+ Total (Canada):
This build was intended as an upgrade from the 12-core/D700 2013 Mac Pro that I previously owned (I’ll spare the rant). I wanted something that was powerful: better at running both single-threaded and multi-threaded applications, while also being excellent at running games. However, I wanted to do this while also keeping a quiet, cool, compact system. I’ve also been spoiled by the look and feel of Apple products, so I couldn’t live with myself if I used a generic PC case—it had to look cool.
CPU & GPU
I went for a system built around the Intel i7 8700k and NVIDIA GTX 1080Ti; I wanted to overclock the CPU to ≥5.0GHz and the GPU to ≥2000MHz to match the multi-core performance and greatly surpass the single-core performance of the Mac Pro. I chose the ASUS ROG STRIX 1080Ti OC based on its reputation in the PC building community. I could have gone for a 1080Ti with a built-in water block, but admittedly I went for this one partially because I had an idea of which GPU water block I wanted for aesthetic purposes.
Overclocking with the ASUS GPU TWEAK software, I'm able to get my GPU stable at 2088MHz boost clock, 11311MHz memory clock. Results vary depending on how lucky you are with the silicon lottery.
After a bit of research, I was intrigued by the design of the Phanteks Evolv Shift X Case: I could fulfill all of my spec requirements and I was intrigued by the prospect of water cooling—indeed, the STRIX 1080Ti couldn’t even fit in the case with its stock cooler on, necessitating the use of a GPU water block.
As many say about this case, it is crucial to maintain a high level of organization with cables: this is actually necessary to make sure the panels will close properly.
I didn't like the flimsy metal PHANTEKS logo that was pasted on the central cable-management flap, so I pried it off and covered the whole surface with an ebony wood veneer. I also snapped off the little hinge tabs on the cable management flap, noting that it was actually annoying as a fixed hinge (noisily flapping back and forth during the build) and that it affixes itself to the chassis perfectly fine with just the magnets. It's a tiny improvement that I feel made a big difference to alleviate stress during the build!
As this case uses a mini-ITX motherboard, and I was looking for a z-series to allow overclocking, the ASUS ROG STRIX Z370-i seemed ideal as it had excellent reviews and was used extensively by others who built into the Shift X case.
If I were to be able to change one thing, it would be to make the silver aluminum heat sinks less obvious by either painting them black or just machining new subtle replacements. There is an EKWB monoblock that can replace these and would be better for overall cooling, but I wanted to avoid the garish illuminated STRIX logo.
In BIOS, it's very easy to overclock to a preconfigured 5.0GHz XMP profile. However, I can't seem to get it beyond 5.0GHz: it seems from some preliminary googling that this may be a limit imposed by the motherboard. If someone here knows more about this, please let me know in the comments!
The only finicky thing is configuring fan and pump settings to an ideal specification. I can post this later if it is requested.
For the memory, I read up that 3200MHz brought the best performance-to-price returns for the Coffee Lake platform in gaming. With that in mind, I went for G.SKILL’s TridentZ memory as it had the cleanest look to them, and had great reviews. I went for 2x16GB modules to populate both slots on the Motherboard. The CAS latency for this set is 14-14-14-34, intended to optimize for input latency and high refresh rate without bottlenecking the selected CPU/GPU.
The RGB element is a nice accent to the case when I want it to be there, but it should be noted that it cannot be controlled in MacOS. Booting straight into MacOS causes the TridentZ's LEDs to default to a Pride Week color cycle. However, if you boot into Windows 10, manage the RGB through ASUS's AURA software, then restart into MacOS, the preferred settings will carry over.
I chose to install a 256GB M.2 SSD for MacOS, a 500GB SATA SSD for general file storage on MacOS, and a 500GB SATA SSD for Windows 10; all Samsung for their performance, reliability, and black coloration. I elected to remove the SSD mounting tray studs on the interior of the case, and conceal the SATA SSDs on the mounting points behind the rear aluminum panel. Otherwise, I'd be seeing a few more cables and a pair of upside-down SAMSUNG logos.
