Updated on January 22, 2017 - see description bottom for details.
After being out of PC gaming for about 15 years, and with 4k gaming and VR on the horizon, I decided it was a good time to get back into it. At first, I thought it would be easier to buy a pre-built desktop and just upgrade some of the parts (as I had done for my various PC needs for more than a decade), but this time around the cost-benefit just didn't seem to compare well to building my own. So, I set out to build my own gaming PC for couch gaming in my living room.
My goals with this build were pretty simple: hit 4K UltraHD at 60 fps very comfortably, yet do it in the smallest possible size and relatively quietly in my living room on my 4K TV. And do all that in a rig that could add some drama to my living room, yet in a subtle (not too in your face) kind of way. Budget was relatively open, but as you'll see I didn't really go crazy with that.
The biggest challenge was the technical target, 4k60 gaming, comfortably. This meant deciding the GPU first, and building around it. After investigating the options, it seemed the GTX 1080 was the best option that would be able to get near that goal most efficiently (both in terms of power and noise). Although benchmarks had shown that a single GTX 1080 could get above 30 fps in 4k in most recent games, reaching 60 fps comfortably would take a bit more. This led to the question - single or dual in SLI? (Note: The Titan X Pascal came out after I finished this build - but at double of the cost of the 1080 for not a double improvement, single or dual 1080s seemed like the more reasonable approach to 4k60.)
To answer the "to SLI or not to SLI" question, I went back and considered the second goal - in a small size and relatively quietly. This meant finding the smallest possible ITX vs microATX/ATX cases for the job, and of course cases with a bit of subtle style (which means a nice design and windowed for viewing the internals).
For a single GTX 1080, it seemed the best option (considering thermal management, noise, and size & practicality) was the Fractal Design Define Nano S (window version). This excellent chassis had received rave reviews in all these departments, and I nearly went with ITX in this case. But then I considered the alternative - GTX 1080s in SLI. What was the smallest size I could practically achieve with SLI?
So at first I started by searching for microATX boards that could do SLI. But given that the GTX 1080 requires double width PCI-E slots for each card, using a microATX board would mean that the two GTX 1080s would basically be kissing each other back to back, with one of them gasping for air. Further research showed that most of the practical microATX only case options weren't much smaller than the smallest ATX capable case options. Thus, for SLI an ATX case was the better option (trading a tiny bit more size for better thermals), and it would just come down to finding the smallest yet most practical ATX case. A ton of research later, and I came down with two options - Corsair's Carbide Clear 400C and Inwin's 805. Both of these cases were less than 500mm in any dimension in a tower form factor (required in order to fit in the space in my living room for it) and minimized it further.
It was decision time - to SLI or not to SLI? Comparing the case sizes, in terms of depth the Corsair and Inwin were only 40-50mm deeper than the Fractal. Though both cases were taller by 100mm, height wasn't an issue for the space I have. Given the relatively small differences in dimensions yet significant difference in what they could house (ITX with single GPU vs ATX with dual GPU), I knew what made sense. And this is what I ended up with.
(Note: prices indicated in this build were based of PCPP's current lowest prices, not the prices I actually paid. As I'm located in Hong Kong, I ended up sourcing all the parts from the US and UK, as well as HK locally, in order to get the best deals (amazingly) or to even get the parts at all (some weren't available locally, at all).)
Intel Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz Quad-Core Processor For gaming right now, I've read various comparisons of this Skylake 6700k vs Haswell-E and Broadwell-E CPUs, and Skylake's single and four core performance was better or at least comparable to these other higher-end CPUs. I also considered the PCI-E 16x vs 8x issue for SLI, and found comparisons showing that there is negligible difference in SLI performance when doing 16x/16x (or 16x/8x) vs 8x/8x, while the cost premium is definitely very significant. If anyone's interested, I can share the links of these comparisons.
