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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

PC Systems: What Do You Get For Your Money?

PC Musician

Technique : PC Musician

Just what can you expect in a PC system costing £600? Or £1500-plus? We round up the likely specs and the possible pitfalls.

Martin Walker

At the moment there seem to be loads of musicians finally discarding their old multitrack cassette and Minidisc recorders in favour of a computer-based solution. If you're one of these people, you may already be fairly computer literate, and might even be familiar with sequencing software, from Atari ST days, for example. However, nothing quite prepares you for entry into today's world of PCs. There are simply so many new ideas to take on board. And for those wanting to buy a new PC, it can be difficult to know where to start, how much to spend, and who to trust. Some incredibly cheap systems are on offer from high-street shops and mail-order empires, but there's nothing more frustrating than buying a PC and then finding you've got a turkey. On the other hand there's no point in spending a lot more than you need to.

So this month I'm going to present some sample PC specifications at four different price points, and explain what you're likely to get for your money. By the end of this feature you should have a better idea of where most of your cash goes, and what to avoid.

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Ground Rules

It's easy to become confused about what's included and what's not with a new computer, and this can make it more difficult to compare the price of one system with another. Many of the latest PC system prices may be quoted with or without monitors, keyboards, and mice, on the grounds that so many of us already have suitable ones to hand from a previous PC, and are only interested in buying a newer and faster model.

PC musician Inta.s

Whichever PC system you buy for making music, partnering it with options such as a flatscreen monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse will make your life easier.

When it comes to specialist music retailers, system prices also may or may not include a particular soundcard, as (once again) you may have one already, or one may be supplied with music software. Since these options can all make a huge difference to the overall price of the PC, in this feature I'll be comparing prices of the basic PC system case without a monitor, soundcard, or music software.

Another relevant issue in the UK is VAT, which increases prices by 17.5 percent. Most mainstream PC magazines quote review prices without VAT (although they may have the inclusive price in brackets), saying that many of their readers are business people who can reclaim the tax. SOS always quotes retail prices inclusive of any taxes, as the majority of musicians can't do this.

However, wherever in the world you live, it's not always clear on web sites whether or not local tax is already included in the quoted prices. Sometimes you only find out when attempting to make an on-line purchase, when you suddenly find that your carefully chosen and competitively priced PC is no longer in the running because it has become to expensive. If only all web sites would provide prices including and excluding tax, so that you know where you are from the start.

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Budget Systems Up To £499

While there are occasional bargains to be had, particularly when models have just been superseded and the old ones are being 'sold off', in general you should view any PC bargain as suspicious. Indeed, most of what I have to say about very cheap PCs amounts to an extended warning!

Some suppliers do have what they call 'Bare Bones' systems, consisting of a quality case and PSU, motherboard with RAM installed, graphics card, and some sort of optical drive. These are offered at very cheap prices (typically around the £399 mark), but you then choose a suitable CPU, hard drive, monitor, and operating system to partner them, bringing the overall price back up to a more realistic figure. However, in the case of a complete PC system for this kind of price, be careful: while there are ways to bring the final cost down to £499, virtually all of them will either degrade its performance, make it less reliable, or reduce its long-term usefulness to the musician. This isn't to say that such a system won't be suitable for someone wanting to obtain cheap Internet access, send emails and run office software, but for the musician (and the gamer, for that matter) who will want to push processing and real-time performance to the max, cheap rarely equates with cheerful.

To begin with the CPU, this is the most expensive component of most PCs. A bargain PC may thus be fitted with an entry-level Intel Celeron or AMD Duron processor, both of which provide significantly worse performance with most music applications than the higher-priced Pentium and Athlon ranges. You may also find that there is only 256MB of RAM, which is a bare minimum for a successful music PC.

Cheap PCs will almost certainly require upgrading fairly quickly to provide satisfactory performance with music software, and then you may find more fundamental limitations that prevent upgrading or make it difficult. Cases may be of non-standard sizes or in innovative shapes, making it impossible to upgrade the motherboard in the future, and with some of the compact cases expansion potential might be minimal. You could find very few PCI expansion slots, USB ports, and memory slots, and even in some cases have to upgrade with expensive proprietary rather than standard branded memory (Compaq have, for instance, been known to fit their own unique RAM sticks in some of their systems).