It should be noted that if you do intend to use 4 SATA SSDs, the case only comes with 2 SSD mounting trays. The other 2 would need to be purchased separately.
I was recommended to go with a SFX power supply for this case—I would have gone with something lower than 700W, but there is a very limited selection of 80 Plus Platinum rated power supplies for this form factor. Anandtech made a good review of the Silverstone SX700-LPT PSU, so I decided to go with that one.
The form of the case also necessitated the use of custom power cables—I ordered some from CableMod, which fit perfectly (though, I suppose there could be a tiny more slack on the 24-pin ATX and 8-pin PCIe cables, as there's a bit of tension on some of them—I would have made custom ones if I had the supplies readily available).
Cooling System, Delidding, and Overclocking
I was interested in a liquid cooling setup so I could achieve a low system temperature and reduce the fan noise within the limited space of this compact case. Suffice it to say, this topic was a bit of a rabbit hole.
I wanted to go for a clean look so I firstly decided to try hard tubing, basically meaning I would have control over the shape of the tubes. Between Acrylic and PETG, I decided to go for PETG because it is a more forgiving material to shape. I decided to go for 14mm OD (outside diameter) Transparent PETG tubes, which permits a greater flow rate than the 12mm OD variant, while not being too thick like the 16mm OD variant (I don’t think 16mmOD fittings would even fit in this configuration, as space is really tight in the Shift X case).
I purchased a kit from Formulamod (Via AliExpress) and followed tutorials on Youtube. Science Studio has a good one here.
I took a photo of the in-progress case and used Markup to sketch various possible configurations of tubing in the case, settling on one that was relatively simple but still interesting. I found my first attempt at bending hard tubing to be, well, hard. It takes practice and patience: I acquired 12 500mm tubes and nearly ran out of them because I had a few duds before getting clean bends. The ones sold by Formulamod were inexpensive and did not have any defects.
Mayhems X1 is a high-performance coolant mixture that is also environmentally friendly: non-toxic and biodegradable. While some people will just use distilled water, these coolants contain inhibitors that protect against corrosion, scale, and “biological fouling,” prolonging the life of the system. Following the all-black theme of this build, I went for the UV Black type. When UV light catches it, it turns blue; non-UV light sometimes makes it look dark red. It would presumably glow if a UV light was in the case.
This doesn't appear to be available on Amazon anymore, however it is still available from various specialized computer parts retailers.
6 months into use, it's still the same visual quality as it was before. No degradation in color and no cloudiness yet; will update if it changes at all.
Lastly, I went with an EKWB pump: a DDC model for superior flow rates (to ensure an adequate flow rate through the two radiators) with PWM control so I could allow the computer to dynamically control the flow rate based on the temperature of the coolant. The pump’s wires are multicolored, so I opted to cover them in a black fibreglass sleeve with a bit of heat shrink tubing sealing the end—exactly the same as the Noctua cables. I found these materials at a local electronics parts store.
Since the pump's power cable is a weird-*** Molex connector, and nothing in my computer uses Molex, I elected to splice the wires directly to a 6-pin ATX connector. This saves considerable space behind the rear aluminum panel, where there is very little room. Simultaneously, I added some more black fibreglass sleeve and heat shrink tubing to these bare multicolored wires to clean up the appearance significantly.
It should be noted that when the pump is connected to the AIO_PUMP header, it will only be able to be controlled by the CPU's temperature, which can get annoying hearing the motor spin up to maximum speed if the CPU is rapidly fluctuating in speed/temperature. I've tried hooking it up to the fan hub to be based on the coolant temps, but found that it was underperforming in this configuration. If anyone has found a solution to this, please let me know!
The most that the case could fit was a single-width 120mm and a double-width 240mm radiator, both slim profile—enough to cool the CPU and GPU at full load.
