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I'm looking to build a cheap but expandable server I can set up in my basement and use to store backups, stream media (Plex), and perform other miscellaneous services on my network.

While I haven't had much trouble choosing other parts for this build (hard drive, case, power supply), finding a good CPU has me feeling a bit overwhelmed. There are just too many factors that go into determining CPU speed for me to easily judge based on specs alone.

What's a good, budget CPU I can use for this purpose? It needs to be fast enough to do on-the-fly media transcoding for Plex, and I want it to be power efficient since I plan to be running this server 24/7, but aside from that cheaper is better. Integrated graphics would be a nice bonus since it would save me from having to purchase a video card separately, but it's not strictly necessary as I can get a cheap video card for ~$35 anyway (the server will usually be running headless, so I don't need anything fancy as far as graphics go).

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  • What motherboard do you have? That was greatly influence what CPU you can get.
    – Andy
    Oct 11, 2015 at 1:02
  • @Andy I haven't chosen a motherboard yet. My plan is to pick the CPU first and then pick out a good motherboard that's compatible with it.
    – Ajedi32
    Oct 11, 2015 at 1:03
  • The transcoding will be the worst thing you do, but it will depend greatly on what formats, resolutions, and frame rates you are transcoding from and to.
    – James
    Oct 11, 2015 at 3:07
  • @James Yeah, unfortunately I'm not exactly sure what formats and resolutions I'll be using. Probably not 4k, but aside from that I'm not really sure.
    – Ajedi32
    Oct 11, 2015 at 3:09
  • @Ajedi32, you need to decide on your formats before you can know what CPU is required. An Intel Atom CPU can transcode to 320x240 MPEG-1 without breaking a sweat; at the other extreme, a six-core i7-3930K cannot transcode to 2048x1536 h264 in realtime.
    – Mark
    Oct 11, 2015 at 4:06

4 Answers 4

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Plex suggests a passmark score of >2000, and suggests a core2duo at 2.4ghz as a minimum for a single 1080P stream.

I initially looked at the modern 'atom' architecture celerons but they're a bit too weak. If you didn't need realtime, 1080p transcoding they're excellent.

As such at modern processors a dual core 'pentium' based off a 'core' architecture would be a great option. I'm sure someone would suggest an AMD equivalent, which would likely be price and maybe even performance competitive, but as is, intel makes more efficient processors, and well, I'm familiar with them.

Lets talk about right now. I tend to use the falcon logical increments guides as a starting point for a new build. There's a minimum build based off the intel G3250, and that exceeds the necessary passmark score. Dual cores, and if you drop the add on GPU, the whole build is under 300 dollars.

For near future use, the dual core, dual thread G3470 looks like a good option. It's based off skylake (so you can take advantage of all the lovely new features the newer board will have). The Passmark score for the G3470 is 3,753. While this is a 'next generation' part, for a line that's just trickling into retail, its worth considering this would be a future proof design, which you can upgrade to the next generation, and motherboards may support newfangled things like m.2 and DDR4 optionally. I'd actually have recommended a G3270, if it existed.

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  • Ah, yeah that Falcon guide definitely looks useful. I have been looking into AMD processors since they have a reputation for good multi-core performance per dollar, but I also got the impression that intel CPUs tend to be more power efficient. Future-proofness (if that's even a word) is also important here, so I'll definitely look into the parts you mentioned.
    – Ajedi32
    Oct 29, 2015 at 13:20
  • Quite honestly, Picking a CPU is far more complex than it used to be. Back in the day you just picked the most clockspeed for your money and you were done ;) Oct 29, 2015 at 13:37
  • Yeah, that's why I ended up here. Initially I was just using PCPartPicker, but I found that wasn't very good for comparing CPUs since it doesn't have benchmarks or any other good way of comparing CPU performance. That's when I came here. I've since discovered cpubenchmark.net which is good for comparing performance of CPUs, but not as good at comparing other factors as PCPartPicker is, and now looking at the Falcon guide it seems like that might help as a good starting point. Still really tricky though...
    – Ajedi32
    Oct 29, 2015 at 13:46
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Since streaming is a decently multithreaded application, I'm going to go ahead and suggest an AMD equivalent, the Athlon 860K, based off the Steamroller architecture. It is an unlocked CPU, dual-module, 4 CMT cores, with a passmark score of 5617, it shouldn't be much more expensive than the Pentiums. If you want a iGP, the A8-7670K is my recommendation, priced about $20 more. Note the CPU would be slower because it has to share TDP with the graphics. Otherwise, you can purchase a discrete GPU.