Even if you can subsequently upgrade to a faster processor and have enough room to fit an extra hard drive, there may be no provision to fit a case fan for additional cooling. Cheap systems also tend to fit the absolute minimum cooling components that they can get away with, so even as supplied the existing processor may be already running fairly hot, while cooling fans may be noisy.

Some larger OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) of PCs also produce their own motherboards, which can suffer from compatibility problems with certain expansion cards, may have on-board graphics chips that degrade performance by sharing the system RAM but can't be upgraded to a standard AGP graphics card with its own dedicated graphics RAM, and may come with an on-board soundchip that can't be disabled in the BIOS after you've replaced it with a good-quality soundcard. Moreover, the custom BIOS is notoriously limited in such machines, so if you need to disable other system options to achieve reliable performance with music software, you may find it impossible to do so.

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AMD Versus Intel

PC Musician AMD

PC musician pentium 4

When you're buying a complete PC system, the issue of which manufacturer's processor family to choose is not as important as you might think in the overall scheme of things. Whether you go for an AMD or Intel-based processor and compatible motherboard, the bulk of each system remains the same, and the overall cost will be fairly similar. Compatibility problems with a few early Athlon chipsets, such as the AMD 750 and Via KX133, are long gone, as are the cooling problems with Athlon processors that resulted in musicians having to resign themselves to noisier cooling fans. (Compatibility problems aren't unique to AMD, either — for instance, USB problems were eventually found with Intel's otherwise very stable and reliable 440BX chipset on motherboards with just two USB ports.)

For some time AMD Athlon-based PCs showed significant performance benefits with music applications, until Intel's 800MHz FSB Pentium 4 range, equipped with HyperThreading, appeared. Now that software is beginning to be optimised for this, the results seem to be evening up again. According to Steinberg's own results with Cubase SX 2.0, PCs based on AMD Athlon XP 3200+ and Intel 3.2GHz Pentium 4 HT processors can provide very similar performance, although in other tests the Intel offering has been measured at anything up to 15 percent faster.

Such considerations aside, the intense competition between Intel and AMD has benefited all PC users, because it constantly drives prices down. Recent aggressive price-cutting by both AMD and Intel has blurred the Athlon price advantage (as I write, this Intel have just lopped a third off the price of their currently most popular 3GHz P4 model, and pricing might have changed once again by the time you read this). Overall, this seems to suggest that AMD and Intel systems are becoming more evenly priced and offering more even performance.

So, as pricing and performance begin to draw closer together, it's worth revisiting other processor-related issues. The fact remains that some software and hardware developers still don't test with AMD systems before releasing products. So while you're unlikely to run into compatibility problems, it's still true that any soundcard you buy will have been thoroughly tested with a range of Intel-based PCs, but not necessarily with a range of AMD ones. Moreover, some music software is still developed solely on Intel PCs, although I understand AMD are keen to work with such developers to make sure there won't be any performance issues on AMD-based PCs.

While researching this feature I canvassed opinion from specialist music retailers on the 'AMD question', and it seems that most have tested out AMD systems with good results. A couple are actually selling them alongside Intel systems (Dawson's Music and Red Submarine). However, they say that you still can't guarantee an AMD system will work with every soundcard, since even they can't get this information from the soundcard manufacturers.

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Some Disadvantages Of Cheap Components

Most specialist music retailers fit well-known makes and models of motherboard that typically retail at £80 or more, while £499 PCs may use a motherboard that only costs £20 — and you can guess which one offers better and more reliable performance, more expansion potential and a wider range of ports. Even if you don't have problems with the motherboard, you may find it impossible to get hold of technical information such as Interrupt tables to help you find the most appropriate slot to install your soundcard in, so that it doesn't interfere with other motherboard components.

Another cost-cutting area is the PSU. Cheap power supplies are notorious for blowing up, as well as being noisy, and may damage the motherboard and CPU if they fail. While having just sufficient capacity to power the PC as originally supplied, they may also be unable to cope if you add another hard drive and soundcard. Most PCs come with power supplies with at least a 250W capacity, but I've come across at least one PC fitted with a 100W model.

You may well find cheap, unbranded RAM (which can cause intermittent crashing problems that are difficult to trace) installed in an ultra-budget PC, as well as anonymous 'own brand' optical drives of probably lacklustre performance. You might also find a software-based modem. These not only put a strain on the CPU but are also notorious for dropping Internet connections and being generally unreliable. Software-based network cards are a possibility too: these may present compatibility problems when you try to connect them to another computer.

