Before I write about this build I will begin with a dedication. My sweet wife and I bought a house in 2015 after years of saving and planning. We're making every dollar work so that we finance nothing and buy furniture and other necessities only with the cash in hand. This diligence has resulted in a couple of rooms still empty and a lack of money lying around for luxurious purchases like... well... an awesome gaming PC.
I've been planning this build since 2014, and when we decided to pull the trigger on a house we made an agreement that I would put the build on hold until we saved enough to purchase all the furnishings for our home. We've been ticking items off the list slowly. A mattress first, then an elliptical, then a couch... you get the idea. We were nearing completion of our goal, and in November we had only one more large item on our list: a dining room table. I expected that we would wait through the holidays and the extra money spent on them before we would purchase the table, and that I would be looking at mid 2016 before this build would become a reality. But I was blown away when my darling wife surprised me for Christmas by changing our order of items so that I could complete this build before we bought the table.
My dear, that meant the world to me. I dedicate this build to you for being so sweet and patient with me, and for understanding why I wanted to do this. I can never thank you enough for your constant support, and for pretending to be interested every time I asked you to talk through a part choice! Think of how much you'll miss that! As small of a token as this is, I've named this build so that we can still say we bought The Dining Room Table on time. I love you!
Here's the TL;DR: I went from a weak laptop to a beastly tower and I couldn't be happier. The goal was to milk every dollar of my $1,500 budget for everything including OS and peripherals. I succeeded in this glorious endeavor.
Let's start with some context. For the last three years I've been working and gaming on a Toshiba laptop. It's served me well, but it was never the powerhouse that I craved! As a reference I've included my previous set up in the photos. My trusty laptop sports an i5 3230M, 6GB 800MHz DDR3 RAM, and a Radeon HD 7600M. This display is a 15 inch glossy panel with some of the worst viewing angles I've ever experienced. Gaming at 1366x768 was enough to convince me to leave behind my XBox 360... but it left me hungry for a better experience. On this machine I was able to run most titles at low-medium settings at 30-40 FPS, but there were many games that I had no hope of running. Dragon Age Inquisition, for example, would run at low settings for about 5 minutes before the laptop would overheat and shut off.
Enter The Dining Room Table:
Early in the build I considered going with a locked quad-core model like the 4590, but with DirectX 12 right around the corner I wanted to a processor with a bit more flexibility and power. The 4690k was the obvious choice. I planned to overclock after testing stock performance and I've been so impressed that I don't see any tangible benefit in my position. With the Hyper 212 Evo I'm seeing the processor turbo up to 4.1 or 4.2 routinely. I'm so impressed with this “mid-range” CPU! Down the road if I end up
needing wanting hyper-threading I have an upgrade path in the i7 4790k, but for my needs now I couldn't be happier.
The price-to-performance ratio of an AIO water cooler just didn't make sense for my budget, especially with the infamous Hyper 212 Evo available for $25. This is another item I may consider as part of a future upgrade path, but it's going to have to be a great deal to improve on this cooler. While it is rather large I don't think it clashes aesthetically with the rest of the build.
A word of warning to new builders using this cooler! This was by far the most challenging part of the build for me. The installation instructions that come with the 212 Evo are utterly terrible. Rather than using any words at all Cooler Master opted for a bunch of pictures that barely make sense. On top of that it suggest that you use way too much thermal paste and has a few steps out of order. Do yourself a favor and don't even look at it, just find someone installing it on YouTube. I also suggest installing your motherboard into the case first. Unless you have a second pair of hands that can hold the board steady it will be very tough to gracefully install the plate on the back of the board before it's installed.
This is one sharp looking motherboard. I picked it up for under $100 after a rebate from New Egg and at that price I could not be happier. Intel NIC on board, intuitive UEFI BIOS, solid feature set. For a first-time builder like myself I couldn't ask for anything more. Anything else like fancy “thermal armor” or on-board WiFi would have made no sense for my budget, and most definitely would not have added any meaningful features when compared to the cost of a PCIe WiFi card. The gold accents look a little garish online, but in person the color is much more muted and attractive. I'm very pleased with Asus so far! I see why they're considered the “gold standard.”
The documentation that came with this board was almost flawless with one notable exception: the IO shield. After all the research and prep I did I thought I was being slick by even remembering to first install the IO shield in the case before anything else. I gave myself a big ol' pat on the back! But what I wasn't prepared for (and what doesn't seem to be documented anywhere obvious) is that there are metal prongs that must be bent inward in order for the actual IO to fit into the shield. I applied considerable force to the board in an effort to seat it on the standoffs before I realized that these prongs have to be moved. I first tried bending them outward because sometimes we all just make silly decisions... the board fit, of course, but when I checked the shield the prongs were blocking the NIC and DVI ports. A little trial and error solved this problem, but hopefully my experience will help others! Bend those tabs inward!
Great price for DDR3-1600 with CAS 9. I chose this for the no-frills black heat sink and the CAS latency. Used Windows to check for errors and CPU-Z to confirm it's running in dual channel. No complaints, no problems. 16GB would have been overkill. If I ever need it there's a cheap upgrade path there.