I read that Hardware Labs's Black Ice Nemesis GTS radiators performed very well in comparative tests, as their fin density is quite high. They work great in conjunction with the Noctua iPPC fans.
I chose the Phanteks water blocks for the CPU and GPU for stylistic purposes (keeping a consistent style with the case). The RGB elements are not perfect: they'll never be the same colour as the GPU backplate and RAM LEDs, and lack the vibrance especially around the red side of the spectrum. However, they still look great (I keep mine at "61" on the AURA color wheel, which is a curious violet color that I couldn't capture accurately with my phone's camera). These LEDs and the case LED (on the top of the case) are all connected with included y-splitter cables to the GPU's RGB header. If unwanted, the water blocks' LEDs can be easily removed (the panels concealing them are affixed with magnets).
I would prefer to not have the white PHANTEKS logo across the CPU block, so I plan to make some ebony veneers to conceal them while matching the finish of the modified cable management flap.
I chose Barrow fittings because they’re cheap clones of Bitspower fittings (Edited: I was misinformed: they're not made by the same OEM: Bitspower are manufactured in Taiwan and Barrow are manufactured in China, and the quality is noticeably higher on Bitspower fittings), they aren't covered in conspicuous logos, and the matte black finish nicely complements this build. These fittings were specified to fit the 14mm OD hard tube specification.
The one exception is a EKWB ball valve, which I chose because it was by far the best-looking ball valve for this build—everything else is weird and bulbous.
I placed a temperature-sensing stopper on the spare outflow port on the GPU block—as it would otherwise be home to a regular stopper. This is plugged into the T_SENSOR header on the motherboard.
I placed the drainage valve at the highest point in the case (next to the GPU block) to make it easier to drain the radiators: the case can be put on its side or upside down for this procedure. It’s admittedly not very easy, and requires maneuvering the entire case in various positions to drain the loop. I removed the knob for the ball valve to let it fit in this location (just remove the screw and it pops off).
Additionally, I also picked up a length of flexible tubing (3/8”ID 1/2”OD) and a compression fitting: with this I’m able to unscrew the stopper on the ball valve, screw on the flexible tube+fitting, then open the ball valve to drain the loop.
The loop itself follows this order: Reservoir/Pump > 120mm Radiator > CPU > GPU > 240mm Radiator
When I leak-tested the build, the seal between the EKWB pump and a Barrow fitting at the recessed "OUT" port began leaking immediately. To fix this issue, I simply placed the G1/4 extender that came with the EKWB pump between the pump and the barrow fitting at this juncture.
6 months after completing the build, I've had no issues with coolant leaking anywhere—this includes several dozen moves around the house and a few car trips to LAN parties. It seems that Barrow fittings' lower manufacturing tolerances are alleviated by the use of three O-rings abutting hard tubes (Bitspower uses 2 abutting hard tubes).
Lastly, the paint on the knurled surfaces of some of the fittings chipped after using a wrench (covered in a sock) to fasten the fittings' threads, so I applied a bit of black paint to hide these imperfections.
Noctua fans are highly-regarded and have a good static pressure to noise ratio; given the radiator selection, I went with their 120mm industrial PPC fans with two 3000rpm fans mounted to the 240mm radiator on the vertical side of the case, with a third 3000rpm fan mounted to the 120mm radiator at the bottom of the case. These, and the top exhaust fan (which comes included with the case) are all linked via a fan hub to the CHA_FAN header and controlled by the T_SENSOR liquid temperature, while the CPU_FAN temperature monitoring is disabled in BIOS to stop the computer from ******** its pants (as it prevents you from booting if it doesn’t detect a fan on the CPU_FAN header). This ensures that the fan speed ramp up is gradual and sonically unobtrusive (I tried the setup with some fans plugged into the CPU_FAN header, but got annoyed from the rapid changes in fan noise as the CPU can change temperature rapidly depending on the workflow).
