Building PCs for Fun and ... Well, More Fun

This area is dedicated to one of my favorite hobbies: building desktop computers from components. I've been building & upgrading PCs since the early 80's, when upgrading memory consisted of taking individual chips out of a tube and inserting them into sockets on the motherboard. Mostly, I build PCs to support one of my other favorite hobbies, which is computer games. However, I have often been convinced to use my powers for the good of building PCs for friends and relatives who have other purposes in mind. The topic areas are listed to the left to give the general categories. Choose any one of those topics to get the articles/entries.

Bang For the Buck (B4TB)

Bang for the Buck (B4TB)

The specifications listed here will be for gaming systems. If you just want a basic system for everyday web browsing, email, YouTube videos, etc. then the budget system is probably a good place to start, but the graphics card can be safely downgraded a notch or two.

I often get asked to look over a set of components that someone is considering for their new gaming rig or am asked to come up a set for the best gaming rig within a certain budget. Occasionally - when I'm very lucky - that limit is really, really large. Unfortunately, that type of budget is almost never for my own system. Still, I find it fun to spec out and build all types of systems. The system specs herein will be just the main box; the monitor(s), keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc. are not included here. The operating system will be.

Show Me What You Got, Big Boy

One big caveat/disclaimer before we get into the specifics. Except where noted, I haven't actually built the systems given in the specifications. I fully believe I could, and if someone wants to kindly send me the parts so I can test that theory, I will. If you discover something that just doesn't work, I'd love to hear about it. (Email me, but be sure to fix the email address by removing the SPAM part.) By request, I've written a breakdown of the heat I'm currently packing. That is, the gaming system I'm using today. If you're interested in what I've chosen for myself, I invite you to check out my current rig page.

Component Recommendations

The systems will be put together using prices from PC Part Picker. I used to use Newegg exclusively for doing up these estimates just to keep things simple as they were "close enough" in terms of price, but PC Parts Picker takes out the legwork of looking at a dozens of online sites. I don't work for or receive anything from any of the retailers. (I did once get a mouse pad and a hat from Newegg for a review I left on the site.) I'll happily ignore emails stating you could get this from <insert some other e-tailer here> for $5 less. That said, I'm also going to bypass all "combo" deals and rebates as those are usually for a limited time, but the time is not specified. I may mention I saw one, but I won't include it in the price. Now, on with the show.

  • Gaming on a budget — Gaming on what I consider the lowest end system worth calling a "gaming rig." Sure you could play that four-year-old game on something less, but this is the minimal system needed to play the games that are currently new and hot. The price of this rig will fluctuate a bit, but generally be under $1000 including operating system. I usually shoot for $800 - $900, and I often miss - being a bit higher than that. Yes, I know there are sites out there advertising gaming systems for $650 or $700 that will "run everything on ultra high settings." That's bull. My system is at the high end of the mainstream gamer level (see the next paragraph), and I can't run everything on ultra high settings.
  • Mainstream gaming — This is the system I probably have right now .. or would have if I was buying a system today. It should run the current lineup of PC games on at least medium to high (or ultra) settings. My target price range is a bit wider here at $1,400 - $1,800. I try to fall in the middle at $1600, but won't balk as spending an extra $100 that gives back more than $100-worth of performance. Most people will want to start with this one and upgrade/downgrade components as desired.
  • Enthusiast Gaming (or Price is not a consideration) — The system I would buy if I was filthy rich. While this one will be expensive, I won't go out of the way to include components that increase the price without a good reason. For example, if the CPU next to the top end can be had for $400 less, I'm there. Why? Because it's regularly found that the "one-off" CPU can be overclocked to the same speed as the higher-priced one or beyond. Doubling the cost of the graphics cards used to get an extra 10% more performance doesn't make sense to me, either. I don't mind spending (other people's) money if I feel it was well-spent. I just don't want to feel I wasted it. Expect systems in this range to break the $3,000 price level. Twice that isn't out of the question, but it would have to be one heck of a system.

