Help me design my perfect computer workstation setup!
June 9, 2009 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Help me design a computer workstation setup for home that incorporates a 30" screen, a Linux compatible video card, a possibly height adjustable desk, and a silent or very quiet desktop machine.

For my job, I can work at home, and I'm about to start a project which will likely involve a lot of programming there. Until now, I've gotten by with an 8 year old desktop machine with a relatively small screen. It seems like it's time to upgrade, and I've got a fairly reasonable budget to do it, but I can't figure out how the components fit together or what the best way to do what I want is.

Here's what I'm looking to do:
  1. I would like to have a 30 inch LCD. I've been eyeing something like the Dell 2007wfp or the Samsung 305T, but I'm not sure whether it matters what I choose. I don't need a high refresh rate for gaming or anything, and I'm not particularly concerned about color reproduction accuracy or anything like that.
  2. I would like to have a video card that can drive the 30 inch (I think this means it needs to have dual link DVI, but are there also other requirements, like some amount of video RAM?). It doesn't need to be particularly high powered, though it does need to be Linux compatible, and specifically I would like it to work with Ubuntu. (Ideally, the video card should be from some vendor that has had consistently good support in the past.)
  3. I would like to have the machine be very quiet, since it is probably going to go in my living room, and I don't want it to be a huge distraction when I'm doing other things. I seem oddly attuned to fan noise, for some reason. This seems like it might affect both the desktop and the video card choice. Some fairly average specifications (maybe 4 gigs of RAM, a few cores) would be fine so long as it is quiet, drives the screen, and the hardware has Linux support.
  4. I also need a height adjustable desk for the machine and screen, ideally one that I can adjust easily for standing or sitting (inspired by this, but I'm worried those specific ones are way outside of my budget).
I'm in the US, and my budget for all of this is maybe three thousand dollars (do let me know if any particular requirement seems like it will make things much more expensive). I'm happy to build it myself or use some generic option, so long as it vaguely fits these requirements. A previous askme looked at a similar question, but in a much different price range. That thread also suggested the Ars Technica System Guide, but that guide seems to be orthogonal to the question of quiet and the monitor size that can be driven.

Suggestions on any or all of these components would be great!
posted by pbh to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I use an apple 30" cinema display (apple and dell are really just repackaged samsungs).
I think it is not ideal for programming. The screen is wider than you need for an IDE, but not wide enough for (say) an IDE and a browser. Also, the pixels are very small so I find I need to turn up the font sizes so I can read it.
Sure its nice to have, but if you are on a budget its not worth it.
I think that 2 smaller monitors is probably better, one screen for the IDE and one for a Browser. Probably cheaper this way too; you won't need a high end video card which will have a loud fan of its own either.
posted by Osmanthus at 8:31 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Lifehacker has a series of articles about home offices and the various technical specifications that went into their hardware. I seem to recall that at least one of them was about a programmer.
posted by dfriedman at 8:43 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: I'm a quiet-PC nut, so I can help with that part.

I am using an Antec Solo case (the one recommended in Ars' "Hot Rod" setup), and it is outstanding. It's a heavy steel case with sound-damping panels and vibration-absorbing elastic bands for your hard drive(s). If you find several hundred extra dollars in your budget, you could always go with something like this for ultimate quietude, but for the price, the Solo is as good as it gets.

As for CPUs, generally speaking dual-core is cooler than multi-core, and 45nm is cooler than 65nm. If you want more than two cores, Intel recently released a few of their Core 2 Quad line in an "S-series" that are designed to run cooler than others without losing performance, but they come with a fairly hefty price premium.

Whatever CPU you choose, you'll want to replace the stock heatsink/fan. I'm using this one passive (without a fan attached), and it's keeping my Phenom II down to 34C at idle / 46C at load with just the 120mm exhaust fan attached to the rear of the case.

Since you won't be doing serious gaming, you'll definitely want a passively-cooled video card like this one. Another option is to do what I've done by installing one of these on a compatible video card in place of the stock heatspreader/fan (thereby voiding your warranty).

I'm using a 450w Antec PSU that came with my last case, and it's fairly quiet, but your best bet for power supplies is to read these recommendations. Likewise, SPCR provides good suggestions for case fans, but if you don't want to wade through all of the info I will happily recommend the Nexus. Be sure to get a four-pin (PWM) fan if your motherboard supports it.

