I recently decided to build a new workstation for daily use, based on the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X processor. This system will replace my existing AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2950X system. In this post, I’ll talk about the thought process behind building an AMD Ryzen 9 3950X system.
I typically build a new “main” workstation system for myself about every two years. I sometimes make component upgrades for the existing current system in between complete new systems.
Going back in history, these have been the primary specs of my main workstation systems:
- 2012: Intel Core i7-3770K in a Z77 motherboard with 32GB of RAM
- 2015: Intel Core i7-6700K in a Z170 motherboard with 64GB of RAM
- 2017: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X in an X399 motherboard with 96GB of RAM
- 2018: Upgraded the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X to a Ryzen Threadripper 2950X
- 2020: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X in an X570 motherboard with 64GB of RAM
When I build a new workstation system and start using it, the old system goes down in the basement lab. I also will have a current dedicated gaming system that gets replaced with a new system about every two years. The old gaming systems also go into the basement lab. I sometimes sell various old systems to friends or donate them to my family.
A modern desktop system needs to have eight basic components. These include:
- Processor (CPU)
- CPU cooler
- Memory (DRAM)
- Graphics card
- Power supply
Depending on what type of system you are building and what components you choose, some of these components may be bundled together. For example, many desktop CPUs include a bundled CPU cooler, which may work well enough for your needs. Some desktop CPUs include integrated graphics (which may be all you need for some types of usage).
Your budget and what type of workload you plan on running will have a major influence on what components you choose. Other factors, such as how much you care about system noise, whether you care about things like RGB lighting, and whether you care about the physical size of the system will also affect your choices.
This is the heart of your system, and it affects almost all of your other component choices. First, you have to decide if you want a mainstream desktop CPU or whether you want/need a high-end desktop (HEDT) CPU. After that, you need to decide whether you want an AMD or Intel CPU. Once you have made those two decisions, then you need to choose the exact CPU that you want.
Mainstream desktop CPUs are less expensive, and sometimes have better single-threaded performance than HEDT CPUs. At the same time, HEDT CPUs will have more cores, and will support more memory and more PCIe lanes for I/O usage.
With the latest mainstream desktop CPUs, you can have up to 16C/32T, up to 128GB of RAM, and up to 24 PCIe 4.0 lanes. These specifications are going to be plenty for most “normal” workloads, whether it is gaming, general purpose usage, or light-to-medium content creation.
If you really need more cores, more memory (and memory channels), and more PCIe capacity than a mainstream desktop CPU will support, you will know it. You also probably won’t be too worried about the extra cost. People who actually make a living by running very intense workloads on their workstation will happily pay extra for more performance that makes them more productive and saves them time. The payback period for that trade-off is usually very short.
AMD vs. Intel
Right now AMD has a large advantage in most of these metrics for both mainstream and desktop CPUs. One remaining exception is single-threaded performance with some SKUs. The fastest Intel desktop CPUs (the Core i9-9900K and Core i9-9900KS) have a slight ST advantage compared to the fastest AMD desktop CPUs. This makes Intel a better choice for low resolution, CPU-bound gaming.
In my case, I decided to get a mainstream desktop AMD CPU. I got the top-end, 7nm Zen 2 AMD Ryzen 9 3950X processor. This will give me better ST and MT CPU performance than my old AMD Threadripper 2950X system. It will also use less power and be less expensive than a 3rd Generation Threadripper system. I will have less memory and I/O capacity though.
Once you have decided on a processor, that will guide your possible motherboard choices. For example, all modern AMD mainstream desktop CPUs will use an AM4 socket. With the AM4 socket, there are several different supported chipsets at different price points and different feature levels. These include the A320, B350, B450, X370, X470, and X570 chipsets.
If you want to use a 3rd Generation Ryzen CPU, you will want a B450, X470, or X570 motherboard. The X570 is the current top-end choice. It will have PCIe 4.0 support and will often have additional high-end features, such as 10GbE. If you don’t care about those features, you can save some money with a B450 or X470 motherboard. With a B450 or X470 motherboard, you might have to flash the BIOS before you can use a 3rd generation Ryzen processor.