Gaming on a Budget

So you want to play the latest games, but your budget is limited. Still, you want a system your friends won't laugh at. (And you won't scream at.) You want to be able to play the current crop of games on reasonably high settings and hope to run this system for the next year or two without having to back off the graphics settings to "minimum." This section's for you. The entries below will be in a blog format so I can just tack new months in front of older ones.

2015 - 07 (July) Budget Build

The Budget Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker links in the table below where I tally up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using those links and get them at or near the prices quoted. My self-established goal is under $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.

CPU

My choices in this price range (which I try to keep in the range of $100 to $150) are the Intel Core i3-4330 or the AMD FX-8320. I currently prefer Intel CPUs to the AMD CPUs because the AMDs are essentially the same design released in 2012, and they tend to run hotter than Intel CPUs. That means more power required from the power supply and more cooling to dissipate the heat that is generated. That's not to say the 8320 is a bad part. When looking at benchmarks, the AMD wins those where multithreading is the key, but the Intel wins in just about as many overall even though it only has half as many threads (and those are hyperthreaded rather than dedicated cores). Games are becoming increasingly efficient with multiple cores, but the having more cores doesn't make a winner. Price isn't a deciding factor either as the Core i3-4330 goes for about $130 and the 8AMD FX-3820 goes for $135.

AMD's FX-8320 is an eight-core part with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. My mental problem with it is that is has a 125W TDP before overclocking, which is about 2.5 times the Intel Core i3-4330. Overclocking that part begs for a closed-loop CPU cooler. By the time you add that cost, you've bumped into the next higher Intel part (i.e., the Intel Core i5-4590). AMD recently introduced the AMD FX-8320E, which is a lower power part (95W). However, from what I can tell from reviews, they mostly played around with the current architecture slightly and capped the TDP at 95W. Benchmarks show the 8320E the same or slightly slower that the 8320, but the prices is about $150. It makes no sense to me to pay more for less performance. Really either the Intel Core i3-4330 or the AMD FX-8320 is a good choice in this price/performance range, but I'm going with the Intel Core i3-4330 for this build.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

We'll save cost here by using Intel's stock CPU heatsink and cooler. It's nothing to write home about, but it does the job and is included with the CPU. It's hard to beat a $0 cost.

Motherboard

Even though this is a budget build, there's no reason to use anything but a top-tier manufacturer's board. For me, that's Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. I have used ASRock in the past, too, but I find their motherboards can be a bit more finicky than the others. The headaches from cheap boards just aren't worth it for the few dollars saved. For this build, I've gone with the Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3.

The GA-Z97-HD3 is a full-sized ATX board with two PCI-E x16 slots (but only one at PCI-E x16 speed), a pair of PCI-E x1 slots and a pair of legacy PCI slots. (The PCI slots almost seem an oddity now, but if you have an old sound card you'd like to keep for one more build, this will do it.) It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives. The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the USB 3.0 header to supply USB 3.0 on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the budget build is between $80 - $100. For $90, this is a hard motherboard to beat.

GPU (Graphics Card)

I'm going to be very prejudiced in my selection here. Simply put, for now and for the foreseeable future, I will recommend an Nvidia card each and every time. When I heard about the upcoming R9 3xx series from AMD (390X, 380 and 370), I thought it might be time to revisit the series. Then a friend tried out a AMD 290X ... twice. The first one wouldn't stay stable in any game he tried. The second one that he got (from returning the first one) didn't work any better in his system. We decided to try it in my system, since I knew that I had a really stable system. I couldn't get it to survive through the first 3DMark test. I don't know if it was the card or the drivers. Doesn't really matter.

It got so bad, I couldn't even keep it up long enough to uninstall the drivers. I put back in my Nvidia card (an EVGA GTX 670 at the time), and the sh*tty AMD Catalyst drivers - rather than gracefully handling the fact the card was missing and defaulting to the standard VGA drivers - blue-screened over and over again. I had to nuke and pave my operating system to recover. Three strikes and you're out. He returned that card and got an MSI Nvidia GTX 970. Problem solved. You would have to give me an AMD card for free and pay me on top of that to use one. This may change in the future, but it hasn't changed in over five years. On top of their driver issues, they are still shoveling out rehashed crap from 2012 with a few tweaks and a new name slapped on it.

