I am a graduate student in engineering. This machine was built to bring some thesis work home, specifically built for highly threaded research computing at a reasonable cost. I'll talk about the build first, then if you're tired you don't have to read about why I selected the parts. I do think there's some interesting rationale for parts selection on a machine intended for light-duty science (medium duty involves high-end graphics cards, and heavy duty is dedicated supercomputers), rather than gaming or rendering, which are common on this site. To reiterate, nothing in this build is fit for intense gaming, but it will also be the family Blu-Ray player when desired. For $800, I think this machine came out to be a tremendous value.
I pieced together a working computer a little over decade ago using spare parts from my dad's basement (he built computers as a side business). I wouldn't call that my first build though, since the motherboard and Pentium III processor were already installed when I got to it, and I basically slapped a hard drive and floppy drive in and installed Windows 98. But that never left me.
I'm a poor, but largely debt-free college student, and I wanted to get caught up to the industry after years off, but without a plan to build. I found this site, which a great springboard into learning about the various parts, and did my general catching up. After awhile, I planned a few hypothetical builds, but as it became more obvious that there was a need for me to have a computer after a year without one, I researched and planned a real one, and got about half of the parts for Christmas. I watched for deals all season to be helpful.
Part of my work has me assembling sensitive electronics (rocket payloads), so I borrowed an anti-static mat and wrist strap from work to build with. My experience says discharge damage isn't likely, but the peace of mind is priceless. I POSTed out of the case, then screwed things in without much trouble. The case/cooler/screwdriver didn't want me to put in the top-middle ATX screw, but I finally saw a space and torqued it in.
I mounted the SSD behind the motherboard for the experience, although it did require an extra cable, since the one SATA chain was a couple centimeters too short to reach the DVD drive with the SSD there. The other rational was to allow for expansion to up to 5 drives without reinstalling the upper drive cage. With the upper cage removed, I swapped the front case fan to the top-front position for more straight flow through the heat sink.
The case also has a fan controller, which I thought was neat, so I did use a Molex chain to power it as well, which left a big bundle behind the port-side panel. Initially, the cable bunch actually bulged the side panel out a bit, which I fixed later. It doesn't look a lot different from the picture shown, but the panel doesn't bulge much anymore. That was the only real trouble with cable management, and I'm really happy with the looks and airflow situation.
The cooler was really quite simple to install, but since it was my first, I wasn't sure how I did on the thermal compound (pea method at first). I pulled it off to check, and it was fine, but I was excited and didn't think about the air bubbles that would obviously show up by putting it right back on. After I saw the initial load temperatures, I redid it with an x. The first time using an x I put on too little, so cleaned it off and went again, with enough stuff for one more full go, and I'm very happy with the result. The last picture is of the final pasting.
Overclocking is really easy to try with the motherboard, but I've had a really hard time getting a stable overclock. I didn't push the voltage as hard as I could have, since I'm new to the scene, and still poor, so didn't want to risk a chip/board before I graduate. I settled at 4.0 GHz and turned down the fan speed for quieter operation, though I think eventually I'll be able to push up to 4.4-4.5 or so.
CPU: The FX-series processors have some of the best value/dollar on the market if you utilize the threads. If you tend to run single-threaded applications and don't multitask heavily, there's not doubt that Intel will handily outdo the AMD lineup. I plan to use all 8 threads wherever possible, to the extent that this CPU is not only the best value, but also a heavy contender in the mix with the i7 line for highly-threaded applications (up to about the 4790K; above that the i7 and Xeon processors are undoubtedly the preferred choice if you've got the cash - ask me for details and I'll explain my logic). I chose the 8320, since it is actually the same chip as the 8350 and 8370, and the whole 9xxx series. I figure I saved 30 bucks by overclocking. I've had a hard time getting it stable at higher overclocks, though (I need it rock-stable with Prime95, since it's math I need it for), so I'll knock a star off for that. Otherwise, a great buy.
CPU Cooler: My first thought was a Noctua cooler, either the NH-D14 -D15. As I looked at the competition, I saw just as much value in the Phanteks cooler. You've also got the Dark Rock Pro 3 and a few other dual-tower heatsink designs, but the Phanteks had a good deal through Newegg and a MIR. I tried to avoid those in general, but budgets do happen. The dual-tower designs actually perform on par with many liquid coolers (LinusTechTips has a video pitting the NH-D15 against the H100i and H110), and for a much lower dollar cost, without the disadvantages of water cooling, it was a no-brainer decision. It's cool and quiet, and I'm happy.
