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The making of Damagebox 2011

In which I build me a new PC

I'll admit to being like the proverbial plumber with a leaky sink. When it comes to my own primary personal computer, I've been borderline neglectful for a little while now. The problem isn't really the hardware, exactly. You see, way back before Windows 7 came out, I ordered an upgrade version of Win7 Pro for 50 bucks. Seemed like a deal, and Vista wasn't exactly thrilling me. My plan was to build a new system and install Win7 on it, for a total hardware and software upgrade. Doing just an OS upgrade alone seemed like a lot of work, and I'm not one to pass up the opportunity for a quick hardware upgrade.

And then, I dunno, stuff happened.

Owning and writing for TR is, well, awesome, but it's not the most relaxing of occupations. At certain times of the year, my existence is almost entirely consumed by being continuously on deadline. The four-month blur at the end of 2010 didn't really ease up until after CES this year, for instance. Finding the time to build a new personal system, troubleshoot it, and re-install all of the applications, at the loss of other forms of productivity, isn't a simple matter.

Somehow, a succession of these blurry, on-deadline blocks passed, and before I knew it, it was 2011, and I was still running Windows Vista on my main PC. Windows 7 runs on every other Windows-based computer I use, including multiple laptops, my HTPC, and all of my test rigs. The dissonance with my main PC was, to my amusement, something I barely noticed 98% of the time. All of the apps worked the same, after all. The other 2%? Flashes of pure, incandescent rage at ridiculous interface choices and inexplicably still-broken features. After years of updates and multiple service packs, Vista still couldn't remember my default printer correctly, couldn't copy a file of any respectable size across my network, and so on.

Eventually, I couldn't stand it anymore. That sentiment converged with another powerful emotion, too.

You see, at CES this past year, I had an unusual experience while visiting one of the booths. Now, I've been to an awful lot of these trade shows over the years, and I've become horribly jaded. Looking at PC hardware components on display under harsh lighting lost any visceral appeal it may once have had long ago. Besides, I tend to geek out more over Sandy Bridge benchmark results or the latest GPU architecture than over a PC case or cooler.

Yet at the Corsair booth, as a rep was explaining something about a new product to the other guys, I gazed up at a demo system sitting alone on a pedestal with its side open. I forget if the case was a 600T or a 650D, but the build inside of it was incredibly clean, with impeccable cable routing, vast amounts of room to work, and a single, unified design theme executed in Cash-meets-Vader black on black.

And lo, I did lusteth after it in mine heart.

My rising desire for a total OS and hardware upgrade eventually poked through a small hole in my schedule, and last week, I set out at long last to build myself a new box.

The components
I wanted my component selection to mirror some of what we've put in our recent system guides, but my system builds are usually strongly influenced by whatever spare parts I can cull from the storage shelves in Damage Labs. That factor influenced some of my choices, although the overall build still looks quite a bit like the Sweeter Spot in many respects. Here are the components I chose.

Case, PSU, and CPU cooler - First of all, inquiries were made with Corsair, to see if indulging my CES-inspired urges might be possible. Heck, really, the integration between this chassis and the other components was the key to the build, as I envisioned it. The folks at Corsair were happy to oblige. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself humming the Imperial March while slicing open the box for this bad boy:

600t-purty.jpg, 129kB

Yep, it's the white-and-black edition of the 600T, affectionately nicknamed the Stormtrooper edition. Personally, I think its lines make it look more like a Scout Trooper, but I realize that simply having written those words consigns me to the seventh circle of nerd-dom. Whether you like it or not, the white 600T is striking, different, and a refreshing change from the sheer ubiquity of black computer components these days. I happen to think it looks quite nice in person. The bright white LEDs on the power button and case fans give it a certain purity, and the the white plastic really does fit with this enclosure's the bulbous exterior lines. This puppy is also way more of a conversation piece than even the most gorgeously understated black enclosures, like Corsair's 650D or Silverstone's many handsome efforts.

To go with it, I chose a Corsair AX750 PSU and an H60 self-enclosed CPU water cooler. Crucially, the AX750 has modular connections, so there won't be any extra power leads polluting the inside of my case. Sizing it was a matter of finding a PSU with enough power connections to support a possible SLI or CrossFire config in the future. Given how PSUs are sold these days, peak wattage is rarely a problem, especially in a single-rail design like Corsair's AX series. I didn't want to push into really high wattages where I'd potentially sacrifice efficiency and acoustics unnecessarily.

We'll talk more about the H60 shortly, and I'm sure you'll see its appeal.