Intel Core i7-6950X 3.0GHz 10-Core
Upgraded to the 6950x for productivity and virtualization purposes. Still testing this out at the moment.
be quiet! DARK ROCK TF 67.8 CFM Fluid Dynamic Bearing CPU Cooler Initially, I was planning to water-cool the system using NZXT's Kraken X41. I had ordered it but then found quite a few reviews by owners who experienced leakage. So I decided against the risk to do watercooling (and fortunately the X41 somehow never got sent to me, so I got it refunded without hassle), and instead went with a good air-cooler. Style considerations decided against any of Noctua's offerings (they really need to do something about the terrible colour scheme on their fans), and this lead me to be quiet's offerings which would fit both in terms of aesthetics and quietness. The 805's case is relatively narrow, so I decided against be quiet's largest Dark Rock Pro 3 and Dark Rock offerings (and according to a couple of tests, the TF cooled comparably well to the larger coolers), and instead went with this top-flow model which leaves a bit more room between the top of it and the glass. Installation was actually OK, thanks to the various YouTube reviews which explained the easiest way to install it. The heatsink and fans do cover up the CPU fan pins on the board, so the RAM (or the cooler) needs to be removed in order to hook them up. Aesthetically speaking, I do like that you can see a bit of the fan blade profile reflected by LED lighting when it spins.
CRYORIG H5 Universal 65.0 CFM
Since I needed to use the Dark Rock TF in another build which had CPU cooler height restrictions, I ended up installing the H5 with an extra XT140 slim fan for push-pull. I added a few comments about the H5 in my updates in January 2017.
Asus Z170-A ATX LGA1151 Motherboard Good board, with a relatively neutral colour scheme that would go with my design objectives. The white accents ended up becoming a theme in my system. The layout of the PCI-E slots was very good, because I didn't need any except the two x16 ones for SLI, and they were situated towards the middle of all of the PCI slots, allowing a bit of extra room at the top of the slots (for any CPU cooler considerations). Additionally, there was a single slot space in the middle of the two dual-slot GPUs when set up, so airflow would be improved for the top card. Software for the Z170-A is also quite good, except the fan controller software FanXpert 3 could be a bit better. It would be fantastic if some of the fans could be controlled based on GPU temps (particularly the one NZXT 140mm I have mounted in front for the GPUs), but right now I'm having to base it on the CPU temps until I find another solution. (I almost bought the Grid+ from NZXT, but skipped for now as it is not PWM. Maybe I will reconsider later.)
Asus X99-DELUXE II ATX LGA2011-3
Upgrading to the 6950x necessitated a new motherboard upgrade. This seemed like a fully-featured, solid choice. Have left some thoughts about the motherboard in my January 2017 update below.
Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3200 Memory
Low-profile to ensure all the necessary clearance for any cooler I planned to install. That and the white heatspreaders to work with the system's theme. 32GB was probably a bit more than I needed for gaming, but was relatively inexpensive and is there for future proofing.
Samsung 950 PRO 256GB M.2-2280 Solid State Drive
Sandisk Ultra II 960GB 2.5" Solid State Drive
All solid-state was the goal here, as I decided to remove the 3.5" drive bays from the front of the case in order to add extra fans for circulation for the GPUs and CPU. To get the best combination of speed and value, 256GB on the M.2 but in 950 Pro form was for speed (for the system), while the 960GB Ultra II on SATA was for volume (for the games).
EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 8GB Founders Edition Video Card (2-Way SLI)
To Founders Edition or not? In consideration of the relatively more restrictive airflow design of the case (dual 120mm intake at the bottom and single 120mm exhaust in the rear), I seriously had a think about blower-style cooler vs traditional-style cooler. Certainly traditional-style cooler would be better in terms of fan noise and GPU thermals, but circulating the air in the case could be an issue, which might defeat any of the benefits. A blower-style cooler would help exhaust heat out of the case rather than re-circulating it inside the case. Then left to the style aspect, certainly the Founders Edition cards do look fantastic and are relatively neutral in design, so would fit much better in my theme. So, Founders Edition it was.
Nvidia GeForce GTX SLI HB Bridge
Though not absolutely necessary for SLI, it does offer a bit more improvement in certain games, and helps to match the design of the Founders Edition cards for the build. Getting it was tricky though, but fortunately a relative in the US was able to send it to me. Hurrah.