Instead, I am recommending an Nvidia GTX 960. My favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA. For this build, I picked the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR GeForce GTX 960, which is slightly overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. EVGA doesn't cheap out on their cards - even the less expensive ones. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-D port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card is likely not beefy enough to handle multi-monitor gaming. However, with a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor, this card will do pretty well. This card requires only a single 8-pin PCI-E connector. If you happen to have a PSU that only has 6-pin PCI-E connectors, a dual 6-pin to single 8-pin adapter is included.

If you are a real AMD fan, the card to compare my pick to is the AMD R9 380. It's right at the $200 mark. AMD also has an R7 370, but benchmarks put it far behind both the Nvidia GTX 960 and the AMD R9 380.

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $156 to $190. With the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR, I'm going to be just above the maximum of that range at $208. That said, I found it pretty easy to find a site where it was discounted to around $190. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115%, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games, the GPU is more important.

Memory

DDR 3 memory is quite the commodity, but you still have to have some. I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. I've gone with 8 GB kit (2 x 4GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) rather than 16 GB or more. The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. I use 8GB in my gaming desktop, and I've never found a need for more. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 8GB of DDR3-1866 from G.Skill for $50.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

I'd really like to have a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and some storage, but the prices are still a bit too high to get a useful amount of storage. (I wouldn't even bother with an SSD less than 256GB in size.) If I have to use a traditional rotating hard disk, I'd really like to go with the Western Digital Caviar Black series. Unfortunately at this time, their cost per gigabyte is way out of line with their competitors. Instead, I'm going with a fast, large Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM (ST3000DM001) for $89. A 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black is going for $71 and 2TB for $123, and it's really hard to justify that kind of cost difference in this build. While 1TB used to be a lot of space, I'd recommend at least 2TB currently. The difference between the 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives is about $10, so it makes sense to bump up to 3TB. The Seagate drive has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface. My only hesitation about this drive is it only has a two-year warranty where the WD Caviar Black series has a five-year warranty.

PSU (Power Supply)

One upside of the budget build is we don't need any sort of outrageous power supply to make it run. We just need a competent one with sufficient connections. We still want quality here, though. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, Enermax and Antec.

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections. The latter lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked a Corsair CX series CX600M semi-modular 600W PSU for this build, which goes for $70. One nice thing that PC Part Picker does is estimate the power required by the build. Understand, they don't guarantee their number, but if you click on it, they do list the min to max numbers they have to make the estimate. This build is estimated to be 273W maximum draw. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. We would be at 46%, and we could really comfortably use a 500W or 550W PSU. For example, Corsair makes a 500W model, the Corsair CX series CX500M. The cost savings is only about $10 though. A 600W PSU is more likely to be usable in a future build with more demanding components.

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series 200R Mid Tower ATX case, which runs from $65 to $70. I have not actually done a build into this case, but every review of it just gushes over how nice it is for the price.

My reasons for liking this case is that it is a tool-less design for the disk drives (including SSDs) and optical drives, decent cable management, rubber grommet fan mounts, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack). It has open mounting locations for many more fans, but for this build, we will use just the ones it comes with, which are a front 120mm fan and rear 120mm. The PSU, which is bottom-mounted in this case, also has a fan that will help push air through this case.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. That said, for $20, why not. I've chosen the Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer. A newer version is the SH-224FB/BSBE. Both support all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $97. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to treat SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Gaming on a Budget Component List
CPU Intel Core i3-4330 3.5GHz 130
CPU Cooler Stock (included with the CPU) 0
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3 ATX LGA1150 90
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB SuperSC ACX 2.0+ 208
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3-1866 50
Storage Seagate Barracuda 3TB ST3000DM001 89
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer 15
PSU Corsair CX 600W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular 70
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower 70
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   819

Not bad. For a total of $819 (or $60 less if you get in on current promotions and faithfully send in the rebates), you can build a pretty decent gamer. It should run most games on decently-high settings on a 1080p monitor. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

2016 - 03 (March) Budget Build

The Budget Gamer Component List for March 2016

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker links in the table below where I tally up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using those links and get them at or near the prices quoted. My self-established goal is under $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.