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Lack Of Software And Support

Turning to the software side of our ultra-budget PC, 'recovery' CDs may be supplied instead of an official Windows CD-ROM (making it more difficult to upgrade), and technical support may be limited to hardware problems arising from the system as originally supplied, not covering software issues or any problems you may run into after fitting expansion cards or other updates. Remembering that proprietary parts with compatibility problems may be fitted, this may leave you with issues that can't be resolved at all.

Most of you will have noticed the number of reader complaints in mainstream PC magazines related to PCs that are partly or completely DOA (Dead On Arrival). Although a few of these can be blamed on rough handling by couriers, those with missing soundcards, CD-ROM drives, and peripherals that turn out never to have been connected internally point to another way to shave down system prices — a singular lack of testing.

Each particular make and model number of PC may have the contents of its hard drive imaged in bulk away from the final system, and then plugged in afterwards, while hardware testing may simply involve seeing if the power LED comes on when the power is applied, or may not even be done at all. After all, paying technical staff to carry out thorough bench testing is an expensive exercise. It's cheaper not to test them and accept a certain proportion of returns.

After this catalogue of warnings about very cheap PCs, I must mention one honourable exception from Digital Village that I came across during my research. Their PC LE system still has the same Intel 865PE-L chipset and motherboard of some of their more expensive models, stand-alone AGP rather than integrated graphics, a 7200rpm 80Gb hard drive, and 512Mb of DDR400 RAM, all for just £499. The catch is that it features a 2.4GHz Celeron processor, but despite the fact that this won't let you run as many plug-ins and soft synths as an Athlon or P4, the system is otherwise uncompromised, offering a cheap starter package that can still be upgraded to a 3GHz P4 processor later on if required.

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Entry Level £600-£700

At this price-point we arrive at what I'd call the real entry-level PC for musicians. Fitted with a well-known make and model of motherboard from the likes of Abit, Asus, or Intel, branded rather than generic RAM, and a well-known model of graphics card, a setup costing £600-700 should provide reliable and fairly quiet performance, as well as giving plenty of opportunity for further expansion if and when your requirements grow.

PC musician DigitalVillage.s

This Suntek case is used in a lot of entry-level music PCs because its acrylic sides muffle the noise from the hard drives and CPU fan without requiring the use of more expensive quiet components.

A typical spec at the £600 price-point is an AMD Athlon XP 2400+ or XP 2600+ with 266MHz FSB (Front Side Buss), or a 2.4GHz or 2.66GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor running an 533MHz FSB, along with 512MB of DDR266 (PC2100) RAM. Jumping to £700 generally results in you getting a motherboard and P4C processor that support Intel's faster 800MHz FSB, and 512MB of the faster DDR400 (PC3200) RAM, or a faster Athlon processor such as as an XP 2800+. For such a small price jump I'd personally go for the faster options, since if you do you're likely to manage higher polyphony with soft synths and be able to run more plug-ins for the same clock speed.

The AGP graphics card should come from a manufacturer such as ATI, Matrox or nVidia, and have 64MB or 128MB of on-board RAM. Music applications still don't use fancy 3D graphics, so 64MB will be quite enough, and you really don't want the fastest graphics card available: after all, you won't be taking advantage of its speed, and a fast card would probably have a noisy cooling fan on it.

Nearly all systems at this price-point also feature an 80GB 7200rpm hard drive (as it's proving increasingly difficult for system builders to source smaller ones), a 52-speed CD-ROM drive, and Windows XP Home. The hard drives used in decent entry-level music PCs not only have to be speedy, reliable and capacious, but also acoustically quiet. The most popular make must be Seagate. Their various Barracuda ranges have graced the majority of music PCs over the last few years.

These fairly fixed requirements aside, there's still a wide variety of system variations available, depending on how the money has been split between the various components. The most common entry-level case used is the budget Suntek Midi Tower, easily recognisable from its blue or silver colour options, with its acrylic outer shell damping case vibrations and reducing the transmission of internal noise from the hard drives and CPU fan. Generally, whether you opt for an Intel or an AMD system, you need to add about £100 to cover the cost of an up-market aluminium case from a company such as Lian-Li or Coolermaster, a quiet 300-watt power supply, and a Zalman or Nexus CPU fan, and you can find various specialist music retailers offering such systems for around £700. Some also offer special designs such as the Acousticase, which also incorporates an acoustic foam lining to further attenuate internal sounds. Such components will make your PC noticeably quieter than using an acrylic case alone, and far quieter than a mainstream system in a thin pressed-metal case that may rattle and certainly won't stop the internal sounds of the CPU fan and hard drives reaching the outside world.