Inwin 805 BLACK ATX Mid Tower Case
Available in red and gold (and infinity version with the fancy front LEDs also), I decided to keep it subtle by going with black. All of it including the inside is completely black, which is perfect. This case is surrounded by glass panels (hence the name of my rig) and the glass makes it great for adding a bit of style and drama. I had several thoughts about this case, which I will share here:
- Generally speaking, the build quality of this case is excellent, though I did find a few things which should have been caught by QC in my opinion. First, there was a tiny bubble (2-3 mm diameter) on one of the glass panels, which I think is a bubble in the tinting film on the surface. Fortunately it was only on one of them (the front and back are interchangeable), so I just swapped them as the back panel will be facing a wall. I also did find a few edges on one glass panel where the tinting film hadn't been cleanly cut off, but I managed to remove the excess with a box cutter. As for the aluminum frame and ports and buttons, they are of excellent build quality.
- This case by itself, even with all the glass attached, is seriously light. And strong (I can pick it up fully loaded by the edges with no hint of any creaking at all). Aluminum, wow.
- The I/O shield was a bit tricky to get in though (unusual design), especially when putting in the motherboard and aligning it after, but searching online helped me figure out how it worked.
- The hexagon pattern in the front is gorgeous when backlit, but that requires putting your own LEDs behind it. No problem with a strip from the Hue+.
- Fan and board mounting were painless. Fan screws need to have a low profile in order to fit inside the dust filter on the bottom though. However, 2.5" drive mounting behind the motherboard could use some improvement. The drive sits too flush to the case, which requires the SATA power cables to be straightened out as much as possible to be inserted. (There is a bit of pressure on the connector as a result - might need to change the power cable.)
- The cutouts for the cable routing were good, but need rubber grommets to look cleaner. (Fortunately, the way the glass is tinted and because all my cables are black, you can't really see them - though I did organize them reasonably well.)
Overall, an excellent case that could use a couple of tweaks to take it to awesome status.
Corsair 760W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply
An excellent fully modular PSU, though I wish the included cables were a bit less stiff and better designed (for the SATA and Molex power cables in particular). Both of these cables would be much easier to use if the wires didn't enter the connectors from the sides as opposed to straight on. This makes it necessary to bend them near the connectors in tight spaces. (Though I suppose it works better in drive bays when drives are stacked.) Aside from the cable improvement, this PSU is excellent. When gaming and even with the dual 1080s, the fan does not spin up (it only starts up when 70% load is reached). 760W was definitely enough, and the relatively shorter 160mm depth of this unit allowed more space for cable management between it and the bottom 120mm intake fans.
Microsoft Windows 10 Professional OEM 64-bit
What can I say, it's Windows. (Note: I originally had the Home edition, but as my OEM license was invalidated by upgrading the CPU and motherboard, I had to get a new one and got the Pro edition.)
NoiseBlocker NB-eLoop B12-PS 58.1 CFM 120mm Fan x 3
Two for intake at the bottom of the case (which has a magnetic dust filter), one for the exhaust at the rear. I selected this fan based on a comparison of about 100 different 120mm fans, as it was one of the most efficient (highest CFM @ 30dB) and has a very suitable black frame with white fan design to complement the style of this build. The fan blade design itself is quite unusual also. Quiet and a great performer.
NoiseBlocker NB-eLoop B14-PS 140mm PWM Fan x 1
This 140mm is for the top front mount, pushing air towards the CPU cooler. Similar in design to the above 120mm ones, but runs at a lower RPM due to its larger size. Also selected based on a huge comparison of 140mm fans, and it had one of the best overall efficiency (CFM @ 30dB). Great fan.
NZXT RF-FX142-NP 106.1 CFM 140mm Fan x 1 This 140mm is for the bottom front mount, pushing air towards the two GPUs. Originally I was planning to use the above NoiseBlocker 140mm in this fan mount, but decided to push a higher volume of air (at the expense of a little bit more noise) to the GPUs to aid in cooling. This FX v2 140 from NZXT was originally designed for radiators so has a high static pressure, hence good for mounting at the front of the case (where there isn't actually an air intake, except for a very tiny 1-2mm wedge around the front glass panel - air mostly comes from the bottom intake). It also matches the other fans with its black frame and white fan blades. Great fan too, though build quality is not nearly as nice as the NoiseBlockers. Removed this fan because it was far too loud. I detailed the reasoning in my updates below.
