Building the best PC for your Art/Graphics Departments without breaking the bank

Background

So here at ICT Direct we occasionally get offered kit that bucks the usual trends that we see throughout the year.  Every now and again we’ll be offered a container full of machines of a newer generation and a higher specification than anything we have had access to before.  Not only that but it usually comes in at such a low price that we have to re-evaluate our overall pricing structure.

Now the container in question here is full of HP Z Series workstations, specifically the lovely Z210.  This got me thinking about what role this machine could have in schools and colleges.

Marketed as an entry point into the professional design and 3D modelling world, the Z210 is considerably more powerful than its predecessor the Z200.
Whilst the Z200 shipped with a lowly Core i3 540 3.06GHz CPU, the Z210 comes with the powerful Xeon E3-1240 ‘Sandy-Bridge’ 3.3GHz CPU.

The arrival of this exceptional machine gave me the idea of putting together a bundle specifically for those departments which require a step up in performance.

 

Requirements

Expandability

Whilst modern computing can pack a lot of computing power into even the tiniest form factors these days, sometimes you just need a larger chassis.  Being able to add multiple storage drives, a dedicated graphics card, a card reader and possibly some PCE-e Flash storage goes a long way towards extending the lifetime of a PC.

Price

It goes without saying that refurbished hardware shouldn’t cost the same as new hardware.  To that end we need a control unit with a price and spec to compare our Z210 against.

My choice for this is the powerful HP EliteDesk 800 G1 SFF.  This is a top of the line HP desktop common throughout schools and businesses.  It is available online with 3 year warranty and 20” HP display for around £750

hp 800 g1
Comparison Unit Specification :

  •   Intel Core i5 4590 3.3GHz CPU
  •   4GB DDR3 RAM
  •   500GB HDD
  •   DVDRW
  •   Windows 7 Professional (through downgrade rights from 8.1 professional)
  • 3 years warranty

Graphics Workstation Wish list

In an ideal world your setup should something like this:

  • Powerful Desktop PC
  • Dedicated Professional Graphics Card
  • Large Monitor (22” plus)
  • High Precision Mouse
  • Specialist interface (3D Mouse/Tablet)
  • Software

 

Getting the best solution whilst spending as little as possible

In my previous blog post about building a recording PC on a lower budget than a brand new iMac I began with the guts of the system, the PC itself.  I’ll do the same here as it’s a logical beginning.

 HP Z210 workstation

Refurbished HP Z10 workstation: – £286 Ex VAT
http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/hp-z210-refurbished-workstation.html

  • Intel  Xeon E3-1240 Quad Core 3.30GHz Processor
  • 8GB DDR3 PC3-10600E ECC RAM
  • 120GB Solid State Drive – for OS and programs only
  • 1TB SATA HDD – for local storage of student projects
  • nVidia Quadro FX580 – Pro Graphics Graphics
  • DVD R/RW
  • Win 7 Professional
  • New Keyboard & Mouse
  • 3 Years Warranty

Built by HP this entry-level workstation class desktop sports an immense quad core Intel Xeon E3 processor and a respectable 8GB of RAM.  This is a class-leading system; despite being part of Intel’s Second Generation Architecture it still out performs many of the Intel 4th Generation CPUs (*).  Loading the operating system and all your programs onto the Solid State Drive will give another performance boost.

This setup will give you a machine that will be more than capable of running extensive tasks in the full range of Adobe Creative Suite software.  The large 8GB RAM, lightning-fast Solid State Drive, powerful Hyper-Threading Intel Xeon Processor and professional nVidia Graphics Card make for a PC ready to take on whatever you throw at it.

Next up, I looked for a screen.  Looking through the items I have in stock I’ve decided on the following screen.

Lenovo Thinkvision LT2252P 22” LED Monitor – £70
(http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/special-offers/lenovo-thinkvision-l2251p-brand-new-22-monitor-14003.html)

2251

Boasting a 22” widescreen panel with a 1680 x 1050 resolution you have plenty of real estate to work your artistic magic.This is a robust business-class monitor that is once again a class leader in its field. 

It also offers an impressive 16.7 million colours at an excellent 1000:1 contrast ratio.

spacepilot

One final piece of the puzzle is a nice 3d mouse or tablet & stylus.  For me, the 3DConnexion Space Pilot offers excellent value for money and superb control when being used as part of the creative process.

The 3Dconnexion SpacePilot connects you to the 3D design process like never before.

Its optical sensor technology and ergonomic design combine to deliver unprecedented control and fewer distractions.