CPU

Rejoice followers of Intel! Skylake is upon us! If at all possible, I would like to take advantage of Intel's new faster and lower-power Skylake 14 nm processors if possible. I try to keep the price of the CPU in the range of $100 to $150.  My choices in this price range are the Intel Core i3-6300 or the AMD FX-8320. I currently prefer Intel CPUs to the AMD CPUs because the AMDs are essentially the same design released in 2012, and they tend to run hotter than Intel CPUs. That means more power required from the power supply and more cooling to dissipate the heat that is generated. The Intel chipset that works with the Skylake series also supports DDR4 memory which is faster than DDR3. In my last budget build, I had chosen the Intel Core i3-4330. According to the comparison of the two at CPU-Monkey, the i3-6300 is from 15-30% faster than the i3-4330 for the same price.

That's not to say the FX-8320 is a bad part. When looking at benchmarks, the AMD wins those where multithreading is the key, but the Intel wins in just about as many overall even though it only has half as many threads (and those are hyperthreaded rather than dedicated cores). Games are becoming increasingly efficient with multiple cores, but the having more cores doesn't make a winner. Price isn't a deciding factor either as the 6300 goes for about $140 and the 8320 goes for $139.

AMD's FX-8320 is an eight-core part with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. My mental problem with it is that is has a 125W TDP before overclocking, which is almost 2.5 times the 51W TDP of the Intel Core i3-6300. Overclocking the AMD part begs for a closed-loop CPU cooler. By the time you add that cost, you've bumped into the next higher Intel part (i.e., the Intel Core i5-4590). AMD recently introduced the AMD FX-8320E, which is a lower power part (95W). However, from what I can tell from reviews, AMD mostly played around with the current architecture slightly and capped the TDP at 95W (mostly by lowering the base clock speed and limiting the turbo speed). Benchmarks show the 8320E the same or slightly slower that the 8320, but the price is about $126. Really, the Intel Core i3-6300, the AMD FX-8320 or the  AMD FX-8320E would be a good choice in this price/performance range, but my preference is to go with the Intel Core i3-6300 for this build. That will allow me to use the newer and faster DDR4 RAM as well.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (November 2015), Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks and CPU Monkey.

CPU Cooler

We'll save cost here by using Intel's stock CPU heatsink and cooler. It's nothing to write home about, but it does the job and is included with the CPU. It's hard to be a $0 cost. So long as we are not overclocking, this 14 nm chip runs fairly cool.

Motherboard

Even though this is a budget build, there's no reason to use anything but a top-tier manufacturer's board. For me, that's Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. I have used ASRock in the past, too, but I find their motherboards can be a bit more finicky than the others. Headaches from cheap motherboards just aren't worth it for the few dollars saved. In my last build, I went with the LGA-1150 socket Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3. For this build, I considered that board's new sibling the LGA-1151 socket Gigabyte Z170-HD3. However, reviews from people who have this board are all over the place with many more DOA boards being received than I like to hear about. I also looked at the Asus Z170-P, but that also seems to have a number of issues according to the reviews from people who have purchased it. I ended up deciding that I would go with the MSI Z170-A Pro (not to be confused with the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro, which costs a bit more).

The MSI Z170-A Pro is a full-sized ATX board with two PCI-E x16 slots (but only one at PCI-E x16 lanes and the other at x4) and four PCI-E x1 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives and supports RAID 0, 1 5 and 10. It also has an M.2 slot for an onboard SSD storage unit, but it requires a separately-purchased Turbo U.2 Host Card if you want NVMe. The back I/O panel has four USB 3.1 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. The motherboard has headers for four more USB 3.1 ports and four more USB 2.0 ports. If possible, we will also make use of one or two USB 3.1 headers to supply USB 3.1 on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.1 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the budget build is between $80 - $100, but the newness of the socket 1151 boards makes that pretty difficult. At $115, this board is outside of my target, but has some nice higher-end features that make it worth a bit extra.