If you decide to get an Intel CPU, your motherboard choices will also be restricted by your CPU choice. The current top-end Intel motherboard chipset foe mainstream desktop processors is the Z390.
Motherboard Form Factor
This is also the time to decide on your motherboard form factor. The three main choices are ATX, mATX, and mITX. ATX is the most common and most versatile. It is also the largest size (not including eATX). An ATX size motherboard will require a larger case, but it will have more room for things like additional PCIe slots, and additional M.2 slots. ATX motherboards are also easier to build and maintain, just because they are larger.
Smaller size motherboards like mATX and mITX can use much smaller cases. Their smaller size often means fewer PCIe and memory slots. It also makes them harder to build and harder to keep cool. You also will have fewer model choices with mATX and mITX compared to standard ATX.
In this case, I chose an ASRock X570 Creator ATX motherboard. This is a high-end, pretty expensive X570 motherboard. Some of the key features that help justify that higher cost are built-in 10GbE support, WiFi 6 support, two M.2 slots, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Most modern AMD mainstream desktop CPUs come with a bundled CPU cooler. These are actually pretty decent coolers that are adequate for normal usage. Some modern Intel mainstream desktop CPUs also come with a bundled CPU cooler. Unfortunately, most bundled Intel CPU coolers are not very good, so you should plan on getting an aftermarket CPU cooler.
You can get lower CPU temperatures (which helps performance and longevity) and lower noise with an aftermarket CPU cooler. You can use an air cooler, an all-in-one (AIO) CLC liquid cooler, or a custom loop liquid cooler.
The best air coolers can rival the performance of most liquid coolers, usually for a lower cost. With liquid coolers, you need to think about how large the radiator(s) are and whether they will fit in your case. From a cost and simplicity standpoint, most people will probably be better off with a high-end air cooler. The AMD Ryzen 9 3950X does not come with a bundled CPU cooler.
For my build, I chose a Corsair A500 CPU cooler. When this was first announced at CES 2020, I was intrigued by the design of the cooler with sliding fans that would accommodate taller memory modules. As it turns out, this cooler has some performance and noise issues that show up in competitive CPU cooler benchmarks. I will probably end up replacing this cooler with something better.
Depending on your workload, you will need or want different amounts of DRAM memory. Personally, I would not build a new system with less than 16GB of RAM, even for a gaming system. For other usage, I would rather have 32GB or more memory. Memory is currently very affordable, so it is easier to justify a decent amount of memory.
With modern mainstream desktop processors, you have a dual-channel memory controller, with most motherboards having four memory slots. You want your memory to be in dual-channel mode, which requires either two or four memory DIMMs. In some cases, you will get higher memory bandwidth when you have one DIMM per channel, which means two DIMMs populated across your four memory slots. It also makes a big difference which two slots are populated.
Memory speed and latency also matters, especially for modern AMD processors. The sweet spot for Zen 2 processors is DDR4-3600 memory with CL16 or lower latency. I purchased two matched G.Skill 32GB DDR4-3600 CL16 Ripjaws V kits, so I have 64GB of memory. If I want, I could replace this with 32GB DIMMs and go up to 128GB of RAM in this system.
Most modern Intel mainstream desktop processors have pretty decent integrated graphics that are adequate for normal office usage and even very light gaming at low resolution. This may let you skip the expense and power usage of a discrete graphics card. If the processor model number has a “F” suffix, that means it does not have integrated graphics.
Most modern AMD mainstream desktop processors (except for the ones that have a G suffix) do not have integrated graphics. Unless you are budget constrained, I would not use one of the G suffix AMD CPUs that have integrated graphics.
If you want or need more graphics horsepower, you will have to get a discrete graphics card. These can cost between about $100.00 all the way up to about $1500.00. A common reason to get a more expensive graphics card is gaming, especially at high resolutions. Another reason is multiple monitor support at high resolution and high refresh rates. Some non-gaming workloads will also depend on GPU performance.