Other options that bring the price up slightly include a wireless keyboard and mouse (an extra £30 or so), but these are well worth considering for musician who want to move about in the studio and have remote control of their sequencing software. Most entry-level systems will be supplied with Windows XP Home installed, and I don't think the majority of musicians really need to spend an additional £40 or so to get Windows XP Professional — the only real advantage to the musician is that this supports multiple processors (see later), so if your PC only has one processor it's wasted money.

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Screen Stars

If you're buying a new PC setup and you have a choice of monitors, consider not just going for the cheapest option, which would be a 17-inch CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) models, starting at just over £100. A better choice is a 15-inch TFT (Thin Film Transistor) flatscreen monitor at about £150 more.

These have exactly the same active screen size (CRT models include the part of their tubes invisible underneath the bezel) but still occupy a smaller footprint on your desk, provide a significantly sharper picture (because they have perfect geometry and don't exhibit the slight picture distortions experienced by even the best quality CRT models), and don't distort if you place an unshielded loudspeaker next to them. Best of all, they don't cause electromagnetic interference, so you can play your guitar next to them without picking up hums and buzzes.

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Deluxe £1000

By the time we reach this price-point, most aspects of the PC's performance have been improved. First of all, you're likely to get a faster CPU, which is usually the most expensive single component in any PC, and the one whose clock speed primarily determines how many plug-ins and soft-synth notes can be run simultaneously.

The fastest flagship model in all processor ranges is normally significantly more expensive than the rest, so unless money is no object it pays to look for the 'sweet spot' a few models down in the range, where you get best value for money. As I write this, the current 'sweet spot' for both AMD Athlon XP and Intel P4C ranges seems to be 3GHz, but it might have reached 3.2GHz by the time you read this, since prices seem to be revised every month or two.

If you're interested in a system based on AMD's Athlon XP 3200+, you may also be tempted by their new Athlon 64 3200+, which supports 64-bit operation, but requires a completely different motherboard. Both CPU/motherboard options cost about the same, although the 64-bit systems are generally more expensive because they are partnered with other components that are faster and larger.

PC musician RedSub.s

When you spend more money on a specialist music PC you're likely to get quieter cooling fans (such as the Zalman model shown here), a quieter power supply, and internal acoustic treatment. All aim to stop internal computer noises reaching the outside world and interfering with your microphone recordings.

AMD's 64-bit processor can't yet be run in pure 64-bit mode, because Microsoft's Windows XP 64 operating system isn't yet available to support it, but it can also be run with standard 32-bit software under Windows XP. Despite this current limitation, 64-bit processing is still creating lots of interest among musicians, because floating-point calculations — an important area for plug-in and soft synth performance — will benefit from it. Judging by today's results with music software, both the processors mentioned above will currently offer almost identical performance, but the Athlon 64 should pull ahead in the months to come, as software developers take account of it.

£1000 systems may well offer 1GB or more of RAM instead of 512MB. Only film composers running huge numbers of instruments are likely to need more. Some systems supporting dual-channel RAM will benefit from having two identical memory modules fitted rather than one large one, to achieve a larger memory bandwidth — for instance, I've got twin 512MB DDR400 sticks in my 1GB PC running an Intel P4C processor — but it's safest to confer with your supplier about the options, since these may depend on the motherboard being supplied.

You're likely to be offered SATA (Serial ATA) drives rather than the older PATA (Parallel ATA) models, and these should let you run significantly more simultaneous audio tracks at high sample rates if you need to. Large hard drives, such as 120GB, 160GB, and even 200GB models, are also more likely to be fitted at this price point, for those who work on huge projects. More important is that you're likely to be offered two hard drives rather than one, the first being used for Windows and your applications, and the second for data. (Placing your audio data on a separate drive can have various advantages, most notably that your any system file accesses on the first drive won't affect the performance of the second hard drive while it's recording or playing back audio.)

A dual-head graphics card is likely to be fitted as standard, so you can attach up to two screens instead of one. As you progress, being able to split your sequencing software display into an arrange page on one screen and its mixer (or a software synth or editor) on another makes music creation a lot more pleasurable. ATI's Radeon VE7000 or 9200SE are often suggested as suitable models, as are models from Matrox's Dualhead range. A new option is Matrox's P650 Triplehead model, which, as its name suggests, can support up to three screens. Two could be used to create a wide-screen arrange page while the third displays the mixer or real-time video (ideal for game or film composers).

