Technology.Life.Insight.

New PC Build for 2015

Yep, it’s that time again, time to build a new PC!! Yes I still do that. What’s wrong with the PC I built in 2013? Absolutely nothing, but two years is a long time to use the same box, plus opportunities for investment reclamation start to head south if you wait too long. I have many reasons for this new build: Intel Haswell CPUs are exciting, GTX 970 graphics cards are exciting and perform near the top of the line GTX 980 parts, SSDs are denser and more cost effective than ever, Windows 10 is right around the corner and honestly I’d like a new case.

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The PC is still not dead, just in case you had heard otherwise. Custom builds might have become far less mainstream than before and are likely undertaken more now by very experienced, enthusiast or professional users. The reason for this is because of fantastic devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro or the Dell XPS 15, leaving little need for the majority of users to find use in a custom PC. Personally, I still prefer the versatility, customizability, expandability and sheer power of a PC for daily use, plus if you want to run a powerful discrete graphics card, this is the way to do it. Laptops, tablets and smartphones all serve their own purpose but nothing on the market today can replace a custom high-end PC, in my humble opinion.

The design goals for this build remain largely as they were before: small, powerful, quiet. So as physically small as I can get with the flexibility of micro ATX. Mini-ITX is just too limited for what I need in a daily driver PC with only 2 x DIMM slots and a single PCIe slot. I also plan to reuse parts from my previous build where it makes sense.

Motherboard

I’m a stalwart Asus motherboard user and have never been disappointed with their products in the many years I’ve been doing this. I typically buy at the higher end just for the quality and flexibility but this time I went down a notch. The Asus Maximus VII Gene is naturally where I would have gone but I thought long and hard as to whether or not I really need the features that board provides. I have to admit that my overclocking days are about over, I just don’t need to anymore. The VII Gene provides every possible feature you can think of with a slew of overclocking options but for $100 over the nearest “high end” Asus board, that’s $100 wasted for me.

Instead I decided to go with the Asus Z97M Plus. This board boasts many of the same big ticket features of the Gene including a 10Gbps M.2 SATA slot, Intel Z97 chipset, up to 32GB 3200MHz DDR3,  x16 PCIe and a slick UEFI BIOS. If I ever decide to overclock, this board can do that too. Where this board falls short is that it only has a single x16 PCIe slot and only 3 x 4-pin PWN fan headers. I’m running 4 fans so had to use a splitter for the my top 120mm fans. No biggie but wish I had headers for all. Otherwise, the Z97M Plus is a top of the line mATX board for $125.

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CPU

Considering Thermal Design Power (TDP/ power consumption), base clock, cache and cost, I chose the Intel Core i7 4790K, code name Devil’s Canyon, which is the current darling in the performance desktop CPU space.

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There are additional models of the CPU that carry “S”, “T” or no designation, that I considered as well. The “K” at the end of the model number indicates that this is an unlocked part that supports overclocking from Intel. Obviously if you intend to overclock, this is the part you should get. “S” is a performance optimized part with a lower TDP as well as base frequency, “T” is a power-optimized part that reduces these numbers further. Parts with no designator are very close to the “K” part but have a slightly lower clock, less cache and support fewer threads per core. This article explains these designators in greater detail. There is roughly $30 difference currently between these parts at the widest margin, so considering all factors, there is little reason to not buy the most capable and flexible part which is the 4790K.

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Arctic Silver 5 still holds as one of the best thermal materials available so is what I used again here. Based on the placement of the cores and the metal cap of the CPU, the vertical line method is recommended per Arctic Silver. It is also recommended to “tint” both the cap as well as the CPU cooler heat sink prior to application to fill any microscopic holes and shorten the break-in period.

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CPU Cooler

I considered both air and liquid cooling for this build but ultimately went with air just for simplicity and lack for potential future problems. If I were to do liquid I would use the Corsair H80i in my new case which is a 120mm radiator with dual 120mm fans in a self-contained system that requires no maintenance. Instead I went with the best of breed air-cooled solutions in the Noctua NH-U12S. The dual radiator NH-D14 is the best there is but was slightly too tall for my case so I went for the “next best” NH-U12S. 100% copper, meticulously crafted with 6 heat pipes and a top of the line NF-F12 PWN fan included. I’m using this in a “push” setup but a second fan can be added for push-pull. Noctua consistently delivers very high quality with a super simple install.

