Saturday, 12 August 2017

MUSINGS: The 3 Main Home Computers 2017 (Workstation, Server, Gaming) & Thoughts on Gaming Consoles (like the upcoming Xbox One X)...

In the heat of summer, it is nice to get some time off to fix up around the house and do something that I typically take no pleasure in - rebuilding computers and reinstalling the OS & software! It requires a level of "Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance" that I can only muster up every few years :-).

If you're like me, at home, you might have a little cadre of computers for work and personal purposes. As painful as it is, every few years, I'll update the OS, maybe tweak the hardware here and there (everything from cleaning up cables, vacuuming out dust, updating motherboard firmware and drivers, and the occasional refreshing of the heatsink compound). Updating a less "mission critical" machine like a HTPC or game machine (such as previously discussed) is not a big deal because in my view, that won't affect the others. However when I update the powerful main Workstation, I try to reuse the parts for some of my "lesser" machines; can't let perfectly good high speed CPU, RAM, and motherboard go to waste.

Back in 2012, I built a reasonably powerful workstation for the time, an Intel i7-3770K quad-core, Ivy Bridge 3.5GHz CPU paired with an ASRock Z77 Extreme4 motherboard and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. This machine has certainly served me well over the last 5 years! In fact, it is with this machine that I've been editing the text and graphics for all these blog posts over the years. But of course in 5 years, computing technology has marched along and I felt it was time to go for an upgrade. This will improve the speed of The Workstation, with repercussions on The Server, and ultimately The Game Machine/HTPC.

After all the work piece by piece over the last 2 weeks, here's my 2017 line-up at my home...

Computer 1 - The Workstation

A picture from a couple years back with BenQ 32" 4K monitor... But still looks much the same today.
This is the machine I use as the "daily driver". For surfing, for experimenting with code, music editing, writing this blog, video and photo processing... In mid 2017, for the price, IMO there's nothing that can beat the AMD Ryzen 1700 CPU - 8 cores, 16 threads, 3.0GHz base clock speed to 3.7GHz turbo. The thermal design power (TDP) is only 65W and it even comes with a quiet "Wraith Spire" cooler. In fact, the cooler is so good that this is the first time I have ever been satisfied with a stock CPU cooler without feeling the need to upgrade! All for <US$300... Yes, there are the faster Ryzen 1700X and 1800X options but I'm good with the speed already and appreciate the lower price.

To round out the system:
CPU: AMD Ryzen 1700 (~$300)
Motherboard: MSI X370 SLI Plus (~$131)
RAM: Corsair Vengence LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 3000MHz (~$150)
Power Supply: Antec HCG-5120M ($75)
Case:  Fractal Design Define XL R2 ($150)
I reused the old ASUS Radeon R9 270X graphics card (capable of 4K/60Hz through DisplayPort), assortment of Samsung 850 Pro 256GB SSD drive, and various Western Digital Green 2TB and Red 6TB hard drives to get it all running.

MoBo and CPU - laid out, ready to install... Coca Cola essential in times like this :-).
Ryzen 1700 CPU. 8-core, 16-threads multiprocessing monster for great price.

Rear panel of the MSI X370 SLI Plus - note the inclusion these days of USB 3.1 and Type C connector just to the left of the multichannel audio connectors.
Installed in Fractal Design full tower case.
Even with all the fans running, this case keeps it quiet (I detest fan noise). Even on a hot day like today with the indoor temperature higher in the summer, the fan noise is noticeable but far from distracting. Even under intense load like running Intel Burn Test, the increase in fan noise is still below the threshold of distraction for me.

The speed increase over the i7-3770K is obvious when encoding video with Handbrake (getting close to realtime 24-30fps for 1080P 10-bit HEVC at good quality now), or batch converting audio with dBPowerAmp and iZotope RX. Apart from the above, day to day usage of course will be variable... Nobody's going to claim that this increases surfing speed, or Microsoft Office productivity over the older i7 but for some applications where the multiprocessing can be taken advantage of like Adobe Lightroom with multiple RAW images being previewed, this feels much faster.