For musicians, one of the biggest advantages at this price-point is rather more mundane — a range of quiet components for PSU, CPU cooling, and any additional case fans, will be fitted as standard, and you'll have a more up-market selection of cases to choose from, including models from Acousticase, Coolermaster and Lian-Li, plus a range of rackmount options. With the faster processor, more RAM, two or more hard drives and a CD-R/W optical drive that might be part of the computer's spec at this price, bear in mind that you may also require a more powerful PSU (perhaps a 400W model, especially if you want the potential for further expansion at a later date.

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Further Reading

For those new to PCs for music, the jargon buster we printed in SOS February 2004 should define any unfamiliar terms, while the 'Right PC For The Job' feature in SOS June 2003 explains how your CPU, RAM, and hard drive affect the performance of Windows, music applications, audio tracks and plug-ins. You can read the latter feature on-line at www.soundonsound.com.

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High-end £1500+

Just as with the £999 price-point, jumping to £1500 and beyond generally results in yet more of everything, but your choices can become increasingly more specialised.

For example, I've said in these pages before that a single 7200rpm IDE hard drive can manage 48 simultaneous tracks of 24-bit/96kHz, but for those who want to go further, RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) offers higher performance, splitting the load between multiple hard drives. With a couple of today's Serial ATA hard drives set up as a RAID array it's possible to achieve 80 simultaneous tracks of 24-bit/96kHz audio, or to move to the rarefied levels of 192kHz sample rates, although you would really also need world-class converters and studio acoustics to benefit from this.

However, the main reason for a higher system price is a faster processor. Both Intel and AMD have recently brought out special processor models that aim to provide the ultimate performance with games. However, though both are a lot more expensive than the standard models, and do work very well with 3D games, unfortunately they fail to shine when tested with audio applications such as Steinberg's Nuendo, and therefore can't be recommended to musicians.

The P4 Extreme Edition at 3.2GHz has a huge 2MB L3 cache, but provides a negligible performance boost over the standard P4C 3.2GHz model in the tests I've seen, while AMD's Athlon FX51 does provide around eight percent faster performance with audio applications than its XP 3200+ stablemate, but still only equals the performance of an Intel P4C 3GHz processor in the same tests.

PC musician Carillon.s

More expensive PC systems will offer quieter and more exotic case options, such as the Carillon rackmount model shown here, with its precision die-cast aluminium front panel.

For those who still want significantly more processing power in a single box, the answer seems to be a completely different approach — dual processing, using a pair of Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron CPUs with a compatible motherboard. I discussed the benefits of multi-processing way back in SOS February 2001 while talking about Windows 2000, but in essence applications that have been written to run as multiple 'threads' can run these in parallel across several processors (with a compatible operating system such as Windows 2000 or XP Professional).

Multi-processing allows you to run more plug-ins and soft-synth notes, although not twice as many. It also keeps the system feeling responsive to user input, even when it's coming close to the limit of available processing power — unlike single-CPU systems that end up sluggish and may even appear to have crashed under similar conditions. Now that the main PC music applications, such as Cubase and Sonar 3.0, have been optimised to take advantage of dual processors, you may get a 40 to 60 percent improvement over a single processor of the same clock speed. However, a few applications still seem to have problems when running under a dual-processor system (NI's Kontakt is apparently one of them), so if you're thinking of buying such a system you should check carefully with the supplier on the latest compatibility information before taking the plunge.

I know of at least one musician who has put together a dual AMD Opteron system with good results, but only Intel-based systems using dual Xeon processors are currently available from specialist music retailers in the UK. You need very capable PSUs, of 450W or more, in powerful systems such as these, and the increased power dissipation also requires an extra CPU cooling fan, so acoustic noise may become an issue unless some care is taken. Windows XP Professional (or Windows 2000) also becomes mandatory to support the multiple processors.

I've spotted systems with dual 2.8GHz Xeon processors, 1GB of RAM, twin 80GB hard drives and quiet case and cooling components for about £1800. A dual 3.06GHz model with 2GB of RAM, larger twin drives and a CD/DVD optical drive jumps to around the £2300 mark. I'm about to get a dual 3GHz Xeon PC in for review, so watch these pages for my detailed findings on how such a system can benefit the musician.  
Published in SOS May 2004

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