This setup has a total of only two fans (exhaust fan in the rear of the case and the fan inside the PSU), and from where it sits in my quiet home office--below my desk about two feet from my knee--I can barely hear it while using a browser, email client, word processor and so forth. Playing a game or watching a high-def video will raise the temps and cause the fans to spin faster, of course.

Naturally there are lots of other options, particularly if you're not quite as budget-constrained as I was with this setup. In case you haven't guessed from all the links, Silent PC Review is the best resource for further research on quiet computing.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 9:41 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

One thing you might worry about is managing the screen area and getting used to the size of the display. Generally you don't want to run a browser fullscreen'd at that size: paragraphs fit on a single line and some websites still hardcode for 1024x768.

Two screens forms nice buckets to place full-sized windows in, but it does mean you won't be able to use the whole "screen" for video satisfactorily. If that's a concern, you might want to check out tiling window managers and see what they offer in layouts.
posted by pwnguin at 11:31 PM on June 9, 2009

For programming, you'll want a screen that can be turned vertical. I don't know of any 30" screens that can do this (although maybe they all can and I just don't know it), but my 24" HP monitor works beautifully and can be easily flipped from horizontal to vertical.

A 30" screen will add $400-600 to your cost (over a 24") -- something to keep in mind if you find that the desk you want is pricey.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:25 PM on June 10, 2009

Response by poster: Maybe I should ask this question as a series of questions (best desk, best monitor setup, best quiet desktop), rather than a single bulk question.

I like [user was fined for this post]'s answer a lot re: the quiet-pc side of things, though I wonder if there's a general tutorial about how to get started (as opposed to just reviews). I don't really want to spend ages engineering my computer to perfection, just have it be quiet and not overheat! There seem to be lots of components (HDD silencer box thingies, case insulation, heat sinks for all sorts of components, slow moving fans, cases of different construction) and it seems really hard to tell which are helpful, which work, and which are just to show off (e.g., look, my whole case is a heat sink). I'm also curious if the vendors for quiet PCs are any good, or whether they're overpriced (e.g., end PC noise for example).

One thing I also liked a lot about that post was that it had a lot of specific components so I could get an idea of options and prices (though, overall prices would also help too!).

I think I'm pretty set on the 30" screen, though maybe I shouldn't be. I've had dual monitor setups in the past (though, with smaller screens), and I find the 30" much easier to do a variety of tasks on. This preference might be impacted by my use of Linux, where I think it's a little harder to pull off tricks like having two vertical screens, or one vertical one horizontal. (Though, I'm sure it's possible...)

I liked the lifehacker link regarding home office setups, though it all seems pretty anecdotal. Does everyone just get an IKEA desk of some sort?
posted by pbh at 3:35 PM on June 10, 2009

Best answer: Sorry--I do tend to geek out over this particular subject, and I see that I threw out too much information all at once.

To make it as simple as possible, you will get at least 90% of your potential sound-reduction gains by choosing:

- a case with sound-damping properties ($80 and up)
- an aftermarket CPU heatspreader that is cooled by a 120mm fan ($30-$50)
- a passively-cooled video card ($90 and up for dual-DVI)
- a power supply that is cooled by a 120mm fan ($50 and up)

As long as you set up a PC with any combination that includes these four things, you will have a machine that is remarkably quiet compared with the average prefab PC. (You also need a passively cooled motherboard, but it's rare to see a MB with fans these days so it's kind of a given.) You'll get steeply diminishing returns from anything you do beyond that point.

One caveat: if the case you end up choosing comes with a noisy exhaust fan, you'll need to replace it, but I wouldn't worry about that until it happens. The fans that come with Antec cases are very quiet on their Low setting, which will move enough air when aided by the CPU fan.

I don't know any really great tutorials for quiet PC building. There's this one, which does a fair job of explaining where noise occurs and how to counter it, but it is (much like my post above) very focused on specific stuff that the author happens to like.

I've never used one of the pre-assembled PCs that are marketed as quiet, but my impression is that you'd be paying quite a bit extra for something that you can do yourself as long as you're comfortable with the general process of assembling a PC.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:54 AM on June 11, 2009

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