NZXT Hue+ RGB Colour Changing Internal LED Controller
If the 805 is like the beautiful glass stage, then the Hue+ is like the state-of-the-art lighting that brings the stage alive. Fantastic LED controller with four RGB LED strips included, very easy to setup and very customizable. Deciding how to route the two channels of LEDs was a bit tricky, but I settled for one channel going from front to top, and another going from bottom to back. This allowed special effects like Spectrum Wave to look properly in sync and in motion in the case. The wiring for the controller unit is a bit complex, but I managed to organize it a bit. Also, the thickness of the controller unit is a bit too thick to be mounted in the 2.5" drive bay behind the motherboard, so I had to improvise a upright mount in the front next to the 140mm fans using Blu-Tack. Works pretty well so far and the Hue+ LED itself can be seen.
By the way, the NZXT's LED strips are both adhesive and magnetic, but given that the 805 is all-aluminum, obviously magnets don't work. So I used small refrigerator magnets from a dollar store to temporarily hold the strips in place while I experimented with different placements. Worked like a charm. (Eagle-eyed readers here might notice there are still some magnets in use for the LED strip on the back. I haven't stuck that strip into place as I might change the location as I wanted to avoid the LED strips from being easily seen, which they are in the rear of the case.)
So, did it meet my objectives? For 4k60 gaming, that is a definite yes. Rise of the Tomb Raider, Just Cause 3, Doom, GTA V have all been amazingly smooth in 4k at 60 fps or higher. The size of the 805's chassis is just right for its place in my living room, and noise levels during gaming have been very reasonable (quieter than my PS4 when playing Uncharted 4). The glass panels have been surprisingly good at absorbing sound from inside the chassis. And finally, aesthetically speaking I think it is eye-catching, yet subtle. Going for the black case with its tint (so starting from all black when off), and letting various motherboard, RAM, and fan accents stand out in white worked, since white reflects the colour of the LEDs. This keeps things rather subtle but allows the internal components to stand out through lighting. And of course, the two silver GPUs and SLI HB bridge with the GeForce GTX logos in bright neon LED green definitely goes together with them.
All in all, I'm very pleased with this build. It was incredibly fun researching and putting it together, and it turned out almost completely to my expectations. I think the only possible adjustments I would make would be:
- The Dark Rock TF is pretty darn huge and black. I really did want to have the NZXT Kraken X41 in the system, with its super-low profile on the CPU and RGB LED logo. But, I didn't want to risk water leakage damaging all of the GPUs and everything else. Maybe one day when I've got more guts.
- I do wish that there were rubber grommets on the cutouts for the cabling. I did watch a video which explains how to make DIY rubber grommets. Maybe one day I'll attempt that.
- For extra cleanliness, getting individually sleeved PSU cables would be good. But I feel it isn't that necessary since all my cables are black (so not really visible) and I hadn't decided whether the new PSU cables should be black (going for the hidden look), or white (to add more accent, though the white fans do that quite a lot already). Something I might ruminate on for a while.
Phew, this was quite a long write-up. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed building it and sharing it! Thanks for reading!
(P.S. Some stats about temps and performance coming - as soon as I get some time testing out and tuning the system.)
August 22, 2016 Update
- After posting late last night and going to bed, then waking up to add some more build photos that I'd forgotten to upload the night before, I found my build featured on the front page. What a surprise, thanks to all of you for the support and comments! And oh, added more photos of the build process. :)
August 24, 2016 Update
- Added some screenshots with FPS, CPU/GPU temps and utilization from GTA V and Rise of the Tomb Raider, V-Sync Off and On respectively. There is definitely noticeable screen tearing going on when V-Sync is off, so I've been playing with V-Sync on. The SLI 1080s do run with less load when V-Sync is on - both GTA V and Rise of the Tomb Raider run at 60 fps with V-Sync. PCPP's image uploader couldn't handle any more of my raw 4k screencaps, so I couldn't upload them from Just Cause 3 and Metro Last Light, which were getting about 50 and 70 fps with V-Sync off. Again, I'm playing these with V-Sync on which nets 30 and 60 fps respectively. (Note: All graphics settings are using GeForce Experience cloud optimized settings.)