Your two main choices are NVidia and AMD. NVidia still dominates the highest-end video cards, but AMD has viable choices in the mid-range, with the Radeon 5700 and 5700XT.
Depending on the card, you may also need one or two power cables from your power supply that supply additional power to the video card over what the PCIe slot can supply. Very high-end graphics cards may force you to get a larger capacity power supply than you otherwise would need.
I ended up getting an upper middle range EVGA NVidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super XC Ultra card. I didn’t want to get a very expensive, top-end video card, since this is not a gaming rig. I did want enough horsepower for streaming and rendering.
Cases can be a very subjective choice. Some people are mainly concerned with how the case looks or how it helps keep the system quiet. Having tempered glass panels and RGB lighting is very important to some people.
Other people are mainly concerned with the size of the case. Finally, some people are most interested in the thermal performance of the case. I tend to fall in this latter category. Modern computer components will perform better and last longer when they operate at lower temperatures.
If components get too hot they will thermally throttle. On the other hand, most modern CPUs will automatically run more cores at higher clock speeds for a longer period if they are operating at lower temperatures. Having more airflow in a case helps keep the temperatures lower, but tends to increase the system noise.
There are lots of things you can do to find your sweet spot in the balance between temperature and system noise. Larger diameter fans and good blade design can let the fan move more air with less noise. Gamer’s Nexus is a recognized leader in testing the thermal performance and noise of different computer cases. They have many extensive articles and great YouTube videos about this area.
I have to confess that I picked my case somewhat impulsively. I was mainly drawn by the twin 200mm case fans in the front. Despite a relative lack of research, I was pretty happy with the Cooler Master H500P Mesh White case that I ended up using for this build. It let me do a pretty nice job with cable management.
Your power supply is not a good component to economize on. Ideally, you want an efficient, fully modular power supply from a reputable company that offers a long warranty. Many people either get a very cheap, no-name power supply or they get a huge capacity (1000 watts or larger) power supply that they don’t really need.
Most modern mainstream desktop systems can get by with a 500-600 watt power supply. Depending on the components you choose, you might need a larger size, but don’t just assume you need an 850 watt or 1000 watt power supply, “just in case”. Power supplies are much less efficient when running at a small percentage of their rated load. If you get a huge capacity power supply, but your system only uses a fraction of the rated output, you are wasting electricity. Plus, you wasted money on the more expensive power supply.
One way to get a better idea of how large of a power supply you will need (before you build the system) is to enter all of your components into PCPartPicker. Once you have done that, it will give you an estimate of the max power usage of the system.
If you want to spend more money on your power supply, you should invest in an 80 PLUS Platinum or Titanium rated unit. This will reduce your electrical costs (but the payback period is going to be quite long). It will also mean that you will have higher quality components and a longer warranty.
As it turns out, the system for this build uses 490 watts (as measured from the wall) under a full CPU and GPU load from Folding@Home. I used a 750 watt Corsair RM750X Fully Modular 80 PLUS Gold power supply, which I am very happy with. I have used this same power supply for several other recent builds.
Storage is one area that often gets neglected or short-changed when people build their own systems from parts. It also often gets short-shrift in pre-built systems. This is very unfortunate! Just like with SQL Server, storage performance for desktop workstations makes a huge difference in how the system actually performs and feels.
It is very noticeable in daily usage, and many people don’t know what they are missing. Storage performance makes a tangible difference for boot time, how long it takes to start applications, and how long it takes to do things like Windows Updates.
Unfortunately, many people just think that they need “an SSD”, and the details don’t matter. After all, all SSDs are basically the same, right? Well, actually, that is not the case. You really should spend a little time thinking about and researching your possible storage choices.
Not All Flash Storage Is The Same
You need to consider the storage interface (PCIe vs. SATA) and the storage protocol (NVMe vs. AHCI). PCIe and NVMe are what you want, compared to SATA and AHCI. You also need to think about what version of PCIe you have (3.0 or 4.0), and how many PCIe lanes you have.