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Memory

I reused the 32GB DDR3 kit from my last build which has been rock solid. I didn’t see a tremendous need to invest in new DIMMs. When building SFF the size of the heat sink on the RAM is a key consideration especially if you plan to run an after market CPU cooler. The NH-U12S is built with this in mind and boasts 100% compatibility with tall RAM modules. Originally, I wanted a kit with tight timings (CAS 8 or CAS 9), low voltage (1.35v) and a low profile to sit unobstructed in the DIMM channels. The Crucial Ballistix Tactical and Sport VLP products fit this bill perfectly. The Tactical LP DIMMs (CAS8) in yellow would have been my first choice but there was a lack of third-party supply for this build and buying directly from Crucial for much more really negated the value for these modules. I ended up going with the 32GB VLP kit (CAS9) in black and have absolutely no regrets. All head-to-head reviews peg these kits very close in performance with a slight edge going to the Tactical LP for overclocking. The Tactical LPs also have a slightly taller heat spreader and carry a higher price premium. The VLP (Very Low Profile) sit almost flush to the DIMM channels providing zero obstruction for any CPU cooler. These modules are seriously low profile and with Micron chips under the hood, you can absolutely trust their performance and longevity.

 

Both run very tight timings at the stock 1.35v and offer a couple of XMP profiles to boost performance. There are other modules on the market that will clock higher but for me, these are perfect. The VLP modules clock in at 800Mhz out of the box with a very attractive 9-9-9-24 at a 2T command rate.

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Running this much RAM means you can safely disable your pagefile, just watch those memory “committed” counters. If committed gets anywhere close to your total amount of installed memory, time to enable the pagefile!

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Data

For data I continued the 2-tier storage model blending performance and higher capacity using a 512GB SSD for OS/apps, 128GB SSD for apps/scratch and 2TB HDD for data. It’s always nice to have adequate capacity for C:\ so I went with the newer MX200 from Corsair. Better performance and longevity grace this part over its predecessor the MX100, see the performance section below for more info. I reused my Samsung Pro 840 128GB SSD for the app drive which still has plenty of useful life after only 2 years.

For my data tier I reused my 2TB Western Digital AV-GP which I originally bought for my first HTPC build. Over time it migrated to my PC. The AV-GP line is marketed towards DVR, surveillance or streaming applications being able to support numerous streams with around the clock reliability. Discerning the true difference between these drives as marketed is difficult but WD gives some guidelines, plus the offered warranty of each is very telling. This one comes in the middle at 3 years under coverage.

SSD:

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HDD:

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Graphics

I’ve been buying eVGA GTX boards for many years now and this build breaks from that tradition. With many contenders in the GTX 970/980 space all using the same NVidia chips, differentiating can be difficult. The MSI GTX 970 4G “Frozr” board leads the pack in terms of performance, price and cooling ability. There are number benchmarks out there comparing top of the line GPUs and the MSI consistently stands out. With 4GB of GDDR5 RAM clocked at 7GHz, CUDA cores variably clocked between 1051MHz and 1279MHz (including boost clock) and a 148w TDP, what’s not to love? The killer features of this card include a tunable gaming app that allows you to choose between OC, gaming and silent modes to maximize performance or limit noise. The fans spin only when they need to, so there’s a very good chance that you could open your case to find these fans not moving at all! 

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PSU

Reused from my previous build is my 140mm modular PSU from Silverstone: ST55F. Gold efficiency, clean power, fully modular, with a max of 600 watts, this PSU should provide everything I need and more. I also reused the SilverStone PP05 short cable kit. If you go this route and want a prettier and higher quality short cable kit, consider a fix number of PP07 cables instead. I used maybe 2 or 3 cables from the PP05 kit leaving the others to waste. Space is at a premium so the less you have to tuck inside of tight spaces the better! The review site JonnyGuru.com does an incredibly detailed job reviewing power supplies so definitely stop there first to check out any PSU contenders.

Case and Completed Build

My Silverstone SG09 served me well over the past 2 years with a minimalist footprint but controversial front that proved to be very polarizing. I wouldn’t call it beautiful but I didn’t hate it either. Functionally, this case was very well designed and high quality. I debated reusing this component but ultimately decided to upgrade the look of my PC with something stunningly beautiful without sacrificing too much in additional size. Top contenders included the Node 804 from Fractal Designs but that case is huge and I really don’t need that many HDDs. Another contender was the Corsair Air 240, another good looking cube that suffers from the same problem: too big! Then I found the Phenom M from BitFenix and made my selection. The Phenom M is 1” taller, 1” wider and half an inch deeper than the SG09, which I found to be an acceptable tradeoff. I debated long and hard about black vs white but ultimately went with the white case and couldn’t be happier. The Phenom M is a thing of pure beauty!

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The Phenom is a mix of steel and soft plastic with the same basic air flow design as the SG09: top down cooling, rear and optional bottom exhaust. This goes against the natural order of things (heat rising) but works very well with 2 x 120mm NF-F12 fans blowing air down into the case, directly into the GPU, and 140mm at the back to exhaust. The rear fan can be either 120mm or 140mm, I opted for the later which is audible at times briefly under load. Otherwise this build is silent! The black removable dust filter along the top of the case is the only filtered air input aside from the mesh in the front cover used by the solely PSU, which exhausts downward. The case supports a 120mm radiator, such as the Corsair H80i, for liquid cooling but I ultimately decided to stick with air. The base can support dual 120mm fans or a single 200mm fan. This area can also be used to house 3.5” HDDs so the case comes with a removable heat shield underneath. Lots of different configurations are possible with this case which is fantastic!

