I seem to be on a roll here on DIY computer recommendations, so to fill the line out, I’ll add the final two desktop computers to posts and everyone should be ready for Black Friday.
One good thing about these comparisons is that Haswell is the same across desktop and mobile lines, so a 1.5 GHz part is half the speed of a 3GHz part for single threaded benchmarks by and large (assuming they are CPU bound and not graphics intensive).
The only complexity is in figuring out how multithreaded your applications are since Core i7 on desktop can have 6-8 cores. Most applications fit well in 4-8 threads which is why Core i5 tends to be the sweet spot. As Anandtech shows, mobile and desktop is really just a matter of power now:
As an aside PCPartsPicker.com is a nice way to figure out what you need and to price it. When I get a chance I’ll put these builds up there.
Basically, there are five different form factors and here are the recommendations for each using the latest Intel Haswell chips:
- Haswell NUC for general desktop. This uses the low power mobile Haswell running at 1.3-1.9 GHz. They are completely fan-less yet have 16GB of RAM and 512MB of ultrafast SSD. As well as 802.11ac, USB 3.0 and gigabit ethernet. It is a dream machine for development and also for media PCs and general desktop use particularly when paired with a rocking monitor like the Benq PT3200.
- Haswell Vesa fanless as the tweeter. This is the smallest desktop class Haswell that you can buy. Fits in a Vesa enclosure. The big question is whether to go fanless or non fanless. That is completely a matter of speed. The Haswell S part run at 35 watts while getting you up to 2.5GHz or about 50% faster than the NUCs.
- Haswell Vesa fanned for fast non-graphical uses. Then you can move to the Haswell T is at 65 watts. Running with a real desktop chip gets you to 2.5GHz up to 3GHz or so so perhaps 50 (no fan) to 100% (with fan) faster than the NUC. It can still fit on the back of a monitor though. With today’s slim mini-ITX, it is super compact as well since you can use m.2 or mSATA SSDs and don’t even need a SATA.
In the end, with todays ultra quiet fans, if you can afford the higher cost the Haswell Vesa Fanned seems to be a terrific tradeoff in terms of size. You get basically desktop speed for non-graphics intensive applications.
Moving on to places where you need an additional card either for a peripheral (like a USB slave mode) or more likely a graphics card or for disk drives, you have to graduate to the bigger chassis, here’s the list. The sweet spot here seems to be the Haswell Cube
- Haswell Flat for peripheral card. This is the smallest machine that you can buy with a half height PCI Express card. The power supply is only about 200 watts, so you can’t put a powerful graphics card in there, but it is useful for peripharals. It also has space for m.2 or mSATA for the boot drive and you can put in a caching/data SATA SSD plus a 6TB drive for lots of storage.
- Haswell Cube for gamer Q-ship or SOHO file server. This is the smallest Haswell box where you can put a full ATX power supply and two full sized graphics card and overclock like mad. It’s the gamers dream or the dream graphics intensive applications box. You can put a high power (that’s relative these days 84 watt) chip in there and blaze along at 3.5GHz or if you overclock you can get to I call this one the Q-ship because fitted with a 600 1000 watt SFX or ATX power supply and a nVidia card with two processors on one, so it can drive just about anything or even use the double height 5.25 drive to put in a 3-drive so you can make it into a nice file server as well with 18TB storage and RAID-1 (run ZFS for that!).
- Haswell Tower for ultimate gamer or a/v editing. This build uses a mini tower mainly for multiple video cards (2x is the sweet spot, but 3x still works) or for expanding your drive arrays. With these 5-drives in a 3-height 5.25 plus lots of internal bays, you can build a truly massive server but note that for really big server, you probably want to move to the reliable rack.
- Haswell Rack for the big server. Well there are lots of questions about reliability, but if your data is really mission critical, then you are pretty on your way to using Xeon V3 and SAS drives. This build gives you 24-bay SAS with a Xeon with up to
So to finish the build list, here is one revised build (the NUC) and two new ones, the Haswell Vesa and the Haswell Cube:
The Zotac fills this bill well, it’s a Haswell 1.5GHz 2 core/4 -thread drawing about 20 watts with the only update being getting the Samsung 850 Pro rather than the Sandisk Extreme Pro. The main limitation is 8GB of SO-DIMM memory, so the search goes on for a similar machine with 2x8GB machines and m.SATA support.
