Insomuch as I’m a wannabe #AlphaGeek in my professional life, I’m ashamed of the state I’ve let my home workstation be reduced to. It’s lost a sad war of attrition for my attention over the past seven years while I focus on making the government better at technology every day. But quality hobbies and escapes from being a grown-up are important, so after many years of spotty, component-by-component upgrades, it’s time for an overhaul! Plus, living in this world of cloud-first and software development, oftentimes I miss just getting my hands on the hardware and actually making something tangible and being proud of seeing it perform.
If you’re still with me, follow along in gory detail as I rebuild this box from scratch and fire it up for the first time.
The old system was an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 3 GHz with 6 GB of RAM and it served me surprisingly well for many years beyond what it probably should have. I upgraded to a Solid State Drive (SSD) for the operating system disk and installed a new video card along the way in the last couple of years. But the poor thing isn’t cutting it for the state of modern gaming. Windows 7 is now 6 years old (!), the SSD is full with my games spilling over onto the SATA storage drive, and the GPU gets all kinds of laggy on any recent game title. It couldn’t even handle starting up Dragon Age: Inquisition a few months ago. And thus began that nagging feeling I had that the hardware needed replacing.
I took the plunge in late November from my go-to subreddit for this work, r/BuildaPCSales, when I noticed the Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals were just too good to pass up. On a budget of about $1000, I jumped in to see what I could put together.
Normally, sites like NewEgg.com and Amazon are buyer-beware for the actual configuration of the hardware. If you opt to build versus buy, those sites have no remorse if whatever you ordered doesn’t work because of a socket or frequency speed mismatch. This is the greatest risk in building a machine yourself, you need to be sure the components work together; compatibility is on you. And the state of PC architecture changes frequently, so it’s tough to keep up, even for a novice like me with a background in building PCs.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find a site that helps tremendously with this: LogicalIncrements.com. These folks are providing a bone fide public service (and I’m sure collecting well earned referral fees!) They keep a running list of components across a Y axis of budget and an X-axis of three options for components that are guaranteed to work together. They make it very simple to hit their page, select a relative cost band for your budget (ranging from colorful budget categories from Destitute to Monstrous), and then mix-and-match from the components you’re looking for. All while being able to rest easy that the damn things will plug into the right spots and not catch on fire when you assemble them (that’s a story for another day.)
I started there at Logical Increments, opted for the “Enthusiast” class, because let’s face it, I’d like this box to last me a few years before we do this again. And I was off to the races comparing specs, prices, and reviews.
I already have a nice Thermaltake Armor case and 750W power supply, dual 1TB storage disks in a RAID 1 configuration, and a DVD writer optical drive to suit me just fine. What I needed was a modern motherboard, a fast CPU, lots of RAM to roam, and a GPU that can handle however many MMO magic missiles or FPS bullet-slinging deathmatches I wanted to throw at it.
After a few hours of comparing notes, the configuration I arrived at was this:
- MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Motherboard
- Intel Core i7–6700K 4.0 Ghz Quad-core Processor
- Noctua NH-U12S CPU cooler
- G.Skill TridentZ Series 16GB DDR4 RAM
- Samsung 850 EVO 500GB M.2 Solid State Drive
- XFX Radeon R9 390 8GB GPU
Though I deviated from the Logical Increments recommended build somewhat, most of the above was based on holiday sales and pricing. I opted for a lower-class video card that is still more than suitable for my taste, faster RAM than the build called for, and trying my luck with an internal “M.2” SSD drive. As always, be cautious to review the specifications and be sure the hardware is compatible before for you order.
Let’s roll up our sleeves!
The new motherboard is a MSI Z170A Gaming Pro ATX. She’s quite a leap forward in terms of architecture:
- Very few slots; mostly PCI-Express and only one legacy PCI slot
- No floppy or IDE ports at all; the old storage mediums are obsolete
- Plenty of Serial ATA (SATA) ports; six in total. Though it’s important to note that with this model, if you plan to use the M.2 port it actually disables SATA ports 5 & 6 (which I taped over in the above to remind myself never to use them.)
- Built-in gigabit Intel LAN card and Realtek 7.1 sound card
- Plenty of interfaces and two new USB 3.1 next-gen ports (10Gb/s!)
- An old-school PS/2 keyboard port and handy USB ports for mouse/keyboard just below
This mobo ties the whole system together. Fitting in my existing case, using ATX power, and with extra RAM slots and an additional PCI-E 16x slot I have plenty of room to upgrade and expand things later.
I opted for the latest/greatest Intel chip on the market, the Skylake Core i7, as the heart of this new rig. Intel’s Skylake architecture is a latest evolution in chip progression beyond the Broadwell standard of the past few years and was initially released in April 2015.
