computer for a theoretical physicist

  1. Aug 28, 2012 #1

    I am a graduate physics student and I am looking to buy a new desktop. I was wondering if anyone had any opinion on a great desktop for a theoretical physicist.

    I mostly use mathematica for symbolic computations but from time to time I use C or C++ to write numerical programs. Any opinions on specs or any products would be helpful.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I don't believe that either Mathematica or the compilers place a whole lot of strain on the CPU or other components, so I don't think it matters very much. I don't have Mathematica, so I can't say for sure how long it takes to compute complicated expressions.
  4. Aug 28, 2012 #3
    You can buy a dual xenon desktop workstation for upwards of $10,000.oo so budget is a real concern for the vast majority of people. There are cheaper models around $2,500.oo but, again, if you don't really need the number crunching capacity why spend the money on what is essentially a desktop supercomputer?

    If you just want a more or less ordinary desktop with some serious number crunching capacity for about $1,500.oo an i7 2600k, 16gb ram, and a radeon 7970 are about as powerful as it gets without getting seriously expensive. The i7 has six hyperthreaded cores and the 7970 is excellent for gpu compute functions. You can even get one that can be upgraded by adding another graphics card and more ram if need be. Give us a better idea of what you want and maybe we can help you find it or even build it yourself which is easy and fun.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2012
  5. Aug 28, 2012 #4
    I really need something that is great at doing symbolic computations in mathematica. I have had instances with mathematica lagging with long expressions (for example complicated GR tensors). I don't know what needs to be upgraded to increase Mathematica's performance. I've asked people in Mathematica but they still haven't gotten back to me.
  6. Aug 29, 2012 #5
    I don't know what the requirements for that are, but if you can do it at all on your present computer it can't be outrageous. Tell us what the specs are on your present computer and it should give us a better idea. If you have to you can get them by downloading cpu-z and gpu-z. I recommend CNET for downloads just because they tend to be safer than random websites and have a huge number available. My guess though is your processor is too slow. Processors are used for most equations rather than the graphics card because they have the higher floating point accuracy required.
  7. Aug 30, 2012 #6
    Good for some gaming also. ;)
  8. Aug 30, 2012 #7
    The i7 is complete overkill for gaming and it's hyperthreading can even slow games down if you don't turn it off. The only thing it is good for in video games is if you have a monster rig with multiple video cards.
  9. Sep 4, 2012 #8


    User Avatar

    I would recommend the AMD FX4100 and the ASUS F1A55-M/CSM motherboard. the board can accept faster processors and up to 32 gigs of ram so it has plenty of breathing room.

    The 4100 is a quad core processor and is pretty damn fast, if you REALLY need the muscle you can later upgrade to a 6 or even an eight core processor. but realistically most software out there right now doesnt even take advantage of 4 cores much less 8.

    for Ram I would suggest starting out with 8 gigs of DDR3. make sure its a single module, this way you can easily upgrade one stick at a time as you need it.

    the other upgrade I would suggest would be a Solid state Hard drive, next to the Ram and CPU it will make the most difference in the speed of your computer. solid state drives have really fast response times, I upgraded my CPU and ram and still had a standard HD. once I upgraded the drive to a solid state I was taken back by how much faster programs opened and programs responded.The only drawback is that they can get really expensive as you move into the larger capasities, you might just want to load your OS and the essensials on it and have a second drive of the traditional nature to store all your files. (make sure the drive has a SATA III interface to get the fastest transfer speeds)

    so with a FX 4100, 8 or more gigs Ram and a Solid state drive I would be a little frightened if your computing needs made it lag.

    oh yes and make sure you have a 64 bit OS. you will need it if you want to take advantage of more then 4 gigs RAM and anything with more 4 cores if you ever want to upgrade past a quad core.

    what I have outlined here should cost you about about $500 in parts and software, depending on the size of the solid state drive you pick. that figure also assumes you will just be replacing the mentioned parts and recycling the rest of your desktop. if you are buying a new unit from the store expect to pay about $1500.

    I hope this helps,

    Last edited: Sep 4, 2012
  10. Sep 4, 2012 #9


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    Homework Helper

    2600K and 2700K have 4 hyperthreaded cores (they show up as 8 cpu's in window's task manager performance screen), and are LGA 1155 socket. 980X and 990X have 6 hyperthreaded cores and are FCLGA 1366 socket. 3930K and 3960X have 6 hyperthreaded cores and are FCLGA 2011 socket. The socket type will determine what kind of motherboard you will need, in price order (lowest to highest) LGA 1155, FCLGA 1366, FCLGA 2011.

    Unless you want multiple video cards, socket LGA 1155 motherboards are good enough, and some of those do have two PCI-E X16 channels. There isn't a lot of software that can take advantage of 6 or even 4 hyperthreading cores, unless the application lends itself to parallel processing such as video rendering. The 2700K or 3770K is probably enough for what you need, along with a LGA 1155 motherboard (there are a lot of these, go to intel web site to see the differences).
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2012
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