So why buy new when you can have more for less? 

3DConnexion SpacePilot USB 3D mouse – £95 Ex VAT 

So what I the point of buying a brand new PC when you can get a better system, complete with monitor and special 3D mouse for far less than the cost of a single new unit?

Let’s do the Maths:

£750 - 286 - 70 95

= £299

Your total saving per system comes to £299!  You could get your school another desktop PC or a pair of laptops with the saving or you could divert the budget to another area that desperately needs funds.

* CPU Benchmark comparison 4590 vs E3-1240

CPU Bench mark

HP Z210 Workstation – ideal for schools

Z210Look what’s just landed in our  warehouse….

The HP Z210 Workstation.

They have an outstanding processor in the Intel Xeon E3-1240 – Quad Core 3.3Ghz. The E3 benchmarks at an amazing 8104 points – that  means it has i7 2600 performance with the value of a i5 2400:

Xeon E3 1240 benchmark


 

 

 

 

Coupled with a variety of options and HPs standard workstation reliability, its ideal for the rigours of school life.

Many of our workstation sales have been made to schools looking to improve their CAD, design and music suites. Massively undercutting the cost of Apple Mac solutions.

For £295 plus VAT, you get:

  • 1 x Xeon E3 1240
  • 8GB DDR3 ECC RAM
  • 120GB New SSD
  • Quaddro 3000 graphics card
  • Education: 2 year C&R warranty
  • New keyboard and Mouse

Find out more about the HP Z210

Introducing The New Monarch TabCabby Range and The Boost+

 Secure storage of ICT equipment is essential in any establishment, but is especially critical in schools.

 As the tablet and laptop market within schools continues to expand at a rapid rate,

Monarch, who are high quality specialist ICT storage manufacturers, have launched a brand new range of tablet storage products to fit in with the security requirements of schools.

These include redesigned trolleys, new desktop sync and charge storage and new portable mobile sync and charge units.

Features include:

  • Latest Cambrionix Sync & Charge units
  • Intelligent Charging – stops charging when tablets are fully charged
  • Future proof motherboard design for the Cambrionix
  • Compatibility with  iPad, Android and Microsoft tablets

The new product range includes:

TabCabby trolleys

They now have a much smaller footprint and are flexible enough to store iPads and tablets with or without cases. The new 32V also includes easy to use portable baskets. (link to more product info).

Monarch Deskcabby

New from Monarch the DeskCabby – Tablet storage

DeskCabby

A portable, stackable cabinet that stores, charges and syncs up to 12 tablets. Find out more…

 

 

Monarch Boost+

New from Monarch the Boost+ 16 port tablet Sync and Charge unit

Boost+

A portable unit that lets you plug in, charge and sync up to 16 tablets. Find out more…

 

 

 

TabCabby 32V Basket trolley

New from Monarch the TabCabby 32V Basket Trolley

TabCabby 32V Basket

Store & charge 32 tablets without cases or 20 tablets with cases. This also includes a Sync & Charge option with Boost+. Find out more…

 

 

TabCabby 16H

New from Monarch the smaller redesigned TabCabby 16H

TabCabby 16H Compact

Stores & charges 16 tablets with or without cases and has ergonomic design. Find out more…

 

 

TabCabby 32H Compact

New from Monarch the TabCabby 32H Compact Trolley

TabCabby 32H Compact

Stores & charges 32 tablets with or without cases. Find out more…

 

 

 

Monarch GoCabby

Monarch GoCabby

GoCabby

Stores, charges and synchronises16 tablets with or without cases and is ideal to transport to different sites. Find out more…

 
All of these come with a standard 2 year warranty and free delivery.

What IT equipment is proving popular in schools?

 We’ve been looking at trends of the most popular ICT equipment being bought by schools. There are some real winners that we’ve identified out there. Take a look at some of our top picks:

 All-in-one workstations

An extremely popular choice this year, the all-in-one products allow for a desktop computer and a separate monitor to become one unit. These high powered machines provide a full solution within one piece of equipment and save schools a great deal of space. This is especially true in buildings that were built before computer suites were ever dreamt of!

 Small desktop packages

These small but fast desktop computers are excellent workhorses for curriculum based work. Ranging from high end Core 2 Duo systems through to more recent Core i5 machines. They all come with a minimum warranty of 2 years.

Workstations

These are extremely fast machines that feature Quad and Hex core Intel Xeon Processors and support huge amounts of RAM. These are ideal for CAD design, audio, graphic design and video editing applications. These are a more powerful and cost effective solution to the Apple alternatives.

