A few months ago, I set out to build a new machine. The choices were, quite frankly, almost overwhelming--but in a fun way. Thanks to great reviews on Tom's Hardware and, especially, forum threads, I was able to build the best machine I've ever built (this is my fourth build). So, I thought I'd post this thread to pass on my results for those who are going through the same thing right now.
Goal: build a powerful gaming/multi-media system that will last four to five years (my last one lasted 5) while balancing price and NOISE (with noise being directly related to heat).
CPU: Intel i7 860
Mainboard: MSI P55-GD80 (absolutely love it)
Case: CoolerMaster HAF-932 (love it even more)
PSU: Corsair TX850W
RAM: 8GB (4x2GB) Corsair XMS3 DDR3
CPU cooler: CoolerMaster Hyper TX3
Graphics: Diamond ATI HD5850
Audio: mainboard integrated audio - Realtek ALC889
Boot drive: Patriot 128GB SSD (huge splurge, but had to do it)
Slave drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB HDD (7200.12)
Optical drives: Using HP and Memorex DVD/RW from my last machine
Fan controller: Zalman ZM-MFC3
Monitor: Samsung T260HD LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate full retail (splurge)
Thermal grease: CoolerMaster high performance
Total cost w/o Win7: $2152.00 (rebates not deducted)
First issue was CPU and mainboard: Lynnfield vs. Bloomfield. This is where I almost lost my mind with indecision. 860 or 920? Dual channel vs Triple channel RAM? For power systems and expandability, I felt that the Bloomfield chip with the X58 mainboard had the edge, but my factors of heat and noise played a large part in my decision. Performance reviews of the i7 860 were very encouraging and when I factored in the reviews on the MSI P55-GD80, I was sold. I would have bought the 920 had I gone the Bloomfield route because of cost, so the 860's numbers were very good. Plus, P55 mainboards don't have a northbridge chip set (those functions are built into the Lynnfield CPUs) so that was part of the heat reduction equation I was factoring in. (Intel i7 860 from Micro Center: $230; MSI P55-GD80 from New Egg: $210)
What case to put this in was my next decision. Noise was my largest consideration and it was an interesting journey balancing keeping temperatures down to allow for lower fan noise and having a case that was solid enough to keep the noise in. Logic dictated to me that a solid case with fewer openings would be quieter, but in doing so, it will also trap more heat and require the fans to spin more quickly and, therefore, loudly. My first decision was to go with a full size tower--more air keeps it cooler for a myriad of reasons. In addition, I didn't have a need for portability as my LAN-party days are far behind me). If you still partake in LAN parties, it's doable with my 50 lb behemoth, but a mini-tower would make more sense. The very interesting thing about the CoolerMaster HAF-932 is that it is extremely porous. At first, I thought that would make the system too noisy. There were quite a few reviews that stated, however, that the case was quiet--mostly due to the size of the fans--230mm (big). Well, in this case, big means quiet. My computer has been on for about 6 hours, and I can hear the fans, but it's a lower frequency noise, so much easier on the ears. Did I mention there were three 230mm fans, as well as a 120mm fan on the back for exhaust. The top fan is also exhaust. With the extreme air flow and porousness, heat is dissipated quite readily, so I can keep the fan speeds down a little without a problem. The case has a ton of room, making it very easy to work in, plus it keeps the components a good distance apart, which really helps with keeping the temperature down. On the side of the case where the mainboard is attached, there is an inner and outer case. The mainboard is attached to the inner case. Then there is a gap between the inner and outer case through which you can run all your wires. This is another huge heat saver as the bulk of the wires are not in the main opening of the case blocking air flow. I have to say, this case is incredible. Just remember, it's big and it's heavy. (HAF-932 at Micro Center: $150)
The greatest noise maker, at first, was the CPU cooler fan. I chose the CoolerMaster Hyper TX3 because it was only $22 and I have had success with these types of coolers in the past. I like it when the fan blows sideways across an abundance of fins. When set at full, however, the CPU fan was quite noisy (whiney). I didn't hook my CPU fan up to my fan controller (though I could) because the MSI-provided BIOS let me set up a temperature threshold for the CPU. I selected 40 degrees Celsius (the coolest setting), which allows the CPU fan to run at about 70% as long as the CPU stays below 40 C. The noise from the CPU fan is very good at this setting and my CPU hasn't topped 33 C yet (of course, I haven't been overclocking yet).
Power supply was next. I'm a believer in buying as big a PSU as makes sense within your budget. I was going to get a 1000W PSU, but the Corsair TX850W was an incredible buy and it came with a rebate. Since I want a system to last a long time, the PSU has to be powerful enough for future upgrades. The main culprit is graphic cards and as they get bigger and more powerful, their need for juice goes through the roof. Make sure you look up what your desired graphics card requires in the way of a PSU (so you don't under power your system), then, if you're like me, add at least 200 to 300 watts to that number. Of course, that's if you've got the extra cash and you're looking for long-term use. (Corsair TX850W at Micro Center: $150 [$125 after rebate])
I didn't put a tremendous amount of thought into the RAM. I wanted a company I trusted, a certain level of performance, and I wanted good value. I picked up two Corsair 4GB kits (2x2GB - DDR3 1600) at Micro Center for a total of $220 ($200 after rebates). There was speedier RAM to be had, but 9-9-9-24 was good enough for my needs.
