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.
The core components — continued
Video cards: Gigabyte GeForce GTX 970 G1 Gaming — The selection of a GeForce GTX 970 for this system should be uncontroversial. The GTX 970 offers one of the best price-performance combinations of any graphics card on the market right now. The choice of this particular model shouldn’t come as any surprise, either. I gave this card’s GTX 980 sibling a TR Recommended award not long ago, and this is the same basic setup. Gigabyte’s triple-fan cooler is whisper quiet and deadly effective, yet it’s relatively compact. And Gigabyte’s GM204 cards are distinctive in offering triple DisplayPort outputs, which is what you want for future-proofing.
The intrigue comes from the fact that I’ve chosen to install two of these things in the Damagebox at once, despite my usual warnings that multi-GPU systems aren’t always a smart choice. Hear me out here.
Our usual advice is to resort to multi-GPU only once you’ve exhausted the single-card options for getting higher performance. I think that’s generally a sound approach, since multi-GPU performance scaling can present all sorts of problems. In this case, though, single GTX 970 cards like these are selling for around $350 with clock speeds high enough to put their performance close to a stock GTX 980. Yet doubling up on these things doesn’t cost much more than a single GTX 980, and it’s fully 300 bucks cheaper than a Titan X. I’d say the value proposition is there.
Beyond that, many of the multi-GPU issues we’ve encountered in recent times have been associated with AMD’s CrossFire tech, not Nvidia’s SLI. My sense is that Nvidia invests substantially in driver development to make sure SLI offers folks a good experience. I wanted to live with an SLI setup in my own rig for a while to see what it looks like.
I’m hopeful that the advent of new APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan will force the GPU makers to dispense with alternate-frame rendering and use a more honest approach to multi-GPU load-balancing, one that truly improves the user experience rather than inflating FPS averages like AFR does. I wouldn’t recommend making a move to multi-GPU configs yet on that basis, but I do think better days may be ahead. Having two cards in my system will allow me to track any progress on this front.
Memory: G.Skill Trident X DDR3 2400 dual 8GB DIMMs — For the past year or so, G.Skill DIMMs have been a prominent part of our system guide recs because they’ve had some of the best prices on Newegg for memory modules from an established brand. I figured I might as well build my own system around the same products we recommend, and G.Skill was happy to oblige by sending a pair of Trident X modules.
Their red-and-black heatspreaders are a perfect match for the Z97X motherboard’s color scheme. Going with a pair of 8GB DIMMs gives me the chance to upgrade to 32GB at some point in the future, if I want.
These modules are rated for an operating speed of 2400 MT/s at 1.65V. I wouldn’t pay a ton more for that extra frequency, since I don’t think Haswell is typically constrained by memory bandwidth (unless you’re using integrated graphics). But G.Skill doesn’t charge a huge premium for its 2400 MT/s modules, so why not?
The storage subsystem
SSDs: Dual OCZ Vector 150 480GB 2.5″ SATA drives — Of course you’re gonna find an SSD doing service as the boot drive in pretty much any modern build, but this time out, I’m taking advantage of the constant price drops in flash-based storage by adding nearly a terabyte of SSD space, all told.
I’m using one of the fastest SATA SSDs we’ve ever tested, OCZ’s Vector 150. (For what it’s worth, OCZ has since introduced the Vector 180, which has newer flash but very similar performance.) Going with a fast drive at a large capacity has a number of advantages, including a lower cost per gigabyte, oftentimes higher write performance, and potentially more longevity.
I could be really hard-core and go for a PCIe SSD. Now that a few native PCIe drives for consumers have arrived, they do tend to light up the performance benchmarks. However, our tests have shown that they’re not appreciably faster in desktop workloads than the best SATA drives. PC software may have to be rearchitected to take advantage of faster storage before we see the true benefits of a faster disk interface. For now, SATA storage of this class still looks like a safe bet.
My plan: to boot off one of the SSDs and store my OS and programs there. The other SSDs is dedicated to Steam games.
Just pause a moment to take in the glory of that.
Yes, 480GB of fast flash storage dedicated to games. I can run games quickly locally, and I can copy them across the GigE network to my test rigs at near-wire speeds. Spoiler alert: the rollout of Project Cars in Damage Labs was a wondrous thing to behold.
Hard drives: Dual WD Red 6TB drives — The storage subsystem in the old Damagebox was the one thing I spent the most time waiting on, by far, and it was also becoming disconcertingly overcrowded. My two WD Green 2TB drives in a RAID 1 mirror were getting kind of old and were full to the brim. I wanted to go for a higher-capacity setup this time out based on newer, faster drives, so naturally, I turned to WD again.