Core i5 Laptops

The Core i5 laptops are cost effective and mobile, with the ability to run Windows 8.1. They provide much more processing power than the tablet alternatives.

These are all highly reliable and very cost-effective choices on the part of schools. Better still, ICT Direct already deliver all the above solutions to schools throughout the UK, so why not contact us to see how we can help you?

 

New Apple iPad Air 2 and Mini 3 – For Education

Apple have recently announced the arrival of the new Apple Air 2. Its thinner, 40% faster and has an  improved camera. It has three storage options: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB.

The launch of iPad Air 2 means that schools in the UK can benefit from cheaper pricing for the older but very capable iPad Air  (16GB  and 32GB Wifi models are available).

At the time of writing, we also have availability of the iPad 4 16GB Wifi .

 Also new to the range is the iPad Mini 3,  It is powered by an A7 chip and like its bigger brother is ships with iOS 8. The iPad Mini 3 has three storage options: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB.

We can supply schools with the iPad Mini 16GB and iPad Mini 2 (both 16GB and 32GB), with low educational pricing.

If you are a school looking for low priced iPads then call us on 01254 820980

New colour options for Loxit LapBank laptop trolleys.

Loxit Products have announced that they can supply coloured doors with all their high quality LapBank laptop trolley range.

loxit-lapbank-big

LapBank is a range of highly secure laptop trolleys, they are ideal for school and office environments.

Features include:

  • All welded steel frame with anti-jemmy bar design and full length piano hinges.
  • 2 x 7-lever mortise safe locks per door.
  • 130mm heavy duty rubberised swivel braked casters.
  • 5 Year RTB Warranty (1 Year Electrical).
  • FREE Delivery to mainland UK.

Models available: 8, 10, 16, 20, 24, 30 bays

Options include charging kits which intelligently charge the laptops and secure wall mount docking .

Standard grey colour LapBank trolleys start from  £549 plus VAT. Delivery is usually in 3-5 working days.

New Colour Options:

Loxit LapBank colur options

Available in: black, yellow, white, blue, green, orange, red

£35 per door. Because of the bespoke nature, deliver takes around 2 weeks.

ICT Direct also stock laptop and iPad storage from Isis, Monarch and Top Tec.

New partnership with Isis

ISIS Concepts

We are delighted to announce that they are now working with Isis Concepts.

Isis plan, design and manufacture furniture to support and inspire learning and make your space work better for you.

Initially, we’ll supply the Isis laptop and iPad storage solutions which complement our existing range of laptop trolleys and mobile and static iPad charge and store products.

Isis laptop trolley features:

Isis laptop trolley from ICT Direct

  • Laptops are stored horizontally on shelves with  cut outs making access easy even for younger children, and only a short length of power lead is presented to each shelf.
  • The laptop power adapters are neatly stored in a separate electrical compartment, hidden by a removable metal panel accessible from the front of the trolley.
  • Sequential start power management to prevent fuse and circuit breaker issues on start up is fitted as standard.
  • The Isis Laptop Charging trolley has lockable doors which fold back 270 degrees for easy access.

Isis iPad/Tablet storage features:

Isis ipad storage trolley from ICT Direct

  • Space on a top shelf for your laptop or wireless access point.
  • Handle cut outs to help you steer if you want to move them. The Isis iPad cart accomodates iPads and other Tablet devices in most cover and case designs.
  • Only a short length of USB cable is presented to each shelf keeping the cabinet neat & tidy.
  • Doors fold back 270 degrees for easy access. Small, compact enclosure with lockable doors and on lockable castors.

HP 6910p laptops in stock

We’ve taken delivery of a batch of HP 6910p refurbished laptops with Core 2 Duo 2.0GHz processors. We’re going to upgrade them to 4GB RAM with a 160GB hard drive.

The 6910p has a DVDRW optical, 14″ LCD screen, 3 USB ports – ideal for the classroom on a budget.

Apart from the price, here is what makes our 6910p better – the new battery and the 12 month warranty – all at no extra cost!

Being Microsoft Authorised Refurbishers, we can upgrade the laptops to  Windows 7 Professional for just a small cost.

Find out more here.

Apple iPad 2 – last orders 31 March 2014

From 31st March, Apple will stop shipping the iPad 2 16GB Wifi to schools. The iPad 2 will be superceded by the 4th Generation iPad with Retina Display 16GB Wifi. We’ll be supplying this improved model at the same educational price at the iPad 2.

