Building the Skylake Damagebox

Building the Skylake Damagebox

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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.


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.


The storage subsystem
SSDs: Dual Kingston HyperX Savage 240GB — You know the deal right now. PC storage is on the cusp of a revolution thanks to the NVMe protocol and the move to make PCIe the transport layer of choice. Z170 motherboards come ready with M.2 slots for these fancy new SSDs, too. However, the drives that take advantage of this new tech are still fairly rare, and some entries, ahem, aren’t measurably faster than their SATA counterparts. The rare M.2 drives that perform better than SATA in synthetic tests haven’t yet managed to produce better results in our practical benchmarks of things like boot times and game level load times. Also, NVMe drives are still quite pricey in terms of cost per gigabyte.

As a result, we’re sticking with 6Gbps SATA drives for now—a pair of ’em. These HyperX Savage drives are based on a Phison controller that we’ve found to be a decent performer. They’re also very, very red. SSDs tend to be boring bricks, but Kingston has dressed these things up handsomely.

My plan is to use one SSD as a boot drive and to devote the other one to Steam games, but the person who wins this system is welcome to configure these two drives in a RAID 0 for even higher transfer rates.

Hard drives: Dual WD Black 6TB — WD stepped up and offered a pair of six-freaking-terabyte hard drives for our last build, and they were kind enough to do the same for this project.

WD’s Black drives spin their platters at 7,200 RPM, and they combine solid performance with massive capacity and near-silent operation. They’re my favorites among today’s hard drive offerings.

My plan, as usual, is to mate the two drives in a RAID 1 mirror, so that one wouldn’t lose that big pool of data in the event of a drive failure. Another option, for those who like to live on the wild side, would be to create a 12 terabyte RAID 0 array. That would be… sufficient.

Optical: Asus Blu-ray drive BC-12B1ST — Asus sent along this weird contraption that mounts into a 5.25″ drive bay and accepts, uh, some kind of round wafer-type things. I understand the “blue ray” variant of these wafers can be used like a virtual Netflix, even when offline, but there’s only one movie per physical wafer. Another type of wafer works sort of a like a USB thumb drive, apparently, only they’re limited to about 4GB of capacity each.

Anyhow, that it what they tell me. Asus is good at making things, and this is one of the things they make. You may even find these wafer-drives recommended in our system guides, as an option for those who want it.

The case and cooling
Enclosure: Cooler Master MasterCase 5 and friends —With Cooler Master involved, the MasterCase 5 was an obvious choice for the Skylake Damagebox. This new mid-tower ATX case is organized around an intriguing concept. The design is modular and, although the MasterCase 5 starts life as a solid-but-basic enclosure, it can be upgraded in various ways via add-ons available for purchase separately.

Here’s how the MasterCase 5 looked when it first came out of the box:

Not bad at all, but since we have the hook-up with Cooler Master, we soon had our enclosure looking like so:

Up top, we’ve installed the radiator mount module, which changes the look of the case substantially. We won’t actually need that mount for this build, but it’s an upgrade that improves the look, so I installed it, darn it. The other big change is the addition of a windowed side panel, a no-question addition that we’ll use to show off the guts of the final build.

Those guts include lots of space for storage expansion. The MasterCase 5 comes with a single drive cage featuring dual 3.5″ removable sleds, and you can expand its capacity by adding another cage, either for dual or triple drives. Both options are populated with removable 3.5″ sleds, as well. The case also comes with two 2.5″ drive sleds, like the one pictured above with the thumbscrew in it. There’s room for a total of four of those sleds: two up front and two behind the motherboard.

CPU cooler: Cooler Master Geminii S514 v2 — I’ve used closed-loop liquid cooling in a number of systems recently, and although I like it, liquid coolers do have their downsides. They’re more complex, so there’s more that can go wrong, for one thing. For another, liquid coolers don’t tend to move any air around the CPU socket, and that fact can create issues with hot VRMs and DIMMs, which tend to require a little bit of airflow in order to stay cool.

Cooler Master has an interesting alternative in the Geminii S524, an air cooler whose heatpipes make a right turn back over the CPU socket. The Geminii is an obvious candidate for small, low-profile enclosures, but it should also work well in a typical mid-tower like ours. That big 120-mm cooling fan ought to keep our Skylake cool without making too much noise, and since it hangs out over the DIMMs and VRMs, everything around the CPU socket should get some additional airflow, as well.