Physically installing the CPU is always delicate work. Just opening the box and taking a look at the bottom of it, you can see how dense the connection points are becoming. Here’s some great background on how we’re approaching an asymtote with regard to Moore’s Law. The process nodes themselves on Skylake are only 14 nm with the next jump in 2016 planned to be only 10nm!
That quote resonated with me. This is a pretty cool time to be playing with computer hardware. Can you imagine what folks like Turing and those early pioneers in the vacuum tube and punch-card days would think of where we are today?
This particular model is the i7-6700 “K” model, which means it’s “unlocked” and allows for adjustment of the multipliers for overclocking. Which I may try my hand at once this system is proven stable.
These G.Skill TridentZ RAM chips are dead sexy. Two 8GB DDR4 sticks at a PC3200 speed (1,066 Mhz.) They’re blazing fast and built to match the Skylake architecture for no bottlenecks. This is the most RAM I’ve ever had in a home system and I’m excited to see how it runs in a 64-bit operating system that’ll use it all.
Proper cooling is critical with systems this compact and fast. They get hot quickly and stock coolers won’t really cut it for intense gaming or certainly any amount of aggressive overclocking at all. I went with the Logical Increments suggestion of Noctua, a brand new to me as I’ve been a fan (pun intended!) of Zalman for years. I selected the NH-U12S model.
Second only to the processor, the GPU is the most expensive part (and fastest to obsolescence) of the whole rig. I went with a lower-tier card that was a steal on-sale: the XFX Radeon R9 390 8GB Double Dissipation. I’ve tried both AMD and NVIDIA chipsets alike and there’s not much daylight between the two in my opinion. In this case I went with the better sale.
Even for being a step below the current model sweetspot, this thing is a screamer. It’s running a core clock of 1015Mhz and packing 8GB of DDR5 memory that runs at 6000Mhz effective speed itself! It has it’s own double-dissipation cooling architecture and runs DirectX 12 which will be a brave new world of gaming for me.
A few years ago I tested a few Solid State Drives and even upgraded my main operating system disk to SATA SSD once I could get my hands on a 256GB model for a decent price. So this time I wanted to take it a step beyond by upgrading to a disk that would store the OS plus a few games with some room to spare. I also decided to try the new M.2 interface standard. For my primary drive I chose the Samsung EVO 850 500GB M.2 SATA III disk.
If you’re not familiar with Solid State Drives, they’re amazing. They power everything from iPhones to MacBooks to PC laptops these days. They have no moving parts and are essentially RAM memory adapted to be used as a hard disk. No more waiting on disk seek times!
While I was initially nervous at the idea of cutting the SATA cord in lieu of the M.2 interface on a desktop unit, once I tried it I realized I was already familiar with it from working on PC laptops. It’s just a compact way of interfacing with the disk. You only need to be sure you get the form-factor and key type correct. No cables required.
Next I did a bit of housekeeping with my optical drive and dual 1TB SATA drives for storage. The DVD drive is mainly used for OS install and sits idle the rest of the time. The two 1TB disks are in a RAID 1 mirror-set and store all my old files, pictures, music, movies, and code. I also keep a separate removable storage backup to a 2TB disk that periodically gets refreshed just in case.
Cable Management and Reassembly
The Moment of Truth
If you’ve ever assembled something from scratch like this, then you’re familiar with the butterflies that flutter across your stomach between the final once-over to be sure everything is in place and when your finger actually presses the power button. This is the make-or-break moment when you find out what you’re made of and if your skill as a maker will actually create something that works…
…and then the LEDs burn with life, the fans surge, and you hear the satisfying beep of a successful system POST. It’s alive!
First Boot and OS Install
Online and Checking Out the Specs
The system certainly is fast! About X seconds from POST to a login screen with Windows 10. After a few minutes of patching and tweaking basic services for performance, Task Manager looks like this:
Out of the box the CPU speed is about 4.2 GHz and the RAM is locked in at the right frequency. The only that that seemed out of place was the voltage on the RAM,which I manually set to 1.35V in the BIOS.
CPU-Z shows the following stats when booted up:
Exactly what all the specs called for, so we’re ready to see how she runs.
I installed 3D Mark which is a pretty standard gauge of the state of a system versus mainstream builds to see what kind of performance we’re getting.
3D Mark Results for the first run:
Pretty decent result for stock parts and no overclocking. And the graphics are pretty on the screen. No hiccups at all compared what I was running!
The Real Test: Gaming
The first game I had handy and wanted to play was Dragon Age: Inquisition And after a bit of install and gameplay things were looking good!
And with that, I won’t bore you with any more screenshots of me playing games. I hope you enjoyed the trip through building out a pretty decent gaming rig and maybe learned something or are inspired to try it yourself! Perhaps next time I’ll try my hand at overclocking this system and report back.
See you in-game!