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Building the Skylake Damagebox


A state-of-the-art build—that we're giving away
— 1:32 PM on November 2, 2015

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Earlier this year, I built myself an excellent new PC which I dubbed the Damagebox 2015. The concept of the Damagebox, in each of its many past iterations, has never been about total excess. Instead, I've sought to combine top-shelf performance with quiet operation and a not-entirely-unreasonable price tag. In recent years, I've come to appreciate the virtues of a clean and elegant build, too.

For Damagebox 2015, I did something different from past builds. Instead of reaching into the spare parts bin here in Damage Labs and cobbling together something based on slightly older hardware that I didn't need for testing any longer, I talked some of the companies we work with into supplying brand-new parts for the system. I wrote an article about the process. And then I slid that box in next to my desk and put it to good use. That system was built with some of the latest and best hardware available at the time, and I can attest that it has been an outstanding daily driver.

Let's face it, I don't need a new PC. But in the months since I built my system, there have been some pretty consquential new hardware releases. Among them are Intel's Skylake processors and the accompanying Z170 chipset. This new CPU architecture brings with it a nice 5-15% bump in performance, and the new chipset adds a ton of bandwidth for high-speed USB and storage. Meanwhile, the burgeoning world of PC hardware has seen nifty new products introduced in nearly every category.

Now wouldn't be a bad time to, you know, build an ever better system than the last Damagebox.

Hmm.

I figured I wouldn't mind taking a crack at it. We talked to the folks at Cooler Master, Asus, and Kingston HyperX, and they agreed to help make it happen. And since I don't need a new system, I figure we might as well give this one away to some lucky reader.

Yep, this is the first Damagebox that somebody other than me will get to use every day. I have to tell you, I'm already a little bit jealous, because this one turned out really well.

What follows is my account of the component selection and build process for the Skylake Damagebox.  If you'd rather see it in video form, just hit play below. At the end of this exercise, I'll tell you how you can enter to win this system.

The core components
CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K — If you've read our review of the Core i7-6700K, you probably know the story here. The 6700K is based on Intel's new Skylake architecture and offers higher performance and improved power efficiency over the Haswell chips that preceded it in desktop systems. Skylake chips are built on Intel's 14-nm chip fabrication process and have a number of incremental improvements meant to raise per-clock instruction throughput. The 6700K is the fastest Skylake processor available, with four cores, eight threads, and a 4.2GHz Turbo peak. Since it's a K-series product, the 6700K has an unlocked upper multiplier that should make overclocking easy, too.

The 6700K was the obvious choice to anchor the Skylake Damagebox, although folks building their own systems may want to consider the Core i5-6600K, a similarly unlocked CPU that costs about $100 less.

Motherboard: Asus ROG Maximus VIII Hero — Asus makes really good motherboards generally, but those that fall under the Republic of Gamers tag are something special. They practically bristle with new features, fast ports, and fancy firmware options. Here at TR, we don't always recommend spending the extra cash to get a ROG board, but given the chance to spend some time with one, we can't deny that they're very nice indeed.

The Maximus VIII Hero is a standard-sized ATX board that takes full advantage of the formidable bandwidth of Skylake processors and the Z170 chipset by offering up a host of high-speed ports and slots. Those include dual PCIe x16 slots that use eight lanes each from the CPU when two GPUs are installed, a grand total of eight SATA 6Gbps ports, and two USB 3.1 ports—one each of types A and C—with up to 10Gbps of throughput. The board devotes four PCIe Gen3 lanes to its M.2 slot for solid-state storage based on the new NVMe standard, as well.

As a ROG board, the Hero is blessed with some special sauce not included on more pedestrian offerings. One is a premium audio setup known as SupremeFX that's meant to obviate the need for a discrete sound card. This audio solution features ESS DACs, Nichicon capacitors, and electromagnetic shielding that runs between the audio electronics and the analog outputs on rear edge of the board. Also, in a bid to counter the Killer NIC used by some of its competitors, Asus has equipped the Hero with an Intel Gigabit Ethernet adapter and a custom software application that can prioritize game-related network traffic.

Memory: Kingston HyperX Savage DDR4 — Skylake brings with it support for DDR4 memory and the promise of more headroom for transfer rates. This Kingston DDR4's 3000 MT/s speeds help deliver on that promise at a bone-stock 1.35V. Intel only officially supports DDR4 speeds up to 2133 MT/s on the 6700K, but turning up the memory clock is effortless on a K-series part.

I'm not quite sure why Kingston decided to send four 4GB modules instead of two 8GB ones, which would leave some additional room for expandability. In an ideal world, I'd go with two larger modules. But whatever. I like the look of these DIMMs, and I'm pleased that they're not festooned with massive metal "heat spreaders" that could get in the way of an aftermarket CPU cooler. That fact is particularly relevant for reasons that will become clear shortly.

Graphics: Dual Asus Strix GTX 980 4GB — As you may recall, Damagebox 2015 had a pair of GeForce GTX 970s in it, which was a bit of an unusual choice since we here at TR have been skeptical about the benefits of multi-GPU setups. We typically recommend getting the fastest possible single GPU before doubling up on them. At the time, though, the GTX 970 wasn't far from the pinnacle of single-GPU performance. Since then, Nvidia has introduced the GeForce GTX 980 Ti and Titan X, and AMD has unleashed the Radeon R9 Fury X.

My thought was to include one of those GPUs in the new Damagebox, but the folks at Asus had different ideas. In what I suspect is a bit of one-upsmanship over our last build, they insisted on sending two Strix GTX 980 cards.

So the Skylake Damagebox will be another dually—not that there's anything wrong with that. These Asus Strix cards have quiet, beefy coolers, and their fans spin down when GPU temperatures are low enough, making them effectively passively cooled under low loads and on the Windows desktop. Like most Strix cards, these come with higher-than-stock clocks, too.