Power supply: Cooler Master V1200 Platinum — Well, this is overkill in the best possible way. I would have been happy with the V750 we used last time, but Cooler Master surprised us with a 1200W monster. Don’t take those words the wrong way, though. The V1200 Platinum fits into our case just fine, and its fully modular design means there won’t be any extra cables hanging off of it. Furthermore, thanks to a hybrid fan policy that spins down the PSU fan entirely with loads under 25% of peak, this puppy should be almost entirely silent at idle and when lightly loaded. Those folks who want the airflow from a slow-spinning fan at idle can disable the hybrid fan policy via a switch that goes in an expansion slot cover, shown below.

If for some reason the eventual owner of the Skylake Damagebox wants to upgrade massively, the V1200 Platinum can support up to 12 PCIe 6+2 aux power connections. The cables are all ribbon-style affairs, too, to make routing nice and neat.


The peripherals
Keyboard: Cooler Master QuickFire XTi — I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but this particular QuickFire XTi might just be the best keyboard known to man.

You see, it has the DNA of the QuickFire XT, a no-nonsense mechanical keyboard available with a range of Cherry MX switch types. But this very keyboard has in it the rare and mystical MX Green switches, which combine a tactile bump and an audible click with the highest force required by any Cherry switch type. The springy goodness and reassuring clarity of the MX Green’s positive feedback is unparalleled by anything made since, I dunno, the 1980s. It’s my favorite switch type by far.

Here’s the thing. The MX Green switches are hard to find. I don’t see any QuickFire keyboards with Green switches listed at Newegg right now. But Cooler Master has done us the favor of requisitioning an all-Green example of the QuickFire XTi for the Skylake Damagebox. I honestly doubt that very many others even exist.

Now, let’s talk about the “i” in QuickFire XTi. That letter denotes a big change compared to the standard model: under each keycap are red and blue LEDs attached to a microcontroller within the keyboard. Each keycap is individually backlit, and this thing can put on a light show using various effects. One option is an undulating red-to-greens spectrum that flows across the ‘board gently. Others involve various reactions to keypresses, like lighting up the row and column of the depressed key. It’s trippy, fun, and adds an element of style to the classic keyboard without mucking up the functionality or messing up the layout. (Watch the video to see it in action.)

So yeah. Maybe the finest keyboard in existence. Somebody’s gonna win it along with the rest of this system, and I will try really hard not to, uh, “lose” it in a “shipping snafu.” One never knows about those shipping people, though. They can be unreliable.

CMStorm Xornet II mouse — The Xornet II is a gaming mouse intended for people who use a “claw” grip style. That’s apparently what I am, since this thing falls into my hand easily and feels quite natural to use.

This is a lightweight rodent, with very little ballast and big, full-width pads of teflon running across the bottom. I like the clicky feel of its Omron microswitches, and the textured rubber grips on both sides are just what my sweaty hands need during those tense moments in Battlefront when Lord Vader is swooping down on my position. I promise, though, I didn’t sweat on it too much. And I kinda wiped it off. I think.

Headset: Kingston HyperX Cloud II — The first thing I noticed when putting this headset on my enormous, egg-shaped noggin was the fit. These are some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever used, because they’re feather-light and properly tensioned. They don’t slip around, but they don’t compress your head like a vise, either.

The next thing you’ll notice is the isolation. The cups on these things filter out noise from the surrounding environment exceptionally well. No disrespect to the folks at Kingston, but who knew they’d nail that kind of detail in a headset?

The sound quality via the included USB sound card dongle seems clear and crisp to my ear, too, although I haven’t done any serious A/B testing. Suffice to say they’re decent headphones, so they sound better than 95% of the speaker setups out there.

If there were some kind of tragic shipping accident involving the QuickFire XTi, I have a creeping feeling the HyperX Cloud II might also be involved, too. Hmm.

The build
Since I was working with brand-new premium components, putting together the system was a relatively quick process that was largely free of frustration. I say “relatively quick” since I’ve learned to pace myself and be deliberate about each step when piecing a system together. Taking the time to think before you act is one of those little disciplines that makes building a PC much smoother.