My plan was to grab a pair of WD Green 4TB drives to put into a RAID 1 mirror. The folks at WD were happy to oblige, but they massively exceeded expectations by sending out a couple of Red drives with a staggering 6TB of capacity.
Expletive deleted, man. That’s all I can say about that.
WD recommends using its Red drives for NAS devices and RAID arrays, since the firmware in them has some special provisions to prevent array synchronization problems. WD is coy about the exact rotational speed of the platters in these drives, listing them only as “IntelliPower,” but we’re pretty sure they spin at about 5,400 RPM. That’s fine for my purposes, since I mostly want to store data files on these drives, many of them videos and pictures.
I can tell you that these Red drives are clearly faster than my old Green 2TB drives, and from inside the Damagebox, they’re completely inaudible, even with two of them doing the same things in concert as a mirrored volume.
The case and cooling
Enclosure: Cooler Master Silencio 652S ATX case — I hate it when a build looks cobbled together from a bunch of different sources with no common sense of style. I also happen to prefer stately, understated industrial design with an emphasis on acoustics and functionality. Those preferences led me inexorably to choose the Silencio 652S from among Cooler Master’s lineup. Just look at this thing.
The Silencio 652S is a mid-tower ATX enclosure with an emphasis on silent operation, and it fits my preferred style perfectly. You can see in the shot above how the Silencio’s motherboard tray is lined with grommets for cable routing and how the area beneath the CPU socket offers a generous-sized cutout for cooler backplace access. Also visible are the case’s five removable 2.5″ drive bays, along with three removable 3.5″ bays.
The case’s three 120-mm Silencio fans and multiple dust covers can’t all be seen in the shot above, but they’re there. The side cover is coated in a noise-dampening foam, too. The top panel of the case is covered by a removable lid, to dampen noise coming from inside, and the hinged front door serves a similar purpose. Cooler Master hasn’t skimped on much of anything here, yet this case sells for only 120 bucks. I’m cramming much more expensive hardware into this thing, but everything feels completely at home there.
CPU cooler: Cooler Master Nepton 120XL — I didn’t have the best of luck with the closed-loop liquid cooler in Damagebox 2011, but I can’t quite get over how these things transport heat directly to the edges of the case and expel it. Just seems like the right approach, I guess.
The Nepton 120XL is more than a match for my Core i7-4790K, yet it’s compact enough to fit into the Silencio with no issues. Not only does the Nepton look like it belongs inside of the 652S case, but Cooler Master also uses the same Silencio fans in the Nepton as they do in the 652S, so their acoustic profiles should match.
Power supply: Cooler Master V750 PSU — The V750 is a semi-modular power supply. That simply means that the parts you’ll probably always need, like the ATX and PCIe power leads, are permanently connected to the box, while the optional cables for powering storage devices and peripherhals can be connected at will. Consider that making the ATX and PCIe power leads detachable adds cost to a PSU for no real benefit, and you may decide that products like the V750 make a lot of sense.
My build has dual Gigabyte GTX 970 graphics cards, remember, so I need four PCIe aux power leads and enough wattage to drive them all. The V750 more than delivers, with a single-rail design and enough excess capacity that I’ll never have to worry about it.
And this thing is quiet. Unlike some PSUs, the V750 doesn’t spin down its fan when lightly loaded—but I had to look up this fact online, since the V750 is impossible to hear most of the time.
The keyboard: CM Storm QuickFire XT with Cherry MX green switches — Since we’re working with Cooler Master, I had the opportunity to get my hands on some of their latest input devices, and I couldn’t resist. Perhaps my favorite component of the new Damagebox is the QuickFire XT keyboard with Cherry MX green switches.
QuickFire XT keyboards have a pretty straightforward appeal. They feature your choice of the main varieties of Cherry’s MX mechanical switches, and their full-sized, no-frills layout is exactly what I want. Couple those elements with a rock-solid enclosure and with stellar build quality, and you have one of our favorite keyboards anywhere.
The cherry on top of this particular sundae is the inclusion of MX green switches, which are almost mythical due to their limited availability. You probably won’t find a QuickFire XT with green switches on Newegg or Amazon, but one might occasionally pop up on Cooler Master’s own online store.
