How to build a workstation PC

Shopping list

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD5 - £157.19
Processor: AMD Phenom X6 1090T Black Ed - £131.99
Graphics: AMD FirePro V5800 1GB - £300.06
RAM: 16GB G.Skill RipJawsX 4 x 4 GB - £143.98
SSD: OCZ Vertex III 240GB - £394.99
HDD: Seagate Barracuda XT SATA III 2TB - £122.63
PSU: Corsair HX series modular 750W - £111.30
Chassis: Corsair Obsidian series 700D - £158.87
Cooler: Corsair A70 air cooler - £32.36
Optical drive: LG 10x Blu-ray writer - £64.99
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM - £67.28
USB Drive: Transcend Jetflash 700 32GB - £46.39
Sound card: Digidesign MBox 2 Mini & Pro Tools 9 - £319.00

Total: £2173.66

Workstation

The term 'workstation' doesn't conjure up exciting visuals. It's a place to do work after all, so perhaps the term 'ultimate workstation' might read like 'performance stapler' or 'most powerful biro ever' to some.

The workstation lives in the shadow of gaming rigs, netbooks and tablets, but as our relationship with tech changes, so do our expectations from our gear. YouTube has turned us all into amateur movie directors, recording artists, video bloggers, stop-motion film makers and judging by any comments section: hate-filled morons.

Suddenly we're putting heavy duty video-encoding and editing tasks on our systems. Suddenly we want studio-quality audio recordings from our bedroom. We want to mod our favourite games, manipulate 3D models, touch up photos and remix songs. And unless you love staring at loading bars that means you'll need a PC that can handle all these demanding tasks. That is a workstation.

We want it all...

Whether you're building a machine for your actual occupation or serious about your particular digital hobby, there's a tangible, quantitative reward for spending big on a performance workstation. And here, we reckon, is where to spend it.

First, a six-core CPU is really useful for any multi-threaded application. Genuine cores will always trump threads, and AMD's Phenom X6 1090T Black Edition offers an economical means of getting those cores.

The pricier 1100T runs quicker but shares the same 9MB cache, which means overclocking the 1090T up to 4GHz gives you all that performance for less - that's why we chose the Gigabyte board. Not only does it get great performance out of the CPU through its 333 acceleration tech, it can also handle hefty overclocks.

…And we want it now

We've waxed lyrical about G.Skill's RipJawsX memory plenty in PC Format, but suffice to say 16GB of the stuff is going to have a massive impact on loading audio, video and images in powerful apps.

There's plenty of room to store those files on OCZ's blindingly quick Vertex III SSD. Its 240 GB is enough for Windows, your key applications and any current projects you're working on. For anything else, the ample 2TB hard drive should suffice.

Here's where things get niche. If audio is your thing, plump for the MBox 2 mini and Pro Tools 9. It's a great low latency sound card and you can't run Pro Tools without it. Good I/O options too.

If you're into 3D/image/video editing, opt for the FirePro V5800 from AMD. It's a well-endowed workstation GPU with 800 stream processors, DX11, OpenCL and OpenGL 4.1 support. What more could you possibly want?

How about a nippy USB drive to transfer your work between devices? Check. Blu-ray writer to export hard copies? Check. Granted, the price tag's formidable, but the machine you get in return is even more so.

The work horse

Increase your productivity and badass quota all at once

DigiDesign MBox 2 Mini

If you want professional quality audio recordings, look no further than this soundcard. Look for good bundle deals with Pro Tools 9 or LE. The two are tied together at a firmware level, and PT is arguably the best digital audio interface out there.

As well as zero latency, high fidelity recording, the MBox 2 has two simultaneous analogue inputs and outputs for XLR or -inch jack connections. You can plug in a guitar or mic through the front direct input (DI) connection for a quick setup. If sound's not your thing opt for a £20 SoundBlaster Audigy.

AMD FirePro V5800 1GB

If you're serious about visuals, this is the workstation GPU for you. Two DisplayPort and one DVI outputs allow you to connect up to three 30-inch screens (that's 12.3 million pixels) through Eyefinity.

It has 800 stream processors and the 1GB GDDR5 memory will do the job when it comes to parallel processing and buffering. If you're more about audio, you can opt to go sans GPU entirely, or find a happy medium with a cheap gaming card.

Corsair HX Series Modular 750W

As former PCF Art Ed Matt Orton pointed out: "buying a power supply is like buying toilet paper. You've got to do it." When you don't have multi-GPU setups in mind, how much is there to take into account?

Well for a workstation as magnificent as this, it needs to be extremely power efficient and have enough juice to power many peripherals. Corsair's 750W HX series ticks both boxes, boasting 90 per cent efficiency, a cable-saving modular design and a truckload of power. That's important when all your USB ports are occupied.

HP DreamColor LP2480ZX

Consumer-grade TFT monitors display about 16.7 million colours. This 24-inch professional screen designed by HP and Dreamworks takes a giant multicoloured dump over that spec, itself sporting more than 1 billion.

Okay, it costs £1,833, but this is the Holy Grail for visual designers of any kind, supporting industry standard colour-depth consumer screens can't get close to. If your screen requirements aren't quite so high, check out Dell's P2411H for just under £250.