The graphics card debate was another exhaustive research process. I originally was going to go with nVidia, probably the gtx 285. Of course, ATI dropped the 5800 series on us and having DirectX 11 capability meant it was more equipped for the years ahead (I know, DirectX 10 isn't even being fully used yet, but it could happen). I almost bought a cheap card just to wait for nVidia's DirectX 11 offering, but the reviews of the HD5850 swayed me to stick with ATI (it's the only card I've ever had--I was actually looking forward to trying an nVidia product). The top end 5870 was more than I felt like spending and the reviews that showed performance and noise levels made the choice rather easy. I only bought one HD5850 for now. I enjoy gaming, but I am usually not playing the most resource intensive games. My current indulgences are Warhammer Online, Champions Online, and Dragon Age Origins. With Dragon Age Origins, I'm playing with all the video settings max'ed out at 1920x1200--it's the best gaming experience of my life (not so much the game as the video quality--where is Diablo 3 when you need it). When I need more horsepower in the future, I'll buy another HD5850 to use in a Crossfire configuration. By the time I need it, HD5850s will probably be very affordable. This card is quite massive (almost as heavy as one of my wife's dumbbells). It requires a power plug all of its own from the PSU. When I took it out of the box I was nervous about how much noise it would make. Turns out, it's one of the quietest cards I've had in a while. No buyer's remorse whatsoever. (Diamond ATI HD5850 from Micro Center: $280) No major reason why I went with Diamond; in fact, other manufactures included a free game that Diamond did not. However, Micro Center had this one in stock and Diamond is a solid company. I just checked the price on New Egg and it was $309; I couldn't even find it on Micro Center's site...hmm.
My largest self-indulgence was getting a solid state drive. Yes, it was expensive, and comparatively small, but sometimes you just have to have something--for me, it was a SSD. With a boot time of about 30 seconds (Windows 7), I'm diggin' it. If I had been on a tighter budget, this would have been the first item I scrapped, replacing it with another 1TB HDD--that would have saved me $315.00. The Torqx Patriot Memory SSD had very good reviews and since I knew nothing about SSD's, that's all I had to go on. I think it's worth mentioning that getting an SSD with cache memory (like the Patriot has) is important to prevent bottlenecks in the drive's performance. With a primary drive that's only 128GB, I needed another internal drive for all my digital stuff, especially my videos (got to love TiVo To Go). I ended up with the 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 based on cost. I've always had a Seagate in one form or another (internal or external) and never had a problem. Apparently there were some troubles with the earlier version (7200.11), but I appear to have dodged that bullet. (Patriot Memory 128GB SSD at Micro Center: $400; Seagate Barracuda 1TB at Micro Center: $85)
I also indulged a little on the fan controller I bought. I particularly liked this unit as it not only controls up to four fans and provides four remote temperature readings, but it provides a real-time power load display (how many watts are being pulled from the PSU). It works by plugging the PSU power cord into a provided power sensor (looks like a power transformer), then plugging the power sensor into a wall socket (the sensor serves as a pass through for the electricity and thereby monitors what the pull is from the system). As an aside, I looked around the internet for advice on where to put the four temperature sensors. There wasn't much out there. In case anyone is interested, I put one sensor on the bottom fin of the CPU cooler, closest to the CPU; I put another on the back side of the graphics card; and I suspended the other two from cables inside the case to give me ambient temperature readings (one near the HDD and SSD and one right about in the middle of the case). As I write this, the two suspended sensors are at 24.8 and 25.8 C, the sensor near the CPU is 27.5 C, the graphics card sensor is 31.6 C, and the system is pulling 101 watts. I guess that and $4.50 will get you a ridiculously expensive cup of coffee. The two temperature sensors that I attached to hardware, I did so using the thermal tape that came with the unit. I had the great idea of using a small drop of thermal compound as a sort of glue to enhance the heat transfer, but ultimately abandoned the idea after I woke up and realized I wasn't performing brain surgery. I could have easily saved about $40 here, but I liked this unit's features (Zalman ZM-MFC3 at New Egg: $70)
Monitor choice, like most everything else, is quite a personal. I have a large desk and my eyes aren't spring chickens anymore. My son has a 26" Viewsonic and I thought it was the perfect size for me. Not so easy to find everything I wanted in a 26", but ultimately Samsung came through with their T260HD, which is, in fact, an LCD TV. Even if I had gotten a 24" monitor, it was a must that the native resolution be 1920x1200. I was upgrading from a 20" Samsung with 1680x1050 and I certainly didn't want more viewing real estate with the same resolution. The T260HD is beautiful. Two things I don't particularly like. The power switch is a buttonless sensor-type switch--not a real big deal, but it does take a little bit longer to hit the right spot to turn it on and off. The bigger deal for me is that the height of the screen is fixed. My 20" Samsung could be adjusted up and down to fit the viewer. The T260HD is on a fixed base. It swivels forward, backward, left, and right, but the height is the height. It was still well worth the money. The screen is bright, clear, and huge.