Here are some choices well rated choices on Amazon and Tom’s Hardware:
- Intel NUC D54250WYK. i5-4250U at 1.3 GHz for $350. It is a 2-core/4-thread machine with 1.3GHz/2.6 Turbo boost. It has a lower clock rate but in benchmakrs is faster than either Gigabyte unit which is pretty surprising. It must use m.sata as there is no room for a 2.5” SATA drive. But it uses the more powerful HD 5000 graphics core. The WYK1 model is slightly taller and can fit a 2.5” drive.
- Gigabyte Brix i7-4500U. i7-4500U with 2 core/4 threads despite the Core i7 name, this is 1.8GHz in Haswell-U to 3.0 Ghz Turboboost ($480 at Amazon)
- Gigabyte Brix i5-4200U at 1.6Ghz at 15 watts and 2.6 Turboboost for single core
A decoder ring for Mobile processors
Then they have a series of mobile chips (which is what these NUCs are using) that go from 11-65 watts. These use a different socket system and typically you buy so you buy them preinstalled, but you need to use Wikipedia to really figure out what all those number mean. The good news is that unlike the desktop, they don’t use brand names, the chips are just a four digit code and a suffix. The nice thing is that like desktop, the higher the number the better usually, but here’s the decoder ring:
- First digit is generation. 4 is Haswell, 3 for Pentium and 2 for Celeron.
- Next digit is processor type so for Haswell we have:
- 9, 8, 7 are Core i7. 4 cores/8 thread drawing 65W so as much as a desktop! but incredibly fast at 2.8-3.1 GHz base
- 6 is branded Core i7 but are 2 processor/4 threads, so more like a super Core i5
- 2, 3, 4 and of course 5 are Core i5 with 2 processors/4 threads
- 1 and 0 are Core i3 (isn’t that confusing) and are really slows 2 processor/ 4 thread
- Q – quad-core
- U – ultra-low power (BGA1168 packaging)
- X – “extreme”
- Y – extreme low-power (BGA1168 packaging). These are really interesting processors drawing 11 watts.
- E / H – BGA1364 packaging
The nice thing about these builds is that most of the stuff is already done, you only need to fill out a few pieces:
- Memory. These things are using notebook memory so you want to get 2x8GB of sticks. Since you can’t overlock the DDR3-1600 variant is fine. Look at Newegg and wait for sales but please pick something that is at least 4.5 stars. We got G.Skill for $60 a stick and that’s a great price just last week but sales are quick
SSD. This depends quite a bit upon your use case, but in general, I like to get 2x the disk that I think I need. Right now for normal desktop use that’s a 256GB drive and if I’m a power use I’d recommend a 512GB. The hands down performance leader seems to be the Samsung Evo 850 Pro ($350 street which is to me quite incredibly cheap if you think about it. It is ultra fast but expensive. If you are on a budget then the Corsair MX100 seems to get the vote ($100 for 128GB is quite amazing on Newegg or Amazon). Again check the ratings as some of these are really unreliable
Haswell Vesa Fanless
If you want to move up and stay passively cooled, then the Makeuseof also has a great overview of these smaller systems that use real Haswell desktop processors with the Ts at 35watts and 2+GHz while the S is 65 watts and run at 3+GHz. The tradeoffs are in size and noise. Parts up to 45 watts can be passively cooled and thus with a special motherboard can be tiny. The S part needs a fan so is larger but can typically use a standard mini-ITX board. So if want fanless then you can pick:
- HD Plex HD1.s. A favorite of Makeuseof.com this handles mini-ITX
Akasa Ruler. Even smaller, this needs a thin mini-ITX motherboard
These are absolutely tiny power supplies that plug into the ATX power connector on the motherboard and are fanless. They support 60-150 watts so work well for these small chassis
Haswell Vesa with Fan
Next up from the NUC is going to a quiet fan. These fans are much quieter and because Haswell isn’t drawing much power and mini-itx.com has a great list so you can see what is available.
The main thing here is the choice of Haswell processor which as usual from Intel is very confusing as they have so many different lines.
