Friday 12 August 2011

Buying a new Computer for Animation

Update 10/2012: Hi all!
Although most of what I wrote below is still accurate, some of the parts will probably be outdated by now, so have a look around before buying some old crap :D

Hi all!

Some weeks ago, I wrote a lengthy post about what is needed in an animation-ready computer. This was not the first time I advised someone on how to build a computer, but this time, I actually based my recommendations on my own Computer (which is fresh and exciting and awesome!), so that I can really say how good it works. And seeing the new term will be starting soon and probably many students are now on the lookout on how to support the economy, I'll just post this here again.

Although I am going to name a few brands, do not take this as "you have got to buy this or you won't be able to animate", but just as an example (in most cases).
Next to my Workstation, I'm using a 2008 Macbook (non-pro) for Maya as well, and apart from some small bugs, this works well enough, too.
This can be used as a guide for buying Notebooks as well, some things might vary of course (like the Power or the Graphics).

First off, if you are not sure if you can build the computer yourself, you probably shouldn't. Although most hardware IT people usually say "oh, applying thermal paste on the processor is easy", I have to say, considering that letting the processor fall too hard on the socket or touching one of the pins with your finger can irrevocably damage the CPU while losing your warranty, you might want to consider letting your hardware supplier do it for you. This way, you can also be pretty sure that everything you're buying will be compatible if you pay them to start the computer before shipping it.
Another alternative is to buy a machine from a big supplier like Dell, HP or Apple, but, while guaranteeing that all parts are tested and are 100% compatible, and offering you a very good support plan, these companies are usually pretty inflexible, more expensive and you probably are "forced" to buy some parts you don't need, like a crappy webcam or something (the stuff they say is "for free").

So, here's my setup:

Intel i7 2600k 3.4 GHz
ASUS evo p8p67 Motherboard
Gainward Geforce GTX 560 Ti Phantom (2GB RAM)
16 GB Kingston Value RAM
750W corsair power supply
a fast 60 GB OCZ SSD Drive for the system
and two normal 1TB SATA drives for the data and the backup
together with enough cooling power (one good CPU cooler and four case fans), one (a bit too) fancy case and nice but inexpensive mouse and keyboard cost me around 1200€, which is about 1050 GBP or 1 700 $. (Being a freelancer I get the VAT back, so it was actually only 950€)
That sounds quite much, but this should be considerably cheaper in England or US since the Euro is rated far too high at the moment.

I shall now explain my choices:

-Scrubbing a complex character takes up lots of computing power, hence the big i7 (and best value/price relationship) Following rumors I heard, you should be careful if you buy an AMD CPU, because like the ATI cards (mentioned below) they're not really production ready for 3D work. At least of the people and studios I know, no one is using AMD processors.

-the ASUS board I chose, because it's said to be compatible for installing MAC OSX on the machine, and I plan to do so, sometime or other, and it supports dual Graphics which I wont use, but you never know... It also supports 16GB RAM (or even more) and has enough plugs for any kind of whatever I'll be wanting to plug into my computer.
But actually I think this is as good as any other board in that mid price range, nothing special and a few very odd (and strangely amusing) bugs.

-The Geforce I took, because it has 2GB RAM, although this is probably way over the top; and is not always available, because NVidia obviously wants to (re-)broaden the gap between gamer- and professional cards.
The 500's series seems to run smoother with Maya than the 400's, and with the newest driver it supports Maya's Viewport 2.0 completely. Unless you don't want to do something very Highend, you should definitively save your money and not buy a Quadro card.
Another thing about Geforce Cards, if you're using Maya 2011 and above, they're officially unsupported by Autodesk, this is probably a political thing so people start buying the overpriced Quadros again. Mine is working without any problems to date (knock on wood), but you need to make sure that you apply the correct setting to the Nvidia panel, lest this will make your Maya act very strangely and crash/freeze often. The most common thing is that you need to set the "threaded optimization" to off. There are other settings to be looked at, but you can find this very often all around the interwebs.
But whatever you are going to buy, remember NEVER to buy an ATI card, they're absolute rubbish and completely useless for OpenGL based professional 3D packages. If this is also the case with DirectX based packages (like 3D Max), I don't really know, maybe someone wants to enlighten me?
I think I need to edit this part on the ATI cards, seeing that Apple is using Radeon's quite a lot, lately. If you're planning to buy a MAC, and are using MacOSX only, the builtin driver for your ATI card should be sufficient to have Maya running smoothly and obviously without trouble. If you're thinking about running Linux on that Mac, you might have some major troubles with the ATI, though.
The other edit is that Autodesk has released some certification on gaming cards again, meaning that you can now check on the Autodesk site if they tested the card you own/plan to buy and how the card fared. :D

-About the RAM: Okay, 16 GB is a bit over the top for animation, I guess 4-8 GB are sufficient for everything you're planning to do. I just had enough money at that time so I though, what the heck?
Here you just have to be extra careful and double check with the board manufacturer if this SPECIFIC RAM you are planning to buy is supported. The one I wanted wasn't. Took me 2 days to figure out... I had good experience with Kingston, DELL is using it as well.
And try to buy big RAM bars so you don't use up all slots and can upgrade more easily later on.

-750W Power seems to be enough for that big Graphics board and 3 HDD. I guess 650 would have been enough, too.

-My biggest coup was using a SSD Drive for the system. Windows7 now boots in about 20 seconds, which is faster than the BIOS with all its settings. You doubleclick a program and its there, instantly (nearly:)) Maya 2012 just took 7 seconds. You just need to back it up frequently because there is no real experience on how long those SSD's run. Looking back on this decision now, you might want to get 80GB rather than 60GB, because the space on my system disk is running pretty low now.

 EDIT: I just recently upgraded my system to a 120GB SSD, that seems enough for now, and bought another 2TB disk for backup reasons. So now, I have two 1TB disks running in a striped array (raid 0) and a 2TB disk for backing up the data, which is in a box beside the computer and only used for backing up. Seems to be a bit faster that way, too.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, that if you're using such a relatively small harddisk against such a big amount of RAM, you could end up with problems because windows will be using up additional 32 GB of disk space for the hidden hiberfil.sys and pagefile.sys system files. DO NOT DELETE THESE FILES!
The pagefile.sys is just a portion of the harddisk reserved by windows to use as additional RAM if the actual RAM space runs out (which is very likely to happen at 16GB RAM :D) so you can set this to a fairly small amount or disabling it altogether. You can find how-to's en masse on the Internet.
The hiberfil.sys is a snapshot of your RAM before you set the computer to hibernate, so if you don't need that you can disable that as well. There are tutorials on how to do that as well on the internet.

Well, that's that. You could tweak here and there and get some cheaper parts to push this below the 1000€ mark (with VAT) but I didn't because I planned on using this machine for the next 3-4 years, so I want this baby to be future ready.

I hope this was informative and at least a bit entertaining for you. If you found anything obviously wrong here, please let me know and I'll review my post asap.

Cheers all!