De-lidding, Liquid Metal Application
Because I planned to overclock the CPU to 5.0GHz, and needed to run Keyshot (a multithreaded rendering program that fully saturates all cores/threads), I decided to also de-lid, apply liquid metal compound, and re-lid the CPU to maintain a comfortable level of stability. Between the CPU/GPU and their corresponding water blocks, I just used the thermal compound that came with the Phanteks water blocks. Without the de-lid in this setup, the CPU was running at 85-90˚C under full load; with the liquid metal, the CPU now clocks in at a maximum of 65-70˚C under full load. Everything stays at roughly 30˚C at idle, 5˚C higher than the ambient temperature.
I don't have much to say that hasn't been said on pretty much every guide to de-lidding.
Of course, if you have no intention of turning this into a Hackintosh, nothing needs to be changed here.
For maximum compatibility with my MacOS install, I opted to go for the WiFi/Bluetooth mod that’s popular in the hackintosh community. On this motherboard, you have to remove the ASUS WiFi GO module, disassemble it, and replace the card with the AirPort/Adapter combo before reinserting it into the same location on the motherboard. It should be noted that one of the pigtail cable antennas that came with the ASUS motherboard was not long enough, so I had to purchase some longer ones. Everything works including Unlock with Apple Watch, Handoff, and Airdrop.
Apple’s Boot Camp Support Software contained the necessary drivers to enable use of this card in Windows 10.
For the Monitor, I chose the Alienware AW3418DW as it was the only curved 1440p ultrawide with G-Sync and a 120Hz refresh rate (others were capped at 100Hz at the time). Alienware is also a subsidiary of Dell, which makes monitors of excellent quality: low backlight bleed, high color accuracy, sturdy construction, and a good port layout. I find its design to be closer to what I’d want in my home, as it looks simple and sharp from the front—unlike the adolescent-looking ASUS/BENQ/ACER gaming monitors of similar specs. It’s a good in-between for productivity and gaming—and I actually prefer the format to my previous dual 5K 27” monitor setup as I’m finding I can very comfortably fit everything I need into the display area without needing to strain my neck looking from edge to edge. I do miss the “retina” resolution and the wide color gamut for my design work though, but I am now able to use my 12.9” iPad Pro for viewing work at high pixel density and color gamuts.
For the sake of this description, I'll record some performance tests later and update this description to reflect uncapped frame rates
Overwatch plays at a sustained 120fps+ (manually limited to 120fps to not exceed the screen's refresh rate to avoid screen tearing) on Epic settings at native 3440x1440 resolution with today's up-to-date OS and NVIDIA drivers.
PUBG performance is all over the ******* place because it's a ****** broken game, but I love it nonetheless and it usually performs at 120fps+ (manually limited to 120fps to not exceed the screen's refresh rate to avoid screen tearing) at native 3440x1440 with render scale set to 120, textures at medium, distance at ultra, AA at ultra, and everything else at its lowest setting.
Fortnite probably plays at a sustained 120 fps+ at max settings, but I need to download it again to test it. I have cast my lot.
WoW: BfA plays at a sustained 120fps+ on max settings.
Pro App Performance
While this computer does indeed perform significantly better than the Mac Pro that it replaced, it's difficult to benchmark these applications due to their various functions. All I can say is that the high single-threaded performance blows the Mac Pro's 12-core, 24-thread 2.7GHz Xeon out of the water for the applications that take advantage of it: certain procedures in Rhino appear to take half the time to execute. For multi-threaded performance, this computer is still measurably better than the Mac Pro: Keyshot 5.3 Pro's Camera benchmark comes in at 135fps (whereas the Mac Pro was 125fps).
For applications that leverage the GPU, it's ridiculously better. Photoshop/Illustrator and Affinity Photo/Designer are obnoxiously fast. However, I suspect that Apple-designed applications that are intended by Apple for Apple-exclusive AMD GPUs might still run better on the Mac Pro (i.e. Final Cut Pro, the only viable use case scenario for the Trashcan Mac Pro).
All in all, I'm extremely satisfied with the performance of this computer!