Motherboard: I did actually try to coordinate colors without increasing costs, but this board was the best choice for me. Besides good overclocking reviews, there are several features that won me over, including Purity Sound, the Fatal1ty mouse port (I'm not a gamer, but you know those times when you're trying to move the mouse just a pixel and you keep overshooting?), and most of all the Gen 2 M.2 port. I didn't have the funds to populate the M.2 slot right away, but maybe next Christmas or so, I'll pop one in. Overall, there are lots of expansion options, and just enough SATA III ports for a 4-drive RAID 0 or RAID 10 + single HDD backup. I do have to knock a star off because some of the overclocking features don't work - the CPU p-states still throttle under load, even when all the controls are turned off. I have to use a post-boot tweaker to change them. Other than that, I wish it had no red to match the rest of the parts, but hey.
Memory: I learned a lot about how memory works while researching this part. It turns out that increasing speed at the cost of latency does actually have some benefit if you recognize that the latency is noted in clock cycles, and each cycle is shorter at the higher frequency, for an overall advantage. With timings of 11-12-12-29, it's one of the top performers in its class and overall at a much better value against the likes of Corsair. The 2x8 kit takes advantage of the dual-channel controller and gives me enough headroom for virtual machines when the come around. With AMP and XMP, and a low-profile heat spreader, I can easily make good use of this kit in any future DDR3 build, provided I build again before DDR3 is obsolete. With the many quick and often sequential memory calls in the scientific computing that I do, this will be an excellent kit to have. * Note - the CPU's IMC is rated up to 2133, but this runs just fine at 2400.
Storage: I work with large amounts of data and large numbers of files, but not a lot of media. I do intend to have a 1-2 TB secondary/backup drive/array, but the 128GB drive probably won't be a severe limitation for most of the life of this PC. Not all SSDs are made equal. Most have very good read rates, but only a few have good write rates. The Samsung 840-850 line are the top dogs for SATA III storage, but the Crucial only lags a little in the write rates, so when it went on sale, I couldn't pass it up. Eventually, I'll have an XP941 in the M.2 for primary storage, unless something just as good comes along cheaper. My dream would be to have the XP941 as primary, 4 of the Crucial drives would be in RAID 10, and a final backup TB HDD.
Video Card: I know it's a little overkill for my usage and monitor, but eventually there will be a 1080p screen attached, and I'll most likely pick up a surplus 15" 4:3 second monitor before then. This refurbished card was the best deal I saw on any video card near its class. I wanted to just outdo the integrated graphics options, since I chose not to go with one, and this was the ticket. A bonus was that the refurbished card I ordered was a 1GB model, but the one I received was the 2GB model in the parts list. I could use it for an extra processing boost if I need.
Case: A solid 4-star case. The door is on the wrong side, and I think there are a few other minor tweaks that would make it better (and, coincidentally, turn it into an R5), but the cable management options are excellent and the ease of installation was really pretty good. I should say that I chose it for its minimalistic design, USB 3.0, door, and window, plus some sound damping materials. There are a lot of attractive cases, but I also confess that I hate bold branding, which turns me off to a lot of NZXT and BitFenix cases, despite their minimalism, so this was the one that fit the bill.
PSU: This was the other MIR I conceded to. It made the deal too good to miss, especially for this particular model. Gold certified and built by Super Flower. At full power (which I will be at quite often - I plan to do protein folding in my off-hours), It'll run around the 50% mark, which should give me peak efficiency. This power supply will last for years, probably through this build and the next without even trying. As I mentioned in the build, it would be nice if the included SATA chain was just a bit longer between the first and last connectors, but that's my build decision to put the SSD where it is, not theirs.
Optical: We don't have a TV. Netflix on the laptop has been our only viewing option until now, and we do actually have Blu-Ray discs (got them for Christmas with the drive). Redbox is also a thing that is nice, occasionally. I know, I don't even have a decent screen yet, but as I said I'm poor, but planning for the future. I actually wasn't expecting this one for Christmas.
Monitor: The university surplus helped keep the whole setup cost under $800, including peripherals. For $20, it's not like I can complain. It's the same resolution and aspect ratio as my laptop that died last January, with a bonus of two more inches. Speaking of, anyone interested in a used laptop screen?
Keyboard: It has volume control buttons, but the real highlight is the calculator hotkey in the corner. Surplus!
Mouse: Recycled Microsoft model from who-knows-how-long-ago.
Cable: I threw this on there because it added to the total startup cost of the system, not that it matters otherwise. It's a quality cable.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this, let me know what you think. If you have questions, I'll be happy to share what I know. I worked especially hard to justify my CPU/memory choices using math and benchmarks, if anyone is interested.