After that, what type of NAND flash is it? Is it MLC, TLC, or QLC? Finally, what brand and model line are you considering? The well-known name brands tend to have better tools and support, along with longer warranties. I strongly prefer Samsung for NAND flash storage.
Personally, I have gone 100% PCIe NVMe on all of my recent builds. I literally have a stack of about twenty perfectly good Samsung and SanDisk SATA AHCI SSDs salvaged from old builds sitting on a shelf in the basement, gathering dust.
For a boot drive, I try to use Intel Optane storage cards. These are not NAND flash devices, they use a completely different technology (3D XPoint), said to be based on phase change memory. They offer much lower latency than NAND flash, and have much better random I/O at low queue depths. They also have more steady performance as they get close to getting full. They are still pretty costly, but prices should come down when the 2nd generation Alder Stream devices are released in the future.
For this system, I used a 480GB Intel Optane SSD 900P AIC PCIe storage card as my boot drive. One place where you really notice Optane SSD storage is when you run Windows Disk Cleanup, which just flies through the cleanup process!
Honestly, 480GB of storage is not going to be enough space. My motherboard has two M.2 NVMe slots that I can use. I put a 2TB Samsung 970 EVO into one of them, because I already had one. If I was buying new, I would get a 2TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus, which has slightly better performance.
I purposely avoided any PCIe 4.0 storage, even though my system has the CPU and motherboard to support PCIe 4.0. This is because the existing, 1st generation PCIe 4.0 M.2 storage cards all seem to have issues that affect their performance. Most of them use a Phison PS5016-E16 controller that limits their sequential throughput to less than 5,000 MB/sec. They also have pretty severe thermal issues in an M.2 form factor.
The second generation PCIe 4.0 consumer storage cards will be much better, and I am waiting for them to be released before I jump on the PCIe 4.0 bandwagon.
Here is a complete parts list for this build. Note that the links below are Amazon Affiliate links, which means I get a very small commission if you decide to buy any of these products. This does not affect the price you would pay.
- AMD Ryzen 9 3950X processor
- ASRock X570 Creator motherboard
- Corsair A500 High Performance Dual Fan CPU Cooler
- (2) G.Skill 32GB DDR4 PC4-28800 3600MHz Ripjaws V
- EVGA GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER XC ULTRA GAMING, 8GB GDDR6
- Cooler Master H500P MasterCase Mesh White
- CORSAIR RMX Series, RM750x, 750 Watt, 80+ Gold Certified, Fully Modular Power Supply
- 480GB Intel Optane SSD 900P AIC
- 2TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus
I have written several other posts about choosing components for a desktop system that you might find interesting.
- Building a Home Computer Lab
- Gaming PC Component Choices
- Best Cheap CPUs: Q1 2020
- Comparing Mainstream AMD Ryzen Processors
- Seven Setup Tips for a New AMD Ryzen 3000 System
- Ways to Save Money on a New Desktop System
Well, this has been a long post about building an AMD Ryzen 9 3950X system, but I enjoyed writing it. I realize that is was a pretty expensive build, but I also know that I like to have a very fast system. As PC builders, we are pretty lucky right now because there are so many choices you can make to suit your budget and performance needs. You can also selectively upgrade components over time, perhaps buying used components to save money.
For example, you might build a system right now with a much more affordable 6C/12T AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor, with a good quality, but affordable B450 motherboard. Then, when the Ryzen 4000 desktop processors are released later this year, you could buy a steeply discounted Ryzen 9 3900X or 3950X and put it in your existing motherboard. You could also upgrade to one of the new Ryzen 4000 desktop models, using that same motherboard.
If you have read this far, don’t be afraid to ask me questions in the comments on on Twitter (where I am @GlennAlanBerry). One thing I really like doing is “sanity checks” for people BEFORE they buy their components. Don’t hesitate to send me a PCPartPicker build list, and I will tell you what I think of your choices! I really do hate to see people make bad choices on components.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!