Summary: With his Core 2 Extreme X6800 PC beginning to show signs of age, Vandy just finished upgrading his primary gaming rig to Core i7 over the holidays. With dual GeForce GTX 275s, and his Core i7-920 OC'ed to 4GHz, it's a pretty powerful performer. Read about the rest of the components used inside!
The last new computer I put together was more than two and a half years ago during the Editor's Challenge here on FiringSquad. Having made it to the final round of competition, I scored a bunch of free hardware to write about. I went on to win that contest, which led to me doing game reviews now, but I digress... Much of that stuff was high enough quality that it, combined with the best of what I already had, has lasted me until now.
I upgraded my video card to an 8800 GTS during the summer of '08, which marked the only time other than for my very first build that I didn't buy a top-of-the line, ~$500 GPU. So, while it was definitely an improvement over my old X1900 XT, it was like using bubble-gum instead of concrete to plug the hole in a dam. Lucky for me, I was recently provided a GeForce GTX 275 that helped with testing 3D Vision and Physx as well as playing the newest games. However, performance wasn't my only problem.
Various issues had been cropping up throughout the past year, including but not limited to the following:
- Case wearing out, side-panels coming apart, door warping
- Fans too loud, older ones grinding and/or squeaking
- Sound bugging out, causing BSODs or failing and requiring restart to fix
- SATA drives randomly failing, requiring restart or use of different SATA port
I think the root cause of most of my woes was that I had many aging components in the mix... Needless to say, I wanted to wash my hands of this machine and build an entirely new one. The first step was to figure out exactly what I was going to buy beyond that. I read articles and reviews on sites like FS and Anandtech to narrow it down to a line of products, then use Newegg to figure out which specific part is appropriate. The latter's well-organized and informative product pages, as well as plethora of customer reviews, are very useful in determining the composition of a build and also in getting an idea as to pricing.
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 275 896MB (2x SLI)
Since I already had one of these but still wanted a bit more oomph, I figured I might as well go dual-GPU for the first time. With the supply of high-end video cards as they are and the fact that DX11 is just now poking its head out, I'll be depending on these to last me at least as long as it takes for the dust to settle. They perform great even individually, and they've got support for 3D Vision and Physx. If a game comes along that really makes good use of the latter, I could even toss in my old 8800 GTS for an SLI+PPU setup that should really kick some ass.
CPU: Intel Core i7-920 Bloomfield 2.66GHz
The Core iX series is the next big thing from Intel after the Core 2 dominated the processor world a few years ago. In addition to making quad-core and DDR3 memory the new standards, it heralds the return of hyper-threading, which was last seen in the Pentium 4 line. The i7-920 represents the sweet spot among this family of CPUs because the only real difference between it and its pricier brethren is clock speed.
You may be wondering why I chose Bloomfield instead of the highly lauded Lynnfield - well, I'll tell you. The advantages of Lynnfield include lesser power consumption (thus, lower heat generation) and the fact that the motherboards based on the P55 chipset are generally a lot cheaper than those that use X58. They also overclock very well and so can go toe-to-toe with much more expensive processors performance-wise.
However, the advantages of Bloomfield lie not with the chip itself, but the LGA 1366 platform it's used with. Most obvious is the support for triple-channel RAM, and while it's hard to tell exactly how much better that is than dual-channel, the theory is sound.
Also, something that most people probably would have no idea of, the X58 chipset is much better suited for multi-GPU setups. With the QPI link to the north-bridge it provides more PCI-E bandwidth, able to provide a full 16 lanes to each of two graphics card slots, whereas the P55 chipset has to split 16 lanes between two GPUs for only 8 each. Lynnfield is perfectly fine for single-GPU rigs, but since I wanted to do SLI, it wasn't for me.
Lastly, and this may be bad news to some of you, the new 6-core, 32nm Gulftown CPUs are going to be using the LGA 1366 socket, the one already used for Bloomfield. This means that the LGA 1156 motherboard you had to buy for Lynnfield is a dead end upgrade-wise, and you'll have to buy a new one if you want to swap in a 6-core CPU down the line.
