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The making of Damagebox 2015

A tour of my new build
— 3:43 PM on May 13, 2015

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We spend a ton of our time around here looking at individual PC components, but at heart, that work is meant to serve a larger goal: putting together the best possible PC. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like I don't get to spend enough time actually building complete systems. Yeah, I'm constantly working with test rigs, but that's not the same as hand-building a PC for your own personal use.

Heck, since I started this gig, my own personal PC has largely been cobbled together from whatever leftover parts I could find in Damage Labs. Intentionally setting out to build something coherent from hand-picked components simply wasn't compatible with that approach. Heck, I haven't even upgraded all that often, since so much of my work relies on keeping my main system intact. I learned long ago that, as a hardware reviewer, you've gotta be careful about tinkering with your own system. Nothing destroys your productivity more comprehensively than, say, deciding to do a little overclocking and frying your Windows installation in the process.

Follow that line of thinking for a while, and you wind up with my recent dilemma. Although surrounded by beefy test rigs, I was still doing my everyday work on the system known as Damagebox 2011, a PC whose motherboard I never particularly liked and whose CPU was shockingly from a pre-Sandy-Bridge vintage.  The daily experience of using the system wasn't terrible, but I was keenly aware that I could do better.

This time around, I actually decided to do something about it. I resolved to build a new Damagebox from all-new, hand-selected parts that would form a coherent whole. This system would reflect my own personal tastes while relying heavily on what we've learned in our reviews of recent PC components. It would be good looking, with a distinct sense of style. And, if possible, it would enhance my daily workflow by improving on my last system in tangible ways.

With that plan in mind, I went to several of our top sponsors, firms that make components that fit with my aspirations, and asked them to help out. Happily, the folks at Cooler Master, Gigabyte, and OCZ agreed to support this silly project and to contribute a bunch of hardware. I then went shopping on their websites and picked out a selection of components to fit my needs. Next, I hit up the folks at Intel and WD to fill in the gaps, and the full specs for the new Damagebox came together.

Long story short, I got the parts, I built it, and it is most excellent.

What follows is a tour of the parts I chose and a look at how the build came together. I should warn you that Damagebox 2015 isn't really a high-concept build, not like some of them. It's not a budget box with components selected for perfect value, nor is it a no-holds-barred masterpiece with a custom water-cooling loop and a special paint job. Nope, it's just a really nice, modern system meant to fit my needs. It's a clean build,  is exceptionally quiet, and was in no way difficult to put together. I don't know whether this exact mix of components would be a perfect fit for anyone else, but it is precisely what I like, for reasons I'll explain as we go.

The core components
CPU: Intel Core i7-4790K — What, no Haswell-E? Nope. I have nothing against the eight-core monstrosities that Intel sells as high-end desktop parts these days. They are excellent by almost any standard, with few drawbacks beyond the added cost. But my favorite desktop processor right now is the Core i7-4790K, a desktop quad-core with eight threads and a modest 88W power envelope. The 4790K has a base clock of 4GHz and a Turbo peak of 4.4GHz, the highest clock speeds of any Haswell-derived processor on the market.  As a K-series part, it's unlocked for easy overclocking, and we've taken ours to 4.7 and 4.8GHz without much trouble.

I can explain my affection for the 4790K with words, but a few graphs might be more effective. The two most difficult things I'll ask my PC's processor to do are gaming and video encoding. Have a look at these results, taken from my Core i7-5960X review.

Thanks to its high clock speeds, the 4790K is the fastest CPU you can buy for PC gaming. The Haswell-E-based Core i7-5960X isn't bad, but don't pony up the extra dollars for it expecting bragging rights. In real games, the 4790K outperforms it.

As for video encoding, the 5960X's eight cores and 16 threads can sometimes give it an advantage, as in the Handbrake test above, but not always. At other times, the 4790K's combination of eight hardware threads and higher clock speeds wins even in video encoding. The 4790K is more power efficient, too, with less power draw at peak and idle than the 5960X.

Don't get me wrong. I like the shock-and-awe aspect of a processor showing sixteen threads in Task Manager and commanding a price of just under a grand. But objectively speaking, based on cold, hard data, someone with my needs is better off with a 4790K.

Heck, I even thought the 4790K might be better for video editing work thanks to its built-in QuickSync hardware encoding block. Having now already lived the dream a bit with QuickSync in common software, though, I'd probably edit out that part of the rationale. I quickly decided that CPU encoding is preferable for most of what I do.

Anyhow, that's the story of why I selected a quad-core processor for the new Damagebox. If years of testing desktop CPUs in practical scenarios has taught be anything, it's that one should never ignore Amdahl's Law.  Per-thread performance matters more than you might think, and the Core i7-4790K is the current champ in that department. Choosing it for my build was only natural.

The motherboard: Gigabyte's Z97X-Gaming G1 — Having decided on a Haswell K-series processor for my system, I needed a Z97-based motherboard to go with it. Gigabyte's Z97X-Gaming G1 may be the swankiest Z97 board possible, stuffed with slots, ports, and features until there's no room for more. This board's red-and-black color scheme also matches perfectly with the rest of the components I'll be using, as you'll soon see.

Truth be told, we don't often recommend boards this high-end in our system guides, simply because you can get away with paying less if you don't need, say, this board's dual GigE ports and quad PCIe x16 slots. Gigabyte offers a whole line of Z97-based products with similar firmware and such, and any one of them is likely to serve you well. I decided to indulge here since, well, Gigabyte was offering its best, and I like a few things about this board

One of those things is the integrated audio, which may finally let me dispense with a discrete sound card. Gigabyte has paid close attention to analog signal quality. They've created a short, direct route from the onboard Creative Core3D audio chip through the onboard op-amp to the output ports. The traces on that path are isolated from one another, with the left and right audio channels on different layers of the circuit board to prevent crosstalk and interference. The trace paths are  lined with high-quality capacitors, visible as a row of green-coated caps in the picture above. The op-amp is socketed and can be replaced with different types, if desired.

So far, the G1 Gaming's audio has been good enough that I've not been tempted to drop in a discrete sound card. If it becomes an issue, I may try out a few different op-amp options to see how that changes things.

This board has a ton of other extra features, including a Killer NIC backed by a second Intel GigE port, a slot config capable of hosting up to four graphics cards simultaneously, and a metric ton of SATA and USB ports. One of the conveniences of a high-end mobo like this one is an ample selection of practically everything. My favorite little touch on the G1 Gaming is the CPU_OPT fan header meant to power the pumps in liquid coolers. This header can be set to ignore the mobo's fan-speed control routines, so the voltage to the pump won't vary. Little touches like that one can remove some of the drama from the build process. You don't have the spend the extra cash to get a board like this one, but doing so will often make life a bit easier.