I'd suggest a cooler to go with the CPU as well, something like the Cryorig H7, to move the 95 W of heat away. You may even overclock a bit.

The Athlon and A8 both use DDR3 RAM. If you choose the A8, be sure to get fast RAM, because the iGP would perform significantly faster.

Overall, the AMD should be slightly more expensive, and also slightly faster.

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  • Interesting. You make a good point about AMD processors' multicore performance. I am a bit concerned about the power efficiency though given the TDP of those CPUs. I'm also not too sure about the potential for future expandability, as I haven't seen a lot of faster AMD processors using the FM2+ socket. (Meaning I'd have to replace the motherboard to upgrade, right?)
    – Ajedi32
    Oct 30, 2015 at 14:13
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For my dedicated Plex server, I went to ebay.com and bought a "clone" of what I have been using as a "workstation"/desktop server which I have been using for a Plex Server just fine. AMD FX-8320 Passmark score 5429 here:

https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=AMD+FX-8320+Eight-Core&id=1782

CPU:

https://www.newegg.com/amd-fx-8000-series-fx-8320/p/N82E16819113285?Item=9SIBA4GHY26987

In an ASUS AMD AM3+ motherboard, specifically ASUS Sabertooth 990FX R2.0 (see specifications here:

Motherboard:

https://www.newegg.com/asus-tuf-sabertooth-990fx-r2-0/p/N82E16813131877

I already had some old, but working fine, DDR3-1600 Kingston HyperX RAM kit pair of 8gb 16GB KIT with heat-spreaders.

RAM:

https://www.newegg.com/hyperx-16gb-240-pin-ddr3-sdram/p/N82E16820104445

The heat spreaders on my pair are Blue, not Black. Not that it matters really.

I found the pair of CPU and Motherboard pair for sale on ebay.com similar to this pair. The FX-8320 and ASUS Sabertooth motherboard pair were at $150 which was $165.15 with Tax. I POUNCED on it RIGHT AWAY !!! VERY PLEASED !!! And as my Plex Server, transcoding the video with subtitles (bad hearing at 63) to 1080p and also transcoding sound down to simple stereo. 8-cores at 3.5 GHz as a set. This CPU+motherboard set with my existing RAM does the Plex at nearly 90% on all 8 cores at some points in time. Passmark 5429.

https://www.ebay.com/itm/334466954738?hash=item4ddfc8b5f2:g:zp4AAOSwhXNin3D

So for a Plex Server, I would recommend a Passmark score of at least 5000 for the CPU. This is NOT a Ryzen set but you really don't NEED a Ryzen set in a Server anyhow.

I hope that this helps. I am actually using EXACTLY this set as a Plex Server providing a Plex Stream to a Roku Streaming stick over WiFi "N" speed. So NOT an Expensive new set for Router WiFi "N" speed and Streaming Stick client. And it works Just Fine.

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I'd recommend going with the Intel i3 12100. Its quad a core cpu with 8 threads available due to hyperthreading and the graphics card slot has CPU to PCIe 5.0 Lanes(ie. next gen pcie graphics card lanes) as well as PCIe 4.0 Lanes(current gen pcie graphics card lanes).Now depending on which motherboard you pick up you can get next gen memory standard ie DDR5 or stay with cheaper but still effecftive current gen DDR4 memory. The quad core i3 12100 it will be more "future proof" than the cheaper dual core Celeron G6900 or Pentium G7400 cpus or even AMD's current offerings; which are on pcie 4.0 standard and ddr4 memory. If you want to step up, get an intel i5 12400

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  • The only thing AMD's current offerings lack is an integrated GPU. You don't need DDR5, and you don't need PCIe 5.0 (even not in the near future, PCIe 5.0 16x is about as fast as current DDR4 RAM and you don't need that, even for 8K)
    – Irsu85
    Jul 3 at 6:44
  • You can get AMD processors with integrated Graphics, Ryzen 5 4600G, ryzen 5 5600G and ryzen 7 5700G all have integrated graphics
    – diggiddi
    Jul 3 at 13:45
  • Okay, but those are expensive. Maybe you're right about intel being better, but not because of the reasons you listed (DDR5 and PCIe 5)
    – Irsu85
    Jul 3 at 14:32
  • I simply listed those because they are more future proof than AMD at the moment since OP was looking at that too. Bottom line is, he intel has a better CPU, the PCIe5 & DDR5 options are simply cherries on top
    – diggiddi
    Jul 3 at 20:41

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