Here’s the specification:

  • Apple A6X 1.4GHz processor
  • Storage: 16GB
  • Wifi: 802.11n
  • Weight: 652g
  • 9.7″ screen at 2,048 x 1,536
  • Apple A6X Graphics Processor
  • 12 months Apple warranty

Protect your iPad with rugged protective cases that can be etched with your school logo and secure iPad storage.

Call us for the latest educational discounts on Apple hardware.

Building a Recording and Sequencing lab on a budget (cheaper and more powerful than an Apple iMac)

Background

Building a PC to do studio recording / sequencing is not something I’ve had to trouble myself with for a number of years. After all, at university, I had access to a number of high level facilities, and after I had left, I bit the bullet and bought a Macbook Pro – whilst not the best outright, it did most of what I needed with little or no fuss (and for close to £2,000 you would expect no less!).
However, I was contacted by a customer this week who had been asked to look into buying a suite of iMacs to replace their ageing G4 Macs in their Music Tech suite.

Looking into pricing I was absolutely staggered! Whilst I know Apple kit isn’t cheap I didn’t expect a quote for 25 machines to be pushing past £21,000!
We’re only talking entry-level machines here, 21.5” iMacs as seen in the Apple Store (Configure – Apple Store (UK))

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23409-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-imac215.jpg
Specifications
2.7GHz Quad-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz
8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2X4GB
1TB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm
Intel Iris Pro Graphics
Apple UK Wired Keyboard & Mouse

Whilst it’s a nice looking machine, I’m not sure I could justify spending so much on so few computers!

This got me thinking… Just what kind of a Music Production setup can you get for a similar price to an iMac? In this case our target price is £875 (excluding VAT) on hardware alone. Software pricing is pretty similar across both platforms (I’d suggest a combination of Ableton Live & Cubase SX7 for Windows users)

Requirements

There is so much more to audio production these days than there used to be. No longer will a powerful PC with a decent internal sound card be okay for sequencing pre-recorded tracks. Today’s music tech enthusiast has an abundance of external audio interfaces through USB / Firewire; MIDI controllers and keyboards and all manner of outboard effects. It can be quite a daunting task deciding what you need and what you can live without.

Basic Needs

However, I think we can break down our requirements into basic essential/non-essential categories quite easily.
Essentially your setup should include the following:

  • Powerful Desktop PC (Windows/Mac) – We’ll be using a Windows Machine for budget
  • 1 or 2 large monitors – Sequencing take up a lot of screen space!
  • External audio interface – You’ll want low latency input, preamps & headphone monitoring without taxing your system
  • MIDI controller keyboard
  • Some decent monitoring – In this case I’m suggesting headphones as a room full of 25 stereo speaker pairs will sound pretty awful if they’re all being used at once!
  • Software

It’s worth considering the following, but it’s not essential in a basic setup:

  • Automated MIDI controller(s) – A couple of these will make your life much easier
  • Monitor Speakers – Whilst I said that too many speakers would render a room useless, it’s still useful to have one pair to listen to your work on in order to gain perspective
  • External effects processors – Worth a look although with the number of high quality plugins available for today’s computer music producer these aren’t necessarily required.

How to Spend Your £875 Hardware Budget

The main thing you want to look at before anything else is obviously the computer you’ll be using to run all your software and create your mixes with. It’s the heartbeat of the whole operation and important you get it right.

Comparing the spec of the iMac to machines I have available here in the warehouse I was immediately struck by what I would be able to use. In the end I chose the following machine:

Refurbished HP Z600 workstation: – £535 Ex VAT
http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/computer…tion-3263.html

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23411-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-z600-front.jpg

2 x Intel Xeon X5550 Quad Core 2.66GHz Processors
24GB DDR3 PC3-10600R ECC RAM
120GB Solid State Drive – for OS and programs only
1TB SATA HDD – for local storage of student projects
nVidia Quadro NVS290 – Dual display Graphics
DVD R/RW
Win 7 Pro
New Keyboard & Mouse
2 Years RTB Warranty

Designed by BMW and built by HP this workstation class desktop sports a pair of quad core server class Intel Xeon processors and a massive 24GB of RAM. Now that will cope with whatever you could throw at it and loading the operating system and all your programs onto the Solid State Drive will give another performance boost.

Next up, I looked for a screen. Again, looking through the items I have in stock I’ve decided on the following screen.

CTX 23.6” LED Monitor – £90
(http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/monitors…boxed-new.html)

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23412-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-mn24ctxw2441g-sml.jpg
This stylish & thin monitor is a perfect balance between price and performance.
Crucially, its 23.6” screen will display a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.