The thing is, the green switches are magical sources of incredible positive feedback. Each keypress releases a little finger-gasm of pleasure. Like MX blue switches, they offer a tactile bump and an audible click when actuated, but the greens are much more stiffly sprung. If you’re an old geezer, they might remind you of the feel of some vaunted early PC keyboards. The IBM Model M is the one usually praised in song and legend, but the green switches more closely remind me of the feel of my old favorite, the Northgate OmniKey. Some folks may not want a keyboard that requires this much effort on each keystroke, but for me, this thing is perfection.
The mouse: CM Storm Mizar — I’ve had a bad run with mice lately. Multiple products from, ahem, another brand have failed on me in different ways in recent weeks. Geoff has already noted the Mizar’s similarity in shape to ye olde MS Intellimouse Explorer in his review, and he talked about the 8200-DPI sensor. Those are fine attributes, but what sets the Mizar apart for me is its build quality. The Teflon feet on this mouse are properly placed so that the mouse glides across the desk much more easily than some of its competitors, and Cooler Master has used real rubber grips on its sides to enhance its, umm, grippability.
So far, the Mizar has tracked flawlessly for me on my dark, worn desktop surface, a feat not all modern mice seem able to manage.
The headset: CM Storm Ceres 500 — I’ve been using the same old Plantronics headset for something like 174 episodes of the TR podcast, and it was time for a change.
The Ceres 500 offers larger cans than my old headset. They encompass the entire ear, rather than resting on top of it, so they provide better isolation and a more comfortable fit. The mic is on a flexible boom, and it pops out when not needed. And the Ceres plugs directly into a USB port, with its own built-in USB sound card, to ensure decent audio quality.
I see that this headset also has a switch for going into something called a “console mode,” but I don’t understand it entirely. Something about the peasantry, I think.
The build process
I put this system together completely in one shot, and—wonder of wonders—it booted on the first attempt. That is not my usual outcome, but that’s what happened. I’ll take a little credit, I guess. I believe the whole process took about 90 minutes, start to finish, but I’ll admit that I kind of lost track of time once I got into it. I do know that I took some extra time to get the cable routing right.
One of the benefits of building a PC from all-new, high-quality components is that you have a good chance of everything fitting together well. This build was unusually straightforward on that front. Every device that needed to be plugged in had a corresponding header on the motherboard or lead coming from the PSU, and I didn’t need a single plug adapter or part that wasn’t included in the box with one of the components. Heck, I only needed to snap a single modular lead into the PSU to power the system’s four storage devices. That was it.
Here’s a look at the guts of the assembled system.
The Sliencio swallowed up the extra-long Gigabyte G1 Gaming graphics cards without me having to move any of the drive cages around. Everything else fit nicely, too. There’s a lot going on in there, but there was still plenty of room to work as long as I didn’t install both graphics cards until everything else was connected. I think the final result looks pretty tight, with nary a stray lead or extra wire in sight.
Most of the cabling spaghetti instead hides behind the motherboard tray and on the other side of the drive cages, which is right where it’s meant to be. Perhaps you can tell that I used black twist-ties to secure some of the cables. Cooler Master includes some nice, black zip ties with the case, but to my mind, they’re too permanent and hard to remove. Twist-ties get the job done while allowing for quick modifications if you decide to change something.
I knew from our review that one of the drawbacks of the Silencio 652S case is the amount of space behind the motherboard tray. Since I was aware of the issue, I took a few extra minutes at the tail end of the assembly process to re-route some of the major cable bundles so they took the most direct route possible and didn’t cross any other big cables. That work paid off when it came time to install the side panel; it went on immediately without issue, no extra pressure or drama required.
For what it’s worth, I was in no way diligent about the order of the installation. I didn’t even think about installing the rear bracket for the CPU cooler, visible above, until after the motherboard was in the case. Happily, Cooler Master left a big enough opening in the mobo tray to allow installation later. Phew.
As you may be gathering, though, little episodes like that one were kind of the nature of this build. I’ve learned to be calm and meticulous when building PCs over the years, and in return, component makers have built in a host of little provisions to prevent the worst “gotchas” from making the process frustrating. Frankly, I think the worst part of building a new PC now is installing Windows and applications. The hardware guys have gone to great lengths to facilitate do-it-yourself assembly.
The finished product
The biggest revelatory moment of this whole project came when I fired up the new Damagebox for the first time. After getting over the initial giddiness about the system booting and finding all of the devices on the first attempt, I was hit with a fantastic realization: this thing is quiet.