Although I have no need to whatsoever, even on air and without raising the CPU voltage, I can already run it up at 3.7GHz on the stock cooler stably. As a workstation, stock 3.0GHz is plenty fast for my needs and it's going to have to be quite a performance jump for me to really care about an upgrade in the next few years!

Computer 2 - The Server

Machine parts:
CPU: Intel i5-6500 (~$200)
Heatsink: CoolerMaster Hyper 212 Evo ($30)
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 ($135)
RAM: Corsair Vengence LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 2400MHz ($140)
Power Supply: Corsair CX 600W (CP-9020048-US) ($70)
Case:  Fractal Design Define R5 ATX mid-tower ($115)
Although I've changed the power supply, the case, and added a bunch of drives - Western Digital Red 6TB and Red 2TB for a total of around 20TB storage for all my data, videos, images, backups and music of course available over my network. The innards look like this picture I took more than a year back with a fan slapped on that CoolerMaster heatsink in a better case:

With an upgrade to the Workstation above, I now can put the old Intel i7-3770K into my Game Machine/HTPC, and this makes way for me to move the Intel i5-6500 Skylake processor previously in the HTPC to upgrade what was the old AMD A10-5800K APU which had been the heart of this Server for years. Since 2013, the A10-5800K had been offering 24/7/365 duty running a web site, audio server, and movie/video server for the home.

The i5-6500 Skylake CPU offers a lower TDP (65W) than the old A10-5800K (~100W) by virtue of more advanced 14nm lithography (as compared to 32nm for the A10) among other optimizations over the years I'm sure. The Gigabyte motherboard also has 8 SATA connectors internally which opens up even more storage capacity over the 6 SATA ports with the previous board used with the AMD A10-5800K.

Unlike the demands of a Workstation, home server computers do not need to be very fast - reliability and power efficiency are much more important. I typically do not ask the Server to transcode video in realtime and audio recoding like downsampling using SoX is no big deal for any decent CPU these days. At most for audio, the CPU will be asked to run my room correction DSP, all done in a Linux VM with BrutefirDRC through the Logitech Media Server as documented. Having said this, yes, when I do server maintenance, I can feel a difference in speed with the new CPU... Things like rescanning the music library (>10,000 albums) go a bit faster. Ultimately these days, it's actually the hard drive / storage speed that makes the biggest difference.

For high stability and security, this machine runs Windows Server 2016 these days. I expect long uptimes of months at a time.

No, dear audiophiles, Windows 10 and Server 2016 do not sound any different; unless you're doing something strange, OS's have no impact on things like jitter. Unless someone can provide real evidence otherwise, with specific examples, it just is what it is based on the evidence in the link provided and my own listening of course. And no, I do not advise anyone to run Windows Server 2016 as a workstation OS... Costs too much and you'll just run into compatibility issues and security hassles.

Computer 3 - The Game Machine

Although for years I've had a computer in the sound room acting as a home theater PC (HTPC), to be honest, I've never truly liked that fact. Over the years, I've done everything I can to keep the computer as silent as possible including large heat sinks with big fans, fanless power supplies, and quiet cases. Of course, there's a limit to the effectiveness of these solutions which was why low power CPU's (such as using the old Pentium G3220) and essentially fanless operation was significant.

In 2017, with the easy availability of small, silent, low power, and reasonably powerful SBC computers like the ODROID-C2 and Raspberry Pi 3, digital music playback has become trivial and inexpensive. I just use my homebrew Raspberry Pi 3 "Touch" device or the good old Logitech Transporter for my playback needs. As for multichannel audio and video playback, I use an inexpensive 2GB Amlogic S905X TV box (something like this one) with custom Kodi firmware sending all audio and video to the Yamaha RX-V781 receiver through HDMI 2.0. Multichannel 5.1 lossless FLAC audio, 4K video, it decodes H.265 10-bit compression, HDR10, 60fps; all no problem.

With streaming managed by these low power and reliable devices, what this means is that unshackled from demanding almost absolute silence from the PC, the machine in this room can now be much more powerful. The role it plays is NOT high-fidelity sound, but it will become my gaming box, feeding the Vizio P 75" 4K HDR TV with graphics goodness :-). Doing the job well requires a fast CPU paired with a powerful graphics card.