GPU (Graphics Card)

I'm going to be very prejudiced in my selection here. Simply put, for now and for the foreseeable future, I will recommend an Nvidia card each and every time. When I heard about the upcoming R9 3xx series from AMD (390X, 380 and 370), I thought it might be time to revisit the series. Then a friend tried out a AMD 290X ... twice. The first one wouldn't stay stable in any game he tried. The second one that he got (from returning the first one) didn't work any better in his system. We decided to try it in my system, since I knew that I had a really stable system. I couldn't get it to survive through the first 3DMark test. I don't know if it was the card or the drivers. Doesn't really matter.

It got so bad, I couldn't even keep it up long enough to uninstall the drivers. I put back in my Nvidia card (an EVGA GTX 670 at the time), and the sh*tty AMD Catalyst drivers - rather than gracefully handling the fact the card was missing and defaulting to the standard VGA drivers - blue-screened over and over again. I had to nuke and pave my operating system to recover. Three strikes and you're out. He returned that card and got an MSI Nvidia GTX 970. Problem solved. You would have to give me an AMD card for free and pay me on top of that to use one. This may change in the future, but it hasn't changed in over five years. On top of their driver issues, they are still shoveling out rehashed crap from 2012 with a few tweaks and a new name slapped on it.

For this build, I am recommending an Nvidia GTX 960. My favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA. For this build, I picked the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR GeForce GTX 960, which is slightly overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. EVGA doesn't cheap out on their cards - even the less expensive ones. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-D port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card is likely not beefy enough to handle multi-monitor gaming. However, with a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor, this card will do pretty well. This card requires only a single 8-pin PCI-E connector. If you happen to have a PSU that only has 6-pin PCI-E connectors, a dual 6-pin to single 8-pin adapter is included.

If you are a real AMD fan, the card to compare my pick to is the AMD R9 380. It's right at the $200 mark. AMD also has an R7 370, but benchmarks put it far behind both the Nvidia GTX 960 and the AMD R9 380.

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $156 to $190. With the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR, the price has dropped from $208 when I recommended it in July to $190, which still puts it at the top end of my target. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115%, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games, the GPU is more important.

Memory

With the new Intel Skylake processors and Z170 chipset, DDR 4 memory is now mainstream. The prices on it have dropped so rapidly, that it's cost is almost identical to that of DDR 3 memory. I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin as suppliers. I've gone with 8 GB kit rather than 16 GB (or more) to shave a few dollars off the cost. I've picked a 2 x 4GB kit rather than a single 8GB DIMM to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller. (Intel went with dual-channel rather than quad-channel for the Z170 chipset.) The motherboard has four DIMM slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, and I went with 8GB of G.Skill Ripjaws V (F4-3200C16D-8GVK) for $52. This memory runs at 3200MHz with 16-16-16-36-2N timings when using the XMP profile. This is the maximum that the motherboard supports, but should squeak out another 3-5% performance for about $15 more than similar memory at 2400MHz.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

I'd really like to have a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and some storage, but the prices are still a bit too high to get a useful amount of storage. (I wouldn't even bother with an SSD less than 256GB in size.) If I have to use a traditional rotating hard disk, I'd really like to go with the Western Digital Caviar Black series. Unfortunately at this time, their cost per gigabyte is way out of line with their competitors. Instead, I'm going with a fast, large Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM (ST3000DM001) for $85. (There is also a Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM ST3000DM002, which has the same specifications, but includes onboard encryption.) A 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black is going for $74 and 2TB for $120, and it's really hard to justify that kind of cost difference in this build. While 1TB used to be a lot of space, I'd recommend at least 2TB currently. The difference between the 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives is about $10, so it makes sense to bump up to 3TB. The Seagate drive has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface. My only hesitation about this drive is it only has a two-year warranty (or more or less depending on what country you are from or where you buy the drive apparently) where the WD Caviar Black series has a five-year warranty.