In fact, my first worry was that the fan leads were somehow not connected properly, because I literally could not hear the system’s fan noise over the ambient noise level in the room. A quick inspection confirmed that the fans were moving air just fine. The truth was that, even without an operating system installed, the new Damagebox was just ridiculously quiet during normal idle operation. I thought my old Corsair 600T was pretty good on this front, but it’s not at all in the same league as the Silencio. I still can’t believe this is a $120 case. Credit all of the other components in the new Damagebox for doing their part, too.
I’m writing this article on the new Damagebox, and I’ve now been using it for over a week as my main PC. The reality of this thing’s quiet operation has since sunk in, but I’m no less pleased with it when I stop and think about it. A large majority of the time while I’m using it, this system is effectively silent. The fans do spin up under heavy loads, but they’re pretty subdued even at peak loudness.
I’m also pleased to report that I’ve avoided any of the nasty teething problems that one sometimes has with a new build. I did some initial stability and thermal testing with combined CPU and graphics workloads, and the system was rock-solid stable from the start.
I believe the only time it locked up on me was when I first tried to turn up the memory clock via the XMP profiles. The first profile wasn’t quite stable, but switching to the second one solved that problem. These G.Skill Trident X DIMMs are now running at 2400MHz at 10-12-12 timings and 1.65V. As I’ve said, I don’t think Haswell quad-cores are particularly memory-bandwidth-limited in most desktop apps, but wringing out the extra speed was easy.
As you may know, on most enthusiast motherboards these days, messing with the memory timings unlocks a “feature” of the firmware that effectively overclocks the CPU. True story. Gigabyte does it, and so does everybody else. As a result, instead of my Core i7-4790K topping out at 4.4GHz with one core active and dropping off to slower speeds with more cores engaged, the CPU runs at 4.4GHz with all four cores fully loaded.
You can generally turn off this behavior by disabling “multicore enhancement” in the firmware, but I’m not going to do that. I’m happy to have the extra performance. Gigabyte’s hardware monitor utility tells me the CPU uses 118W when running Prime95 with all cores at 4.4GHz, and the Nepton cooler has no trouble dealing with that. I know from past experience overclocking the 4790K that clock speeds of about 4.8GHz should be possible with some overvolting. I might try to squeeze out higher clocks at some point, but right now, I’m just not feeling the need.
One of the perks of these swanky new SSDs is actual software to use with them. The SSDs in my old system were pretty much black boxes, but OCZ provides a utility called SSD Guru that offers status info and control over the Vector 150. As you can see above, the utility confirms that the drive is attached to a 6Gbps SATA port set properly to AHCI mode, offers a health report, and checks to see whether the drive’s firmware is up-to-date. Another tab lets you manually issue a TRIM command to reclaim empty flash blocks (although manual intervention shouldn’t really be necessary). You can even increase the amount of over-provisioned space on the drive in order to make its performance more robust and improve its longevity. This level of control is a darn sight better than the total bupkis I got from older drives.
All in all, I’m very much pleased with how the new system came together, and it does offer some tangible improvements in my everyday workflow over the older box. The new storage subsystem is huge. Copying Steam games to my test rigs from this 480GB SSD at near-wire-speed is dramatically faster. I’ve already saved a ton of time doing that. I’m also happy to have moved from a Gulftown CPU with a 3.6GHz peak Turbo speed to a Haswell with a 4.4GHz peak, which brings a considerable increase in per-thread performance. Some things that weren’t snappy before are now.
That said, it is amazing how Windows software developers can manage to make even the fastest systems pause for 20 seconds here and there for no apparent reason. (Thanks, Corel.) Fast hardware isn’t always a cure for slow software.
The verdict is still out on some aspects of Damagebox 2015. I’ve not yet spent enough time playing games on the GTX 970 SLI setup to have a sense of what I think. That’s more of a long-term project, and I may need to upgrade to a 4K monitor in order to really push these cards. (Aw, shucks.) I also retain a glimmer of hope that one of this thing’s hardware H.264 encoders, either QuickSync or NVENC, will prove worthwhile when I’m preparing videos for upload to YouTube. I’m slowly discovering, however, that CPU-based encoding seems to be the best option overall in terms of software support and quality at a given bitrate.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in this process, though, is just a confirmation of something I already suspected: it’s way nicer to build a PC out of all-new parts than to piece one together out of leftovers. I’ve built a number of PCs in recent years around an eclectic mix of cast-off parts from Damage Labs. They’re fine systems that do their jobs for their owners, but they were harder to assemble and have some persistent quirks that this box just doesn’t have.
Similarly, if you’re new to building PCs, have no fear. Putting together your own system is easier than ever. You’ll learn a lot in the process, and if you pick your parts well, you’re almost certain to be pleased with the final results.