Cooler: Noctua NH-U12P SE2
Motherboard: EVGA X58 3-Way SLI
I've always been rather frugal when it came to motherboards; I usually just pick a decent brand that has the basic features I need and a price around $100. This time, however, I wanted to pull out some stops... Since multi-GPU support was required, that raised the stakes right away, but it wasn't going to stop there. I don't think I've ever had what you could call a high-end motherboard, and this time was as good as any to treat myself.
This EVGA X58 is by far the coolest mobo I have ever laid my eyes on, let alone called my own. Serious cooling on the chipsets and voltage regulator, crapload of USB and SATA ports, dual gigabit Ethernet, numeric LED display, integrated power and reset buttons, external CMOS reset button - this baby has it all. Of course, it supports LGA 1366 CPUs, a maximum of 24GB of triple-channel DDR3, and has enough PCI-E slots for up to 3-way SLI or Crossfire. It even has padding on the rear I/O shield for a tighter seal, which I've never even heard of before!
RAM: OCZ Gold 6GB DDR3 1600 Triple-Channel Kit
Storage: OCZ Agility 120GB SATA II Solid-State Drive
Audio: HT Omega Striker 7.1 PCI Sound Card
Case: Silverstone Raven 2 ATX Mid-Tower
When I look for a case, I try to find something functional with minimal flair. I don't want flashing neon lights or elaborate paint jobs, just a clean, subtle exterior surrounding something well-constructed and practical. Cooling performance and noise levels are important, as well, and determining a balance of the two depends on personal needs and preferences. Generally, larger radius fans are used to maintain a certain degree of efficiency while creating less noise, and so 120mm seems to be the standard these days. However, this case from Silverstone uses ginormous 180mm fans, so that's even better. At least, until they need to be replaced...
What really drew me to the Raven 2, though, is the sideways mounting of the motherboard which makes the video cards and such hang vertically. It's designed to literally streamline case cooling by sucking air through the bottom and following the natural movement of heat by blowing it out the top, instead of the rear. Since there are 3 huge intake fans and only 1 smaller exhaust fan, positive air pressure is created inside that results in air leaking out anywhere it can. This effectively reduces the amount of dust entering the case except through intake fans, which have filters in place to catch it.
The power supply is also mounted vertically so that it, too, can exhaust out of the top. A filtered vent at the back end allows the PSU fan to bring in fresh air to better cool itself. All of the external cables are routed out the back, and covered by a mesh grille to avoid causing an eyesore. There are plenty of drive bays, and there is a cage located at the bottom front that holds 3 hard drives. Several holes are cut into the motherboard tray for cable routing, as well as a larger one to accommodate the installation of an aftermarket heatsink backplate without having to take anything out.
PSU: Thermaltake ToughPower 1200W
The power supply is traditionally installed before anything else, but that was the last component I received and I was too eager to wait, so that went in last. The DVD burner went into the top 5.25" drive bay, which I imagine might be a bit of a squeeze for older ones. You see, the "roof" of the case is recessed to provide clearance for cabling and things like USB pen drives or antennas on the outside of the I/O panel or expansion slots, but this conflicts with the first drive bay. Newer DVD drives are shorter and shaped more like a square than a rectangle, so I didn't have much of an issue until I went to plug in the SATA cable, which proved a tight fit.
A cool feature of the Raven 2 is the included SSD bracket, which actually mounts on the backside of the case, opposite the tool-less drive bay locking mechanisms. This puts it nice and out of the way, unable to be seen unless you remove the backside panel. Next up was the motherboard, using 10 of the many more mounting holes built-in to support pretty much any size mobo short of extended-ATX. As you can see below, the backplate holes for my Noctua heatsink are easily accessible, too. The case is surprisingly roomy, considering it's about the same size as the Antec P180 I used previously, only longer than it is tall. There aren't enough fan headers to hook all four up to the motherboard, so I'll be using the included adapter for connecting the 3 180mm fans straight to the PSU.