It has a fast 5ms response time and comes with both HDMI and VGA input connections.
Its low power usage and excellent manufacturer’s warranty make this the ideal screen.

At this point I would suggest a pair of these monitors. As the benefit gained from having sequencing on one screen and mixer / effects on the other really is worth the extra outlay! Not to mention that a combined resolution of up to 3840 x 1200 will allow much more creative use of the screen.

Choosing an audio interface is important. Of course to get the very best sound and the quickest response you could quite easily spend thousands, but you can also get great results on a budget. In a school / college setting all you realistically need are a couple of inputs with decent preamps, a couple of outputs, and a monitor channel for your headphones. +48v Phantom Power is desirable (you may wish to use condenser mics) but certainly not essential.

After some searching across the web I settled on the following:

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface – £99.17 Ex VAT 
(Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 at Studiospares)

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23413-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-scarlett2i2a.jpg

2 inputs (1/4” Jack or XLR)
Renowned Pre Amp technology

2 Line Outputs (1/4” Jack)

Headphone Preamp and Monitoring

Effects bundle (works on Live, Cubase, Logic)
USB Connectivity

The Scarlett 2i2 is a 2 in / 2 out USB recording interface featuring two award-winning Focusrite preamps. Plenty of available headroom makes it suitable for moving coil, condenser and ribbon microphones regardless of the source. Phantom power is provided for mics that need it.
The included Scarlett Plug-In suite provides effects compatible with all major DAWs; so whether you’re using GarageBand, Pro Tools 9, Cubase, Logic or the included Ableton Live Lite there is enough to get you recording straight away.

So far, the only thing we have not addressed is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI is an integral component of today’s recording environment. Being used to set timings and control everything from virtual instruments to track automation, MIDI is a vital component.
To provide the widest range of options I’m suggesting a MIDI controller keyboard as opposed to a basic MIDI interface or smarter mixing desk interface. Students will have a whole world of instruments at their fingertips without needing to plug dozens of cables into the computer. It helps that you can get a decent keyboard for very little these days.

Sticking with my previous theme of balancing price with features and performance I’ve gone for:

Oxygen 25, a 3rd generation keyboard from M-Audio – £49.17
(M Audio Oxygen 25 3rd Generation MIDI Keyboard at Studiospares)

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23414-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-oxy.jpg

With 25 keys with 4 octave transposition, the Oxygen 25 is a fully functional MIDI keyboard. Additionally the Oxygen MIDI keyboards features eight MIDI assignable knobs (control any MIDI parameters you desire in your hardware or software), pitch and mod wheels plus dual MIDI outputs. Powered by the USB connection it uses for data transfer, it also reduces the need for an additional plug.

The final piece of the puzzle here is some form of monitoring solution. As I previously mentioned, having a room full of 25 pairs of speakers is asking for trouble. To this end headphones are your way forward. Decent headphones will give a very clean and even response and allow you to work very well without the need to constantly reference your work on a pair of speakers (still advised from time to time if working for long times). Fortunately, decent headphones are both relatively cheap and easy to come by.

For this particular exercise I’ve chosen these:

Sennheiser HD201 Headphones – £12.50
(Sennheiser HD201 Headphones at Studiospares)

blogs/ictdirect_dave/attachments/23415-building-recording-sequencing-lab-budget-why-you-shouldn-t-buy-apple-201.jpg

Features
Powerful stereo sound
Rich, crisp bass response
Light weight and comfortable to wear
Good attenuation of ambient noise
Extremely rugged
High-quality leatherette ear pads
1/4 inch jack adaptor, gold-plated
2 Year warranty

These are the Sennheiser entry level professional headphone, but for the price are great products. Of course, headphone choice is often a matter of personal preference. I’ve always used Sennheiser, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t equally suitable alternatives out there.

Hardware Conclusions

So there you have it. For the price of the basic iMac (£875) you can kit out your music tech suite with a full setup of pc hardware. If you choose the single monitor setup then your total buy price for everything listed above is:

£535 + £90+ £99.17 + £49.17 + £12.50 
= £785.84

That is a shade under £100 cheaper than buying a Mac on its own. Of course, you could (and I would suggest you do) offset that saving by getting that second monitor I talked about earlier. Users really will appreciate the difference!

This article is in no way intended to be a criticism of Apple hardware; they do make lovely computers and portable devices. However, I do believe that the price of said hardware is far too steep to be used freely in education. Especially as it’s so easy to find an alternative solution that is both better, and, in many cases, cheaper.