PSU (Power Supply)

One upside of the budget build is we don't need any sort of outrageous power supply to make it run. We just need a competent one with sufficient connections. We still want quality here, though. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, Silverstone, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, EVGA, Enermax and Antec. Corsair and EVGA don't make their own PSUs, but they OEM them from the other manufacturers listed here. (This Tom's Hardware article of Whos Who in Power Supplies, 2014 has more details.)

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections. The former let's me build the system without worrying if I've put too much on one rail. The latter lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked a semi-modular Corsair CX 600M for this build, which goes for $65. (Newegg has a $20 rebate/promo on top of that price.) One nice thing that PC Part Picker does is estimate the power required by the build. Understand, they don't guarantee their number, but if you click on it, they do list the min to max numbers they have to make the estimate. This build is estimated to be 264W maximum draw. Ideally, we want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. We would be at 44% with this build; we could really comfortably use a 500W or 550W PSU. Corsair makes a 500W model, the Corsair CX series CX500M. The cost savings is only about $5 though. A 600W PSU is more likely to be usable in a future build with more demanding components.

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series 200R Mid Tower ATX case, which costs $55 (from MacMall or $50 with a $10 rebate from NewEgg or MicroCenter). I have not actually done a build into this case, but every review of it just gushes over how nice it is for the price.

My reasons for liking this case is that it is a tool-less design for the disk drives (including SSDs) and optical drives, decent cable management, rubber grommet fan mounts, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack), and even dust filters. It has open mounting locations for many more fans, but for this build, we will use just the ones it comes with, which are a front 120mm fan and rear 120mm. The PSU, which is bottom-mounted in this case, also has a fan that will help push air through this case.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. However, I've gone with a bit pricier model that supports Blu-Ray playback (but not recording), so I can watch both Blu-Ray and DVDs on my desktop. (That's about all I've been using the optical drive for lately.) I've chosen the LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer for $40. For DVD and CD burning, it supports all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media), be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Gaming on a Budget Component List
CPU Intel Core i3-6300 3.8 GHz 140
CPU Cooler Stock (included with the CPU) 0
Motherboard MSI Z170-A PRO ATX LGA1151 Motherboard 115
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB SuperSC ACX 2.0+ 190
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR4-3200 52
Storage Seagate Barracuda 3TB 7200RPM (ST3000DM001) 85
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer 40
PSU Corsair CX 600W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular 65
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower 55
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM (64-bit) 90
     
Total   833

For a total of $832 (or $30 less if you get in on current promotions and faithfully send in the rebates), we have a pretty decent gamer. July's build was $819, but that did not include a Blu-Ray reader, which makes the difference about dead even. This build should be noticeably faster due to the faster CPU and memory and should run most games on decently-high settings on a 1080p monitor. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

Mainstream Gamer

This section is for you if you want to build a rig to play all the latest games on very high settings if not the highest settings. Also, you'd like that investment to be good for the next year or two. This is also the build that I'm most likely to have tested a least parts of, and often, the parts I recommend are the same or similar to the ones I'm using. Systems in this section tend to run from $1,400 - $1,800 depending on the current winds. The general target is $1500-1600. If this describes you, you are in the right place.

2015 - 07 (July) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.

CPU
As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $30 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)

My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-4690K., which is part of the Haswell refresh from the 2nd quarter of 2014. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a Cooler Master Nepton 120XL closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have been very positive and the $90 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room.

Motherboard

I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z97 Gaming 5 for this build.

The MSI Gaming 5 is a full-sized ATX board with three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 and an M.2 slot. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 port is used, which this build does not use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $140, this one is right in the range.

GPU (Graphics Card)

Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.

For this build, the only card to consider is one the Nvidia GTX 970 (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR, which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle multi-monitor gaming, but really a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor is the target. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be just below the maximum of that range at $335. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115% of the CPU cost, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games that the GPU is more important.

Memory

With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by Corsair and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000, but that is pretty hard to find and somewhat expensive). With those benchmarks in mind, I've gone with 8 GB kit (2 x 4GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR3-2400.