A Quick Aside on the Intel processor naming...
Before we can begin, we had to understand the Intel chip naming as we will be doing quite a lot of selection of various parts. They have zillions of them and the naming isn’t very clear. The naming of Intel processors is first focuses on the their threading. Note that these are brand names only, the cool kids just use the four digits and model:
- Core i7 Extreme: 8 cores/16 threads or 6 cores/12 threads
- Core i7: Means multithreading, so typically 4 cores, 8 thread
- Core i5: Normally 4 cores/4 threads
- Core i3: Normally 2 cores/4 threads, no turboboost
- Pentium and Celeron: 2 cores/2 threads, no turboboost
Then for the Core family, there is the model number which is typically four digits plus a suffix which encodes everything about the processor and they are arranged so that the higher the number, the better the processor:
- Processor Generation. First digit. Typically a 4 indicating the 4th generation of (Haswell=4, Ivy Bridge=3, Sandy Bridge=2, etc.),althoughtheCorei7Extremeis called 5th generation even though it is really not so it is a 5,butIguesssomeoneatinteldecidethatthe5970Xsoundsbetterthanthe4970X 🙂
- 5. This seems to be just branding, it is still Haswell
- 4. The 4th generation Haswell
- 3. Ivy Bridge, these are still around, but you should get Haswell
- 2. Sandy Bridge. Even older 2nd generation
- G3. Pentium. I realize that G isn’t a digit, but Intel overloads this to mean the older chips.
- G1. Celeron
- Family. Second digit. This encode the number of cores and threads and roughly how fast the processor is, so combing the processor and
- 9: Core i7 Extreme
- 7: Core i7 (get it? 🙂
- 6: high end Core i5
- 5: mid range Core i5 (get it? 🙂
- 4: low end Core i5
- 3: Core i3 (get it? 🙂 and these don’t have turbo boosting
- Model. The last two digits. This the model number, so the higher the number the better, so a 4470 is faster than a 4460. They don’t correspond to clock speed and you have to be careful, there are different Haswell generations, the latest so you have to use Wikipedia to figure out what which is original Haswell and which one is the newer Devils Canyon refresh.. So for instance the 4470 is an “old” chip shipped in 2013 while the “4460” is a new one shipped in 2014.
- Suffix. Then there is an all important suffix that tells you if it is gamer chip (unlockedmultiplierforoverlocking) or if it is a reduced power model:
- No suffix means locked multiplier and typically 84-88 watts
- K means unlocked for gamers and overclocKing up to 65x multipler
- X means ultra unlocked so that there is no multiplier and is only right now on the i7 Core Extreme (59xx variants).
- S means it it draws 65 watts (4460 is 3.2GHz 85 watts, but the 4460S is 2.9GHz). But they both turboboost to 3.4GHz, so you are not giving up too much
- T means 35-45 watt so good for ultra small machines but they run much slower (for example the 4460R is 1.9GHz/2.9Ghz boost part)
- R you won’t see much these are graphics parts with Iris and a different socket arrangement
Back to Selecting the Enclosure
Given this the main thing to decide is how big a processor you want in terms of power (and noise) and then find a case that can provide enough. The good thing is that with most current designs, the motherboard, SSDs and memory don’t require much power, so it is pretty much a function of picking the normal part (85 Watts), S (65 watts) or T (35-45 watts).
In looking at mini-itx.com,
* ASRock VisionX 420D-8G1T88. Despite the amazingly sexy product name 🙂 it is a fast system mainly because it includes a dedicated GPU unlike the others. For i5-4200M so it’s not as low power 2.5Ghz to 3.1Ghz turboboost and Radeon HD 8850 graphics which is 4x faster than the built-in Intel graphics. As a result quite bit more expensive at $800 barebones. It has a fan for the graphics card.
Taking the old Rich Tong rule that $200 is about right for Intel, that leads you to the Devils Canyon 4590T ($192) at 2/3GHz or 4670T ($213) at 2.5/3.5GHz with boost if you can get it on sale.
- Antec ISK 110. This is a pretty typical case. 90 watt external supply. Vesa enclosure. It has two 2.5” slots for SSDs as well.