- Organized the fan and other cables in the front a bit, looks a touch cleaner now. Added a photo of this at the end of the gallery. Will still consider individually sleeved cables, but I don't think there's any hurry.
- By request, one last photo of the living room setup. Note that the rig won't be sitting in front of my loudspeaker permanently - once I have finished tuning everything, it will be put behind the loudspeaker it's currently in front of. Not to fear - it is visible, upon walking into the living area from the right. One thing I think I do need now is a bigger TV! (My current one is 40".) Am considering a 55" unit with 4k HDR10 support, i.e. the LG 55UH8500. Just need to wait for a good deal to come along, which I'm sure will towards the end of the year before preparing to release the 2017 models.
- Last note: the AX760's fan never comes on, even during full AIDA64 CPU/GPU stress testing. I am impressed with the power efficiency of the whole rig.
August 26, 2016 Update
- Discovered that Asus' AI Suite 3 automatic overclocking tools weren't doing this 6700K justice. With automatic overclocking, the 6700K was doing a max of 4.3 GHz with DDR4 2933 settings at 75 C in AIDA64 stress testing (without throttling). The culprit turned out to be Asus' aggressive VCore settings at more than 1.4 V at load. Manual overclocking gave a better result with 4.5 GHz with DDR4 3200 settings at 68 C in AIDA64 for the same test. Manual overclocking was easy to setup - first, restored all defaults using AI Suite 3 (loading "optimized" defaults in UEFI causes it to set Asus' auto-overclocks). Then went into UEFI, turned on XMP to load up the DDR4 3200 profile, set the Core Ratio to 45, and set VCore to Offset Mode at -0.1 V. Rebooted, ran the AIDA64 stress test and multiple games and this seems to be a good stable overclock. VCore at load ranges from 1.3 - 1.35 V, and adapts appropriately with the decrease in frequency and load for power savings. Given the current thermal performance of 68 C load, it might be possible to push it up to 4.6 or 4.7 GHz, but I think I'll just keep it as-is since below 70 C at load is a good compromise between speed and heat (noise). I'm pleased with this result and with the Dark Rock TF cooler (initial auto-overclocking results had me wondering if something was wrong with the CPU/cooler/mounting/TIM, since it didn't seem to be performing as well as reviews had led me to believe). Added 4.5 GHz / DDR4 3200 overclock AIDA64 stress test screenshot to the gallery for reference.
- For the dual GTX 1080s, I am seeing temperatures of around 82 C for the top card, and 76 C for the bottom card during load and gaming. I think these temps are to be expected with the reference blower-style coolers. Both cards do not appear to throttle below 1.6 GHz at load and do boost up to 1.9 GHz occasionally. The NZXT FX v2 140 mm fan does help cool them down very quickly after an intense workout. Noise levels are certainly elevated during gaming but acceptable.
Most noise comes from these two GPUs.Correction: from the NZXT FX v2 140 mm fan, which has since been swapped out for another NoiseBlocker! In terms of speed, noise, and heat, I'm satisfied with the performance of the dual 1080s in SLI in this system. I do not plan to overclock much as the 4K 60 fps target has been comfortably reached without issue. I will investigate some tweaking of the GPU fan profiles and/or NZXT FX v2 140 mm profile (especially making it ramp up depending on GPU temps). That would probably involve some EVGA/MSI GPU tools and SpeedFan setup. Over the CPU, the dual 1080s would certainly be the first candidates for water-cooling, for the sake of heat and noise reduction. Perhaps one day...
- Tested DOOM, Dirt Rally, Project CARS, and MGS V: Phantom Pain. All run at or above 60 fps at 4k with near maximum settings. Using V-Sync for each is not a problem and smooths out performance. Will test Crysis 3, Cities: Skylines, and Max Payne 3 this weekend.