The image below shows my completed build and illustrates the airflow scheme per my design selections. The PSU breaths cold air from the front, exiting the bottom via a dedicated cutout. All other components receive cold air from the top fan pushed downward and hot air leaves the case via the 140mm fan at the rear. The 120mm CPU fan blows cold air across the radiator fins and with hot air exhausted via the 140mm fan. Backwards from how you’d think this should work but it works well. There aren’t a lot of nooks to tuck cables into in this case so bundling is about as good as it gets. Shorter cables complicates this a bit

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The SSDs are mounted on the side panel containing the power button and USB ports, I have moved this panel to the left side of the case behind the motherboard. To do this requires flipping the cover upside down but this works better anyway as you don’t have to worry about disconnecting cables to open your case! I ran my SSD cables under the cages they attach to allowing the panel to sit flush on the left side. Tight fit but perfect end result.

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Here you can see the underside of the case with the PSU intake cutout and bottom heat shield below the HDD.

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Isn’t she pretty?!

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Performance

From a subjective perspective, I have absolutely zero complaints. Application speed, graphics quality and noise are all outstanding. That said, I can occasionally hear the 140mm fan spinning up a bit under load. There is an included noise reducing adapter that can be installed should this become bothersome. It took 3 minutes flat to install Windows 8.1 from the first click to first logon screen. 20 seconds to boot.

Synthetic benchmarks are…synthetic, but they can give a decent idea of relative performance to other devices that have run the same benchmark. Here are my results using Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 which has a decent assortment of tests still relevant to a desktop PC. All categories faired better than reference except for CPU and GPU for 3D which got beaten by higher end components. Is it fair to compare a 4 core part to a 6 core part? Ce la vie. Although my CPU did win out for single threaded operations and my GPU won for 2D graphics. Interesting to note that my 2 year old DDR3 DIMMs scored better than all DDR3 and the one DDR4 reference marks. PerformanceTest 8 allows you to add additional baselines that have been uploaded by others and compared to many of those with similar specs, I’m neither the best, nor the worst, nor am I overclocked like many of them. Many don’t run as much RAM as I do either.

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CPU reference win:

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MX100 vs MX200, just more reason to buy the MX200!

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WD AV-GP HDD which scored better than all reference HDDs:

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Overall, this looks to be a very favorable run based on this tool and the included reference part comparisons.

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From a CPU and component temperature perspective, this new build isn’t much different from the one I did 2 years ago also based on a 22nm part. CPU temps are very similar which is ok considering my Haswell part is +10 watts hungrier, the base core voltage applied is ~.2 volts lower and my Haswell part is clocked 500MHz higher. Also, the Arctic Silver break-in period will take a few hundred hours so these temps should drop a bit.

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Under minimal load, the GPU temps hover around 38 degrees. Under load playing Ori and the Blind Forest at max resolution the temps got as high as 55 degrees, still no GPU fans required as they remain motionless!

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Running the Heaven benchmark by Unigine to push the GPU a bit more yielded very good results running the high setting at full resolution averaged at 100 FPS. Wow! The GPU fans remained motionless until 60-62 degrees then started spinning silently. The GPU touched 69 degrees once during the test but never hit 70.

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Build Summary

Total invested here, not including the parts I reused, was ~$1200. The Phenom M is a beautiful case to build in but definitely more on the difficult side. I would not recommend this case to beginners unless you have a few builds under your belt or an experienced friend there to help you along. Building SFF means careful part selection and thoughtful consideration to things like airflow. The net result here is a beautiful gaming PC that is dead silent 95% of the time and crazy powerful with enough resources to handle whatever I throw at it.

Motherboard

Asus Z97M-Plus
CPU Intel Core-i7 4790K
CPU Cooler Noctua NH-U12S (with NF-F12 fan)
Memory 4 x 8GB Crucial Ballistix Sport VLP
OS SSD
Scratch SSD
Data HDD
Crucial MX200 – 512GB
Samsung Pro 840 – 128GB
WD AV-GP – 2TB
Graphics MSI GTX 970 4G Twin Frozr
PSU Silverstone ST55F with PP05 short cable kit
Fans 2 x Noctua NF-F12 (120mm)
1 x Noctua NF-A14 (140mm)
Case BitFenix Phenom M
OS Windows 8.1 Pro with Update - x64
Monitors 2 x Dell U2412M panels (24”)

Side note – If you use a wired XBOX360 controller in your Win8.1 build, the Win7 drivers work great: https://support.xbox.com/en-US/xbox-360/accessories/connect-wired-controller-computer

Resources:

Arctic Sliver 5 - Vertical Line Method

Asus Z97 Motherboard Comparison Table

Intel CPU Specification Comparison

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