CPU - You'd think I'd want a Sandy Bridge processor to drop into a new system build like this one, and you'd be correct. However, the Damage Labs parts shelf doesn't have a spare Sandy Bridge CPU sitting around on it, I can assure you. We need 'em all for testing, and probably any extras we can scrounge, too. The parts shelf did have another willing candidate, though: the six-core, 32nm, Gulftown-based Core i7-980X, recently surpassed as the fastest desktop processor on the planet by the Core i7-990X. With the 990X having taken over the top spot, the 980X was available. At a 3.33GHz base clock with a Turbo peak of 3.6GHz, the 980X doesn't exactly suck, either. I'd almost prefer the higher single-threaded performance of a fast Sandy Bridge chip, truth be told, but somehow I think I can live with this one.

Motherboard - Ok, honestly, I needed a mobo to support the Core i7-980X, and the obvious candidate was an Intel DX58SO2 that we'd retired after the Core i7-990X review because it gave us problems with overclocking. I'm not shy about saying that I'd much rather prefer a board from Asus, MSI, or Gigabyte; recent Intel desktop boards have been relatively feature rich (compared to past Intel boards) but frustratingly troublesome, as well. I've had much better luck with boards from the big three. Still, the DX58SO2 met all of my requirements, including Gulftown support, a nice mix of DIMM and PCIe slots, USB 3.0, and SATA 6Gbps. I figured even if it did have some quirks, I had the smarts and resources to work through them. I was right, in the end, but next time, I'll order an Asus or something. More about why coming up.

Graphics card - Since I do most of my gaming on the GPU test rigs instead of this system, a near-silent solution was more important to me than raw performance. Nevertheless, I had ambitious plans here involving a Zotac GTX 580 3GB card with an excellent triple-slot Zalman cooler. That cooler was a wonder of quiet effectiveness in our recent testing, but those tests were conducted without a sound card nestled right up against its two fans. Yeah, that doesn't work so well, thermally speaking, as I soon found out. My fall-back plan was MSI's excellent "Twin Frozr II" edition of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti. MSI's 560 Ti was quiet enough to reach the noise floor for our GPU test system in our acoustic measurements, and it's fast enough to make the Damagebox a competent participant in any LAN gaming sessions, despite my use of a 30", four-megapixel monster display.

Memory - Some amount of DDR3 memory was going into the box, either 6GB or 12GB, depending on what I could swing. This simple choice became complicated, for reasons I'll explain.

Storage - No question I was going to use an SSD as my primary boot drive, with large mechanical drives holding the the bulk of my personal data. I'd been saving the SSD for a Win7 upgrade for some time now; it's a 128GB OCZ Vertex with a firmware upgrade to support TRIM. Although newer SSDs can achieve higher sustained transfer rates, their near-instant access times aren't substantially quicker than an older SSD's near-instant access times, in the grand scheme. The Vertex gives me all of the major SSD benefits one would appreciate, including short boot times, quick program start-ups, and sheer silent operation. 128GB is large enough not to feel cramped, which is a nice change from the old 80GB Intel X25-M I'd been using before, where I had to manage storage space carefully.

I've used a pair of WD Caviar Green 1TB drives in a mirror as my primary storage array for a while. For this build, I simply broke the mirror and brought one the drives over to my new box, migrating all of my data while keeping my old PC fully operational during the transition. I've been tempted by cheap prices on 2TB drives lately, but I think 1TB will still suffice, in part because of the LG Blu-ray burner I've also carried over from my old system. The LG drive lets me archive things to optical disks in large chunks—TR server backups, family photos and videos, Steam game cache files—which is helpful.

Sound card - If you're a long-time TR reader, you know what the editors here think about the quality of discrete audio versus your typical, Realtek-driven integrated sound. You may also know that sound cards haven't progressed tremendously in the past, oh, five years or so (with the exception that Asus' excellent Xonar DG has pushed the price of entry for quality sound cards down to 30 bucks.) I wasn't shy about transporting my Auzentech X-Meridian over to my new PC and completely disabling the motherboard's built-in audio.

I believe that's about it for the core components. It's a bit of a Frankenbuild since I looted the parts shelf and carried over a few bits from my older PC, but as I said, the basic outlines turned out to be pretty similar to our Sweeter Spot spec in the guide—similar case, PSU, and Blu-ray drive, similar use of a ~128GB SSD backed by a 1TB hard disk, same basic class of graphics card, a 32nm Intel CPU, and a discrete sound card.

The next step, of course, was putting it all together.