Guess what's going to happen to my old Workstation Intel i7-3770K CPU?

Yup, into the Game Machine it goes! This should provide enough horsepower to feed the nVidia GTX 1080 GPU card. The consumer flagship these days is the nVidia GTX 1080Ti (more CUDA cores, ROPs, larger bus width making it ~20-30% faster), but it does cost a fair bit more... Given the performance I'm seeing at 4K, "ultra" game settings, I really cannot fault the GTX 1080 especially as I'm far from being a hard-core gamer these days!

Machine parts:
CPU: Intel i7-3770K (bought in 2012)
Heatsink: Noctua NH-U14S equivalent
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L (bought in 2012)
RAM: 16GB DDR3 (bought in 2012)
GPU: nVidia GTX 1080 based (~$550 these days)
Power Supply: SeaSonic SS-400FL2 equivalent fanless (~$120)
Case: Fractal Design Define R5 (~$115)
I've got a good Sandisk Ultra II 240GB SSD in there plus you see in this picture on the ground, I have the 2TB 2.5" Seagate FireCuda hard drive (~US$90). With 8GB of NAND cache, this is one of those "hybrid" SSD/hard drives. I'm using it as the games install drive while the Sandisk SSD serves as the Windows 10 Pro Creators Update boot device. The FireCuda drive "learns" what data you access the most and over time, those most-used/played files get cached and accessed faster. Very cool.

Uhhh, no, extreme subjectivist audiophiles, I have not noticed that music stored on a hybrid drive "sounds better" than one placed on a standard hard drive nor does it "sounds worse" than an actual SSD :-). Does not make a difference... Cannot possibly make a difference...

Got one of the early ASUS GeForce GTX 1080 cards at a good deal...

Mr. Game Machine ready for first boot!
As you can see, I quite like the Fractal Design cases. They do cost a little more than cheapo lightweight enclosures but IMO, the high quality workmanship, padded panels to reduce noise, clean exterior and general design sensibilities speak to me (proudly declared "engineered in Sweden").

To round off the Game Machine, I use the Xbox Wireless receiver and my Xbox 360 wireless controllers and a simple Logitech K400 keyboard/track pad.

So how's the gaming with this machine? Great!

I can jack the settings to the highest "Ultra" levels including anti-aliasing in 4K and typically achieve 50-60fps on Forza Horizon 3. I don't see an fps counter for Titanfall 2 but it's smooth as well with everything maxed out in 4K doing multiplayer over the gigabit network (thanks for the treat ryanred). My son loves his Star Wars Battlefront on this 75" screen. Project CARS likewise looks simply fantastic and runs smoothly so long as I don't set the antialiasing too high (DS2X in 4K looks great) - check out the California Highway track with all details maxed. Since I always play with VSYNC turned on to limit visual artifacts, these framerates would be even higher if turned off.

Less demanding games are a literal stroll in the park for this graphics card in 4K... Super Street Fighter IV Ultra (300fps benchmark), Injustice Ultimate Edition, Tekken 7, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - yes I love my fighting games - present no challenge whatsoever.

Synthetic benchmarks like 3DMark Time Spy in 4K is showing a composite score of 6227 (GPU 7052, CPU 3747). Fire Strike 1080P score of 13,918, Fire Strike Ultra in 4K of 4871Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0 with 8xAA antialiasing, "Ultra" quality and "Extreme" levels of tessellation is giving me an average fps of 65.1 and a score of 1639 at 2048x1536 (old benchmark, strange resolution, no 4K option).

A few games... Top left, clockwise - Injustice, Titanfall 2, Tekken 7 (notice the tongue-in-cheek panda character), Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing 3-player splitscreen (great if you have kids - up to 4 players, each with their own 37" screen on the 75" TV).
There ya go. A look at the main computers at home, the functions they perform and showing what's under the surface and components used. Would love to hear of the set-ups you guys have at home!

