I was recently asked about what kind of hardware would make a great Blender workstation.
The type of hardware you need is very much dependent upon the type of work you intend to do. You also want to consider the type of work that you might want to do with the equipment.
Now, I can only speak for myself and my situation so, for myself, I knew that I didn't need an absolutely cutting-edge system because computers have become so powerful, with ever-decreasing prices. However, I knew that I could afford to bump up some of the specs to offset the cost of new components that I didn't need (sound card, keyboard, mouse, software, DVD, CD-RW, floppy drive, etc.). I added those parts from other PCs that I have. I never throw out parts that still work, even if their specs are not up-to-date. I have about five old CD drives. If my main drive goes bad, I can just use one of the older ones until I can get a replacement. Also, older hard drives can be used for backups.
So, for me, my concern was with having:
- a faster CPU with multiple cores
better multi-tasking and faster renders
- faster memory
not necessarily more memory because you can always upgrade that in stages however, the more the better
- faster graphics with more graphics memory
I can only recommend nVidia cards for the most compatibility. ATI is fine but, nVidia is better. PCI Express only - no AGP or PCI cards. 256MB minimum.
- an internal memory card reader (installed in a 3.5" floppy drive slot, it puts the ports on the front of the case)
This allows me to very quickly load any data/pictures from my camera and PDA. It's much faster than going through the device's docking interface because you get almost instant access to the files without having to navigate through "cool" interfaces.
- more USB ports, with some available on the front of the case)
Good for temporary connections to tablets, photo printers, scanners, etc.
- a larger monitor
- a larger hard drive
- a stronger power supply
The power supply is probably the most fundamental component. When I was a PC Tech, I often outsmarted the "more educated" technicians on this one issue. A poor power supply is the cause of many, many different symptoms that a computer can exhibit. They would run all kinds of convoluted tests and procedures, replacing this and that. Only to end up going back out to the customer because the computer started "acting up" again. I always tested the power supply first, often found it to be bad (in a way that matched the problem being experienced), replaced it, and was out of there in less than thirty minutes - no callbacks (unless they had other unrelated issues and then, they usually asked for me by name).
A "bad" power supply is one that doesn't consistently provide the correct amount of power output along any or all of its many power output channels. A channel can provide too low, too high, or erratic amounts of power to the components of your computer system. When this happens, components can wear down much faster than they are rated to last or, they may not function consistently because they aren't getting enough power. Believe me, a new power supply can be a bad power supply. In the past, I've encountered entire orders of computer cases where just about every power supply was not up to par. It made no sense to use that power supply in a new system knowing that in a few weeks or months the system would start to exhibit strange behaviors (lockups, rebooting, internal modem problems, etc.). Most modern motherboards should provide a means to see the power status of each channel output from the power supply. This would be found in the BIOS setup (accessible right before your computer begins the boot process - google "bios setup" for more details). There are utilities to check this but I've found them to be inconsistent. And, there are power supply testers you can buy but, only the expensive professional models provide detailed info.
Also, always check the power rating of the power supply and make sure that it has enough to support your system. With our interest being in 3D graphics, it is imperative that you check the power supply requirements of your chosen video card. Modern video cards require lots of power and if your power supply can't provide it, your system will not function. It's also a good idea to eventually purchase another matching power supply to have as a backup.
- a case with room for extra hard drives and other internal components
- a case with good exhaust features for keeping components cool
Don't be enticed by the smaller cases. You need a full-sized case for better airflow and cooling.
- a motherboard that will support future upgrades
a faster CPU, more RAM (at least 2GB), multiple monitors (if the motherboard has onboard video, when you add a video card to the system, you will have at least two video outs on your system)
- a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Source) is a must
A UPS is an external device that provides power when there is no power. They sound really expensive but, they aren't. The very first time you hear that beep and see the lights in your home flicker (or go out entirely) yet, that 1-hour render that's 98% complete keeps humming along, you'll smile and realize that, no matter what the cost, you're glad you got one. Get one. If you have one, smile.
Anyway, those are the types of things I would suggest you think about when upgrading. Again, it really does depend on the types of things you want to do. I can't recommend any brands because they're really all the same inside. There's no component in any brandname computer that you can't put into a generic brandless computer. The only benefit of a brandname computer is going to be the Warranty (maybe) and the optional Service Agreement (more money). Because of my technical experience with computers, I've never had a problem that required outside help. So, for some, maybe the extra Warranty and Service Agreement are a necessary part of the decision-making.
In conclusion, because Blender is so efficiently coded (thanks to Ton and company), you don't need the latest and the greatest computer hardware to get a lot done. Only until recently, I was using Blender on a jurassic Pentium III 1GHz with 512MB RAM, a 40 GB HD, and a 256MB nVidia AGP 4x graphics card! On top of that, I was using Windows 98 (before I started creating videos). Heck, Blender will even run on a Pocket PC!!
If you can only focus on one aspect of upgrading, I would recommend starting by getting more memory. The more, the better. Getting more memory won't actually speed up your computer, however, it will keep it from slowing down due to buffering data to your hard drive whenever all of your RAM is filled.
I'm a PC man so, I can't provide any advice otherwise. I do have Linux (ubuntu) but, I haven't had the time to explore it, yet. I hear Blender runs much smoother with Linux. I've also heard that AMD CPUs are faster than Intel CPUs when it comes to dealing with graphics. I haven't tested that so I don't know if that's true.
Any other suggestions are welcomed, especially from Mac users.