The MasterCase 5 is a modern design packed with the amenities we’ve come to expect: holes with grommets ringing the perimeter of the motherboard, thumbscrews for side panels and expansion slot covers, and a generous cut-out behind the CPU socket for cooler mounting. Work patiently in this sort of case, and you’ll be rewarded with a positive experience.

I only had to work around a few minor issues during the build. Most of the PSU, case, and I/O cables reached their intended destinations with ease, but there was a single exception: the connection for the front 140-mm fan pictured above. Although this header reached the motherboard fine in other places, it couldn’t quite stretch far enough to snap over the appropriate four-pin header on the Maximus VIII Hero. I employed guerilla tactics to fix the problem. I took out the four screws that held the fan in place, rotated the fan’s frame 90 degrees, and screwed it back in. That simple change created more than enough leeway to reach the proper header on the mobo.

Mouting the Geminii S524 was also a little fussy. Look at the design of the cooler and you’ll see why. The heatsink and fan block access to the screw holes around the socket, so the retention mechanism requires one to secure the cooler with nuts that thread on bolts on the underside of the motherboard. Holding the metal bracket in place while pushing down on the Geminii from above and screwing on a nut—well, that’s a three-handed job. I have to say, I preferred the mounting mech on the Nepton 120XL on my last build. Those folks who need a cooler to fit into a tight space without much vertical clearance will appreciate the Geminii, though. Heck, everything else about the Geminii is great. Just enlist the help of a friend to hold that bracket before mounting it.

When I started the build process, I had hoped to put those sexy-looking HyperX SSDs together in the 2.5″ drive sleds on the shelf above the PSU, so they’d be readily visible through the case window. However, with a second graphics card installed, populating those drive sleds doesn’t leave much clearance next to the fans on the GPU cooler. Instead, I opted to mount the SSDs around back. They’re kind of hidden away back there, but they don’t present any clearance problems at all.

As you can see, the rest of the cables around back are routed reasonably well, but I didn’t go to any great lengths to make things neat and tidy. The cables snake up through the cut-outs around the motherboard as needed, and many of them fit under the velcro loops above that long, vertical channel.  I suppose I could do more to make things look nice back there, but my focus was on the look topside. Speaking of which…


The finished product
Here’s a look at the final configuration of the Skylake Damagebox.

Looks neat, simple, and clean overall, I think. The black-on-black Cash-meets-Vader theme works well, with a little bit of red and yellow as accents. I chose not to include either of the extra cages for 3.5″ drives. They’d fit fine, but having them there could make it a little more difficult for the Strix cards to breathe. And I figured we don’t need anything more than the five drives and 12.5 terabytes of storage we have on tap. Not to mention those round wafer things. The future owner of this PC will have the option of installing those cages if they’re needed, of course.

Once I’d installed Windows 10 and gotten it all tuned up, I was gratified to hear that this system is incredibly quiet. The last Damagebox was whisper-quiet at idle, but this one makes a lot less noise while gaming. Credit for that fact goes to a lot of places: the twin 140-mm fans in the MasterCase, those exceptional Strix coolers, the Geminii S524, and a hyper-efficient PSU among them. The mesh top and front of the enclosure doesn’t mask much of the sound from the internal components; they’re just very quiet themselves.

A bunch of the credit has to go to Asus’ fan speed control software. You can ask it to profile each of the fans in the system, and it will run them through their potential range of speeds and define a curve for each one automatically. The user can also specify which variable to key on when deciding the fan speed. For instance, I set the Geminii’s cooling fan to key on the CPU temp. I set the rear case fan to key on the motherboard’s VRM temperature, and I asked the front case fan to key on the PCH temp. I can’t stress this concept enough: temperature is the correct variable to use when making decisions about cooling. Some boards only go by CPU activity, and doing so will cause the fans to spin faster than necessary. Keying on the local temperature is even better, if possible. The Maximus VIII Hero let me define a fan policy that does the exact right thing, which makes for much lower noise under load.

At the end of the day, this is just the sort of PC that I would build for myself—only this one, we’re giving away. Follow this link to find out how you can enter to win the Skylake Damagebox.

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