The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 8GB in my gaming desktop, and I've never found a need for more.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 8 GB of G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-2400 (F3-2400C10D-8GZH) for $60.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and managable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a SAMSUNG XP941 Series MZHPU512HCGL-00004(0) M.2 512GB PCIe Gen2 SSD that uses up to 4 PCIe lanes. It's twice as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a standard 2.5" form factor Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD. It costs $161, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a similar model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. The case for this build has four 2.5" SSD slots, so no additional hardware is needed to mount the drive.

Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $123. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many have dropped to only two or three years.

PSU (Power Supply)

A lot of builders try to go with a cheap PSU, but we want quality here. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, Enermax and Antec.

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 353W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the Seasonic Platinum Series fully modular 760W PSU for this build. (PC Part Picker total is an estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers they used to make the estimate.)

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series Air 540 Arctic White High Airflow ATX Cube case, which runs $140. I have not actually done a build into this case, but I would love too.

This case is large - 16.33" long x 13.07" wide x 18.03" high, which makes it nearly twice as wide as a smaller case. With that width, I could practically step inside to wire it up. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack). It has plenty of room for mounting the radiator that comes with the CPU cooler. The default fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another in the rear.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. That said, for $20, why not. I've chosen the Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer. A newer version is the SH-224FB/BSBE. Both support all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $100. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to tread SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor 240
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 120XL 76.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 90
Motherboard MSI Z97-GAMING 5 ATX LGA1150 140
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0 Video Card 335
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws Z Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-2400 Memory 60
Storage Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD
Western Digital BLACK SERIES 2TB Hard Drive
162
123
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer 15
PSU SeaSonic 760W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular 148
Case Corsair Air 540 ATX Mid Tower Case 140
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   1550

This is almost unheard of. I am actually close to my $1500 target with $1550 as the estimate at the time this was written. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

 

2016 - 03 (March) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for March 2016


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-6600K, which is part of the new Skylake series 6th generation. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.


Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (November 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a NZXT Kraken X31 all-in-one (AIO) closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews, such as this one at TweakTown, have been very positive and the $74 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the fan and radiator, the fan is a standard 120 mm fan and without a large air-cooled CPU heatsink, we have room to this at the back of the case. A number of reviews noted that the manual that ships with the cooler is minimal. NZXT points to this online manual, which has a set of animated pages showing how to install the cooler. As a building tip, you would want to mount at least the back plate to the motherboard before mounting the motherboard in the case.


Motherboard


I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z170A Gaming M5 for this build.


The MSI Z170A Gaming M5 is a full-sized ATX board using Intel's new Z170 chipset and the LGA1151 socket compatible with the 6th generation Skylake processors. The board has three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 slots and a a pair of M.2 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 slots are used, which this build does use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $170, this one is in the middle of that range.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, the only card to consider is one of the Nvidia GTX 970 ones (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked (the same card I picked for the July 2015 build, which is) the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR. This card is overclocked at the factory from the reference specifications. This card includes a dual cooling fan unit and has one HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle light multi-monitor gaming, but real target is a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)


My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be right at the maximum of that range at $334. The prices for this card seems to have stayed flat or risen by about $5 since last July, which just tells me that AMD needs to get on the ball and release something competitive that doesn't require a separate substation to power it.


Memory


With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by HardOCP and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000). With those benchmarks in mind, the Z170 chipset uses DDR4 memory, and I've gone with 16 GB kit (2 x 8GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR4-3200.


The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 16GB in my gaming desktop. It's really overkill in that 8GB seemed to be plenty for gaming. However, when I'm not gaming I sometimes load up enough apps to need more than 8GB.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports DDR4 with a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 16GB of G.SKILL TridentZ DDR4-3200 (F4-3200C16D-16GTZ) for $97. I choose this one because it has pretty low memory timings of 16-16-16-36. My experience with G.SKILL memory has been outstanding over the year (save a recent failure on my desktop gaming rig).