You may have noticed that I didn't buy a sound card. I've always given Creative labs my business, but this time I thought I'd experiment with the audio that was integrated into my mainboard--the reviews certainly led me to believe that this would be a positive experience. I have to say, I'm impressed. I'm using the speakers from my old system (Logitech Z-680...look them up, I told you my old system was old) because they still produce excellent sound. I needed an optical or digital coax port to use them, which usually means a sound card. Well, the MSI mainboard has both ports. At first I had no sound, but after playing with the sound settings in Windows control panel and enabling Realtek Digital Output, out poured the music. The software that came with the on board audio is lacking, so I'll have to find a solution for that, but the sound quality is very good. I get full surround sound during my gaming and music playback quality is very good. I might be able to hear the difference if I had two systems side-by-side, but since I don't, the audio sounds as good as if I paid for it.
Another splurge was Windows 7 Ultimate full retail. Unless you have the money to spend, or really need the few extra features (or is it feature), Home Premium is the better buy. Again, because my budget had some breathing room, I went with the full retail version rather than the update version. I didn't want' to load XP on my new system, then upgrade it. I wanted a clean install with no remnants of the old system anywhere to be found. The update probably would have completely overwritten the XP files, but with Microsoft, one never knows what's where. By the way, Windows 7 was worth the wait. I was a die-hard XP user and couldn't be having more fun. There are very old habits and a lot of know-how to be undone, but so far, I like Win 7 very much. I also upgraded to Office 2007 from 2003, so I'm completely unproductive at this point (2007 is quite an upgrade from 2003), but hey, that's half the fun--figuring it all out.
There isn't much to say about the build itself. I put all the parts in and turned it on. I said a little prayer before hitting the power button, but it couldn't have been easier. The system has been running for over three weeks and everything works as well as I had hoped. In my tweaking I've created a couple of interesting problems that I'll be posting in other threads, but there isn't one component that I'm not very happy with. Sorry for how long winded this ended up being, but I was putting this out there for others, like me, who take their builds very serious and don't want to waste money or time on bad components--and need a little more info to digest because with age comes caution. If anyone has questions regarding a particular component or process, post it here. Good luck with your build.
Very solid build and good write up on your build experience & thought process behind it. Well done and a good little read, plus it is always nice to hear a success story versus, my new build won't boot... etc.
I'll be building my computer either on monday or tuesday and I'm going through the same thing that you did. I bet it feels good when its all said and done; I will be receiving my video card soon and thats my final part. Then I get to throw this monster together!
Thanks for taking the time to write out that detailed post, and have fun with your new computer build!
I will try to put eveything together as much as I can regards to sound card.
First, if anybody wants to use their PC as a HTPC and listen music thrugh their high quality receiver and speker system (I have Harman Kardon Receiver and Infinity Speaker system) I would say dont waste your money with any add on sound card. When I get the sound from my SB Audigy 2 ZS (supposedly has a very good DAC) to receiver with 5.1 analog input, it sound just crapp. Of course if you listen from cheap multi media speaker you will never notice the difference. Any good quailty receiver has way better DAC then those overpriced SB sound cards. All you need to do get a optical cable ( I have AMD785 chipset motyherboard) and use your onboard audio for music application. It will not use any CPU power at all.
For the games, the story is a little bit different. Unfortunatelly I made a mistake and didnt get the motherboard with DDL encoding feature and dont have chance to compare it. Now, I have to use Audigy 2 ZS on Win XP for games and I am not hapy with the result. The sound quaility is far from perfect as some people claim. If I get the sound throgh onboard SPDIF output I can get way better sound quaility but miss the surround. Hopefully we are going to built another rig for my friend and I will use a motherboard with DDL encoding feature and check the difference. I know the onboard card will not support newer EAX's but it is almost a history anyway.
For the people who are concerning with the CPU utilization, I would say it is overly exaggerated. Most games cannot use more than 2 cores anyway and you are going to have 4 cores in your system and worry about sound card CPU usage.
Finally, If you are using anolog output on sub par speaker system, I would say yes SB card are ok. If you have a good receiver and speaker system I would say think twice before using their crapy analog output. Just stick with onboard digital output for music and movie application. The truth; any decent receiver has all the way better DAC than add on and onboard sound card and you can basicall transfer the info through optical, coaxiel or HDMI throuh to you receiver.