At this point, it's pretty straightforward to install the processor, memory, video cards, and sound card. I always cringe at how much pressure it takes to close the lock on the CPU socket, but at least that lets you know it's secure. Now I can see why 10.5" (the length of a GTX 275) is cited as the maximum allowed size of a GPU for this case. The exhaust on its little leaf blower is right next to the bottom intake fan, which could be better for airflow I suppose. Maybe an 11" graphics card with power connectors on the side would just barely fit... I hope they don't keep getting much longer because I don't like full-tower cases.
It might've made more sense to hold off on installing expansion cards until after putting on the heatsink, but there's so much room to work in this case, it really didn't make much of a difference. I really like the way this heatsink is mounted; Sturdy brackets and good, old-fashioned screws are definitely easier to work with than flimsy plastic push-pin clips. They also make me feel better about having a pound and a half of metal hanging off the motherboard. A small syringe filled with more than enough of Noctua's premium thermal grease was included, which I've heard is better than Arctic Silver. This package included 2 of their uber 120mm fans, as well, but with the way things are orientated for blowing air upward, the voltage regulator heatsink prevents the installation of both. That's okay, though, since the reviews I read show that one fan is more than enough. It just means I'll have an extra to save for later.
The only things left to do now are installing the hard drives and power supply and finish connecting all the cables. It turns out that the hard drive cage can only come out through the front of the case once the motherboard is installed, which is somewhat of an inconvenience. Rather than simply removing the side panel, I have to go through the back and pop out a few of the drive bay covers so that it can slide out that way. Good thing I don't plan on changing out hard drives very often...
Because the power supply is mounted vertically, there are a couple extra means used to support its weight so that the usual 4 screws aren't over-burdened. First is a small bracket that is wedged under the bottom corner and screwed onto the motherboard tray. If done properly, the PSU should be resting on it, not just hanging above it. Secondly, a velcro strap threads through the side of the case and, when tightened, is supposed to help hold up the PSU. Even though it's a bit ugly, seems sloppy, and goes over the fan opening, I decided to trust the Silverstone engineers on this one. With that behemoth installed, I went about routing all the cables and hiding them off to the side or behind the mobo tray as best I could. It got a little crowded on the back side, but I think it looks pretty nice through that window.
The first thing I did after installing Windows was play Crysis. How could I not jump straight into that? Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. On max settings, I was getting a solid 40 FPS, it was fantastic. Not only that, but I could definitely feel the speed of the solid-state disk right away. Everything is so much snappier, basic apps like Firefox and AIM load up in about a second, and even Photoshop loads in 3 seconds flat! I have Steam set to start up with Windows and it seems to be ready by the time I enter my password.
Speaking of Windows, there's only about 10 seconds between the POST and the welcome screen, if not less. The computer will shut down even faster than that, and a reboot takes about 30 seconds round-trip. I really don't even mind the smaller capacity because the speed is that great. Besides, I have 7 Steam games installed (full-size ones, 5-10GB each) and I still have 20GB to spare. I'll just have to take off the ones I'm not playing if a new one won't fit - It's not like downloading any of them again is a big deal.
Even though I knew it was going to be a very quiet setup, it still surprised me as to how quiet it was the first time I turned it on. With the TV on a medium-low volume, I can't even hear the fans' gentle whirring. It's easily less than half the noise my old computer made, with its 5 120mm fans. I can actually hear the hard drives working, which used to be the sign of a problem!
In order to gauge the sort of performance impact SLI and overclocking have on this machine, I tested 4 times with different combinations. First with both enabled, then one enabled and the other not, then the opposite, and finally with both off. Otherwise, settings remained the same between all the iterations of each test.
I love this computer. It is the most awesome rig I have ever assembled, hands down. I've been gaming on it quite a bit lately and it has been on for days at a time, so there are no signs of stability issues. It performs so well and yet is whisper quiet, which is great because I sleep about 10 feet away from it.
I can't wait for the new games to start arriving so I can really see how this system handles them. Starting in a couple weeks, I'm going to be pretty busy with reviews, but now I'm definitely ready. Maybe this time next year I'll be putting some brand spanking new DX11 graphics in, but I know the rest of this hardware will last much, much longer.
Special thanks to EVGA, OCZ, Thermaltake, and Silverstone for providing the components used in Vandy’s gaming rig!
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