August 29, 2016 Update
- Found that the NZXT FX v2 140 mm fan I was using for GPU cooling was far too loud at full speed. So I switched it with another NoiseBlocker NB-eLoop B14-PS 140mm PWM Fan and now have two for the front of the case. (Note: I did not bother to update all of the photos, sorry!) The system is now much, much quieter at full load (e.g. RealBench stress testing). According to comparison tests, at 7V the NZXT runs at 44.8 dB, while the NoiseBlocker was only at 26.2 dB. Every 3 dB means a doubling of perceived sound level, so with the NZXT it was running over six times louder! Running all NoiseBlockers was actually my original plan, but I had wanted to try the NZXT to see how it would work and if it would improve cooling. The difference was not very substantial. All NoiseBlockers is much, much better for usability and the thermals for the GPUs have not really seen much change.
- Re-installed the Dark Rock TF with Noctua NT-H1. (Also tested the Cryorig H5 Universal in the rig for kicks, but did not find it suitable. See comment thread below with PC_Alex for details.)
- Still in the process of tuning the overclock and deciding what to run it at. Testing revised overclock settings using Adaptive VCore control in the BIOS and using RealBench stress testing (1 hr) for verification. RealBench stress testing is far tougher on the system (at the same overclock, RealBench runs at 84 C, while AIDA64 runs at around 70 C) and is significantly better at finding system instability. Still deciding the appropriate balance between more CPU overclock vs RAM overclock, or perhaps to just keep all at stock settings to minimize heat and noise.
- Even at full stress test using RealBench with everything blazing at full power, the fan in the Corsair AX760 never turns on. Amazing!
January 22, 2017 Update
Made a few changes over the past few months:
- Since I needed the Dark Rock TF cooler for another build (see my build list), I switched the CPU cooler in the Glass Box to the Cryorig H5 Universal. I added a second XT140 slim fan to it for push-pull configuration, but in order to do that I needed to obtain another set of slim fan mounting clips from Cryorig (the spare set included in the box with the cooler are for regular 25 mm thick fans). For USD 5, they sent the slim fan clips to me for free.
- The Cryorig H5 Universal seems to work pretty well, as the airflow orientation causes more hot air to be exhausted out of the case through the rear 120 mm fan. However, the absolute cooling capacity of the H5 versus the Dark Rock TF seems to be about the same, as I saw similar CPU temps with the 6700k at same clock speeds.
- The other thing to note about the Cryorig H5 is that it just barely fits into the 805 with the X99 Deluxe II. The glass touches the top of the cooler and the fans need to be lowered slightly in order to clear the top of the cooler.
- Added a second SanDisk Ultra II 960GB SSD as I was running out of space for games.
- For productivity and virtualization purposes, I upgraded to the Core i7 6950x and Asus X99 Deluxe II motherboard.
- The X99 Deluxe II is a great motherboard, but has one issue. If using the M.2 slot on the motherboard, the second PCI-E slot for the GPU is reduced from 16x to 8x even with a 40-lane CPU. Therefore, I had to use the M.2 Hyperkit card instead of the M.2 slot. On the other hand, if the U.2 port is used, then the second PCI-E slot's bandwidth stays at 16x. This is because the U.2 port shares bandwidth with the bottom most PCI-E slot. Therefore, if I want to use the included Thunderbolt 3 card, I will have to get a U.2 SSD or find some sort of U.2 to M.2 adapter to use my existing 950 Pro SSD and the Thunderbolt 3 card at the same time without losing the 16x capability of the second PCI-E slot for the GPU.
- The X99 Deluxe II also only has one USB 2.0 port, so I needed to use the NZXT IU01 USB expander to connect the front USB 2.0 ports and NZXT Hue+ internally.
- The Fan Extension Card included with the X99 Deluxe II is great, but there isn't a good place to mount it if you don't have a 3.5" drive bay. So I had to use some Blu-Tak instead.
- The Cryorig H5 Universal was originally designed for only one front mounted fan, but I'm using two in push-pull. However, in this dual fan setup the pull fan is just touching one of the RAM sticks on the left side of the motherboard. There is a slight push on the RAM stick, but I think it should probably be OK. If I ever want to upgrade to eight RAM sticks, I will definitely have to remove the pull fan from the H5.
- As the CPU and motherboard upgrade invalidated the previous Windows 10 Home OEM license, I had to get a new OEM copy and installed Windows 10 Pro.
- This upgrade to the 6950x/X99 is relatively recent so I haven't had a chance to optimize the overclock, put it through its paces, and compare it with the 6700k. Will report back when there is updated data.