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and manageable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a Samsung SSD 950 PRO M.2 512GB PCI-Express 3.0x4 MZ-VKV512 SSD that uses 4 PCIe lanes. It's four to five times as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive as well and I believe the MSI motherboard requires the Turbo U.2 Host Card, which adds another $28. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a Samsung 850 EVO M.2 500GB (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD. It costs $158, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a the sibling 2.5" 500GB model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. If you want to make sure this drive could be used with some other system in the future (like a laptop you want to speed up), the 2.5" version, Samsung 850 EVO 2.5" 500GB SSD (MZ-75E500B/AM) is also a good choice and the case has plenty of slots for SSD drive.


Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $120. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many drive manufacturers have dropped to only two or three years. While not SSD-level fast, this drive is fast for a rotating platter version.


PSU (Power Supply)


The PC Part Picker wattage number displayed in the title bar of a system build sheet is an estimate of the worst-case power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, PC Part Picker displays a list with the min to max expected current draw numbers used to make the estimate. The estimate is just the sum of the maximums for each part in the build sheet.


The PSU is not the place to cheap out. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard. You could swap out a lot of good parts before definitively tagging the power supply as the problem. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, Silverstone, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, EVGA, Enermax and Antec. Corsair and EVGA don't make their own PSUs, but they OEM them from the other manufacturers listed here. (This Tom's Hardware article of Whos Who in Power Supplies, 2014 has more details [but needs updating].)


I prefer a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's not generally necessary). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the 12V connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need rather than having to tie up the unused ones out of the way somehow. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 365W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular PSU for this build, which costs $110. This PSU comes with a 10-year warranty and 62.4A m +12V rail. [Cue mad scientist voice:] Yes. Yes, that will do nicely.


Case


This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience, and upgrading later a nightmare. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Obsidian 750D Black Aluminum Full Tower case, which runs $130. This case is very understated, but still very good looking. It says, "Yeah, the outside looks expensive, but you should see what's inside."


This case is large - 22" long x 9.25" wide x 21.50" high. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the front panel as well as a mic and headphone jack. The standard fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another 140mm fan in the rear. There is also plenty of room in the top for the 120mm fan from the closed-loop CPU cooler. You can get matching colored wire sleeves and fan rings if that's something that interests you.


Optical Drive(s)


The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since I bought one. I realized though that I would like to be able to watch Blu-Rays and DVDs on my desktop, and since Blu-Ray writers only cost about $10 bit more than Blu-Ray read-only drives, I've included one of those all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds. The one I've put in this build is the LG Super Multi Blue Internal 14x Blu-ray Disc Rewriter (WH14NS40) for $50.


Sound Card


While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. This motherboard even keeps the circuit paths for the audio separate from the others in order to reduce cross talk.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media) already, be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-6600K 3.5GHz Quad-Core 245
CPU Cooler NZXT Kraken X31 69.5 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 70
Motherboard MSI Z170A GAMING M5 ATX LGA1151 174
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0+ ( 04G-P4-3975-KR) 334
Memory G.SKILL TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3200 97
Storage Samsung 850 EVO 500GB M.2-2280 (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD
Western Digital Black Series 2TB (WD2003FZEX )Hard Drive
157

120
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive LG WH14NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 50
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Fully-Modular 110
Case Corsair 750D ATX Full Tower Case 145
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit) 90
     
Total   1592

At $1,592, this isn't too far over the $1500 target. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to PC Part Picker list.

Enthusiast Gamer

You would think this build would be the easiest to configure as it is the money-is-not-a-consideration option. It would be except I don't fly that way. While this one will be expensive, as I mentioned in the overview, I won't go out of the way to include components that increase the price without a good reason. This is the system I would buy if I had a big budget to work with, but I will always want to feel I haven't wasted money to get the absolute pinnacle of products. Expect systems in this range to break the $3,000 price level. Twice that isn't out of the question, but it would have to be one heck of a system.

2015 - 07 (July) Enthusiast Build

The Enthusiast Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the enthusiast build, I'm trying to build the most cost effective top-end system I can imagine. I don't really have a firm limit here, but expect it to be more than $2,000 and less than $6,000.

CPU
As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)

My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i7-5930K. This is the