I originally planed on a 128 or 256GB SSD and a 1TB 7200RPM HDD, but right before I bought the parts this highly-reviewed 500GB 850 EVO dropped to the same price I'd pay for the other configuration. When it came down to how I wanted the budget to work for me a single larger-capacity SSD became the only choice. One of my first upgrades will be some sort of mass storage solution in the form of either an HDD or a 1TB SSD that drops to an acceptable price per GB. For now I'll stick to cloud storage for photos and whatnot. I'm amazed at how quickly the cost of solid state storage is dropping. When I started planning a build I could not have afforded such a high quality or high capacity SSD, and only a year and a half later the story is completely different.
The pièce de résistance! I admit agonized over this part but in the end a top tier card like a 980 or 980 Ti was just out my price range. To upgrade to one of these cards I would need a good reason... and I just don't have one. I'm perfectly content with 60 Hz at 1080p, and 1440p/4k gaming just hasn't come into its prime yet. A step up here would have meant a requirement to spend more money on the monitor as well, then all of a sudden my $1500 budget would become $2000.
I made the decision to go with Nvidia early on. My current lap top has an AMD GPU and I've had a decent experience, but the power efficiency and driver-support that Nvidia offers won me over. I may have considered a 390x if I was serious about 1440p right now, but at 1080p the 970 is king. One could argue that the 960 would have been a better budget choice, but the 2GB VRAM makes me nervous for newer titles. The 970's extra
2GB 1.5GB VRAM makes me much more comfortable, and the spec list for the 970 is clearly better suited for AAA titles in the years to come. I chose the FTW+ edition because I wanted the highest factory overclock I could afford, because I wanted to go with EVGA for aesthetics and reputation, and because this model came with a back plate already installed which saved me a little cash.
So far I've spent time playing Wolfenstein: The New Order, Far Cry 3, and Fallout 4. Please understand that I'm coming from 1366x768 at 30-40 fps with medium settings. The 970 hasn't dipped below 60 FPS on Wolfenstein or Far Cry with everything maxed and 4x MSAA, and Fallout very rarely dips below 60 FPS with 16x TAA even with Godrays on ultra. Needless to say I've been absolutely blown away. I get an adrenaline rush just turning up all the settings and knowing that this beast can handle it. I am so thrilled with this choice! I could just keep talking about this part! But you get the picture: amazing performance for the price.
I can't recommend this case enough. Very spacious and sleek, and comes with two great fans ready to go. I had no issue with cable management or clearance anywhere, and the modular hard drive cages allow for customization and airflow. On top of that this thing is dead silent. As others have said I have to concentrate to be able to hear it, even under load. I hear the CPU fan spin up to 100% right when I power on, but after that it might as well be a whisper.
A word of warning to those with carpet, though. The feet are very short which means even low carpets cause airflow issues. I put two pieces of tile down to avoid this issue as I really wanted my power supply fan facing the bottom of the case rather than blasting my GPU with hot air.
I'm not an electrical engineer and I won't pretend to be. I knew that I wanted an efficient, full modular power supply from a brand I trust. I let Tom's Hardware do the rest of the work. This is a 650 Watt PSU from Tier 1 of Tom's PSU Tier List. No complaints so far, and I trust that this part will last for years to come. The documentation that came with this part made selecting and placing cables a breeze. My only complaint is that the CPU cable was almost too short to route behind the motherboard. Had it been a millimeter shorter I would have had to run it in front of the board.
Have to give this card some praise! I love the Bluetooth compatibility, but be warned that it requires a USB 2.0 header. This isn't a big deal as my MoBo has plenty to spare, but there's no graceful way to route the cable from the PCI slot. Other than that, no complaints at all. I get almost the same download speeds over 802.11ac as I do when I run an Ethernet cable to my router. I don't do any competitive gaming, so the extra latency is no big deal. Great card for a great price, and saved my a lot on my MoBo.
I made a decision early on to go for an IPS panel over a high-refresh-rate TN panel. At 60HZ and 5ms response time I've had nothing to distract me from all the eye candy. 23 inches is definitely the sweet spot for 1080p. This is one of the best deals I could find for a 1080p IPS with a matte display, and I see that one of the corners Asus cut was with the stand. The first item I'll be adding to this battlestation will be a Vesa desk stand or wall mount. When typing the stand wobbles just enough to be perceptible. It isn't awful, but it's obvious and takes away from the otherwise stunning display.
This gentleman goes by the name of Chubbs! When we adopted him the agency called him an "Alabama Purebreed" because he's got a little bit of everything in him. As near as we can tell he is a lab/hound mix. He really wanted to help with the build, but he just couldn't control the urge to chew off the anti-static wrist strap.
If you made it this far... thanks for reading! I'm thrilled to be a part of this awesome community, and to have been able to experience the joy of building such a powerful machine with my own two hands. As time goes on I may update this with benchmarks or the results of overclocking when I decide to take the plunge there.
May your framerates be high and your temperatures low, my friends!