I suspect that there are many reading this not having much interest in assembling computers yourselves. No problem there since it does take time and isn't for everyone... However, when it comes to technology, I think there's something to be said for "rolling your own" to obtain the experience, and getting a sense of how these things work by getting one's hands "dirty". Having some basic "mastery" of this takes away the "mystery", allows one to troubleshoot more effectively, maintain healthy perspectives on what is possible and what seems unlikely, and staves off technophobia.

As Arthur C. Clarke once said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Computers are made of science and engineering - no different than high-fi sound systems and in fact a whole lot more complex and advanced. There is no magic; there never was. I hope some segments of the audiophile world can grasp that and embrace not just "experience" (remember to also understand the perceptual and cognitive limitations). Rather, I hope these segments find humility to open their minds to truths that can more often than not, be found through discipline, knowledge and understanding in the underlying science.


To end off, I just wanted to speak quickly about gaming these days. I re-read my post back in late 2013 when the "next gen" game machines - the Playstation 4 and Xbox One - were just released and in many ways, my opinions have remained the same. Like the world of audio with analogue vs. digital, there is a the age-old debate in gaming between buying a game machine vs. building a gaming computer. Overall I suspect there's not as much fury in those debates these days as consoles have looked more like computers over the years...

Over the last 4 years, we are seeing an interesting increase in diversity among this "generation" of machines whereas typically gaming hardware remains static through each generation as software developers optimize their games to squeeze out as much potential as possible. For example, the Playstation 2 came out in 2000, there was a "slimline" refresh in 2004, and was supplanted by the PS3 by 2006 for a total of 6 years as Sony's top machine, essentially unchanged. Similarly the PS3 came out in 2006, experienced some "slimming" in 2009 and 2012 then was supplanted by the PS4 by 2013 for a total generational time of about 7 years. In the world of the Xbox, the first generation lasted from 2001 to late 2005 (only 4 years), but Microsoft was just starting up in a market dominated by Sony and Nintendo shortly after the demise of the Sega Dreamcast. The Xbox 360 has had an amazing run from 2005 until they discontinued it in 2016 even though the Xbox One came out in 2013. Notice in all that time, there were no substantial changes to the hardware abilities other than small things like hard drive capacity, video port layout and again "slimming" as better manufacturing made it smaller and run cooler.

But what is this we see today? A PS4 Pro in late 2016 with checkerboard-based 4K rendering about 3 years into the current generation with better specs. In the current Xbox One generation, we've also seen the marginally faster Xbox One S in mid-2016 with UHD Blu-ray drive and later this year (slated for November 7, 2017), we'll see Xbox One X, the much hyped "Project Scorpio" with a very substantial graphics hardware overhaul. This is the kind of thing we might see in the PC world... Upgrade the GPU every couple years to keep up with the latest games at higher resolution and detail.

A quicker hardware refresh allows the console world to at least keep pace with modern GPUs to some extent. I see it as a clear sign of convergence between consoles and PCs. The hardware itself, though customized is essentially based on existing CPU and GPU designs with growing hard drive capacities becoming more important. The latter is particularly interesting as games need to be installed on a hard drive just like in the PC world (and 1TB for the Xbox One X at launch seems a little on the small side!).

The OS software is becoming more like a typical PC to accommodate streaming, online gameplay, more complex UI and incorporating drivers for more varied peripherals (like VR gear). In fact, the Xbox One runs a kind of optimized Windows 10 these days already, allowing "Xbox Play Anywhere" titles like Forza Horizon 3 with synchronised progress between the console and PC. I don't know how successful this program has been but it's a great step in the right direction IMO. I'm certainly looking forward to Forza Motorsport 7 coming out in October touting 4K and HDR (hopefully the HDR includes PCs with capable graphics cards)! It's heating up in the world of car racing this fall/winter and I won't be surprised if the racing game of the year ends up being Project CARS 2 over Forza and Gran Turismo Sport.

This also means that software design will have to be less specific to the machine hardware. For now, sure, they can still optimize for the Xbox One, S, and X because there are only 3 variants... But what if there is a Xbox One XS at some point and the software needs to remain compatible? Yes, graphics engines and algorithms will become better and more optimized, but it'll have to be optimizations not to target specific hardware, but at the level of the standard API's and driver models which can be broadly applied to existing and future hardware. There is no more 6-7 year cycle for developers to extract out every ounce of performance from the same game hardware. This is especially important for cross-platform games so the developers don't unnecessarily need to spend too much time on any one device.

Finally, for those wondering, the specs for the XBOX One X is now out. IMO, very impressive graphics specs for a US$500 machine. This is a substantial jump over the Xbox One S with a GPU that's more next-generation than a mid-life "refresh" which remember is actually a new phenomenon compared to previous hardware life cycles.  As I said above, this is more like the PC world than typical game machines.

However, there are serious questions I think that needs to be asked about the architectural "balance" based on the specs of the Xbox One X. For one, what's up with using the same but 'refreshed' AMD Jaguar CPU cores!? Will 2.3GHz of 8-core Jaguar (30% over the Xbox One and One S) truly make the most of the upgraded AMD "Polaris" GPU which on paper at least appears to have a 400+% increase in processing power compared to the GPU in the Xbox One S!? In the computer world, it would seem odd to be running an upgraded AMD Radeon RX 480 card (maybe faster by 10-20% at most, and 30-40% faster than the PS4 Pro's GPU) with a low power laptop CPU similar to a double speed AMD Athlon 5370 - I say "double speed" as an estimate of the Xbox One X having 8 cores vs. 4 cores in the Athlon. This is likely slower than an old AMD FX-6300 (3.5GHz, 6-core "Piledriver") from 2012 for general integer and floating point performance. Unless Microsoft and AMD have done something to substantially "evolve" the Jaguar core performance, that CPU is at best 60% the speed of my old Intel i7-3770K from 2012 assuming the game is even able to squeeze out the performance of those 8 cores efficiently (not a given!).

As for the GPU, an upgraded Radeon RX 480 "Polaris" should be great. But if we're talking native 4K gaming without using tricks like PS4 Pro's checkerboard-based rendering or upconversion of lower resolution frames... There's just going to have to be compromises made to the rendering quality using for example lower quality anti-aliasing, simpler shading techniques, and less complex models if they desire to hit the magic 60 fps in 4K. It'll be very interesting to see when the machine is released as to how many games actually can claim to achieve this and what kind of balance will be struck for the more demanding titles between graphics detail and high frame rate! Some of this I believe is evident in the recent E3 Forza Motorsport 7 Xbox One X 4K demo video (I know it's not finalized yet, but it must be close - looks smooth but track complexity and textures seem a bit toned down).

As a point of comparison, based on what we know, it looks like it should be quite possible to run 3DMark benchmarks on the Xbox One X... I'm going to throw out a guess that it'll have a Time Spy score around 3500-4000 and Fire Strike Ultra a little less than 3000. Will see after November if 3DMark ever gets ported and how far off this prediction is :-).

In any event, kudos to Microsoft and Sony for accelerating the hardware curve of the consoles! I wonder if Sony will feel the need to step up to plate soon as the Xbox One X clearly leapfrogs ahead in the graphics department considering how up to now, the Xbox One series has been lagging. I see this as a great thing for PC gamers as it pushes forward the "lowest common denominator"; important since cross-platform games have to cater for the console market. By challenging developers to optimize their games for something like the One X (to make gamers' investment in a $500 machine worthwhile) on essentially a Windows platform with Direct X 12 API (hmmmm... does Xbox One use Vulkan?), that "lowest common denominator" at least in a very substantial portion of the console market will scale up nicely and likely allow PC gamers with stronger hardware to ramp up the experience further.

Exciting times ahead for 4K computer gaming I think!

I've been listening to July Talk's most recent album Touch (2016, check out "Jesus Said So"). If you like indie rock, you'll likely enjoy this one!

Remember - get me your blind test results for MQA vs. Hi-Res! Closing September 8th.


  1. Greetings Archimago, are you aware that your blog is constantly being link on places such as r/headphones and r/audiophile?

    Also I have a request: Measurements of the headphone out of your AM4 motherboard.

    1. Hi Sam,
      That's cool with the links. Hopefully folks find the information "informative" and allows an open discussion whether they agree or disagree!

      Sure, I'll have a peek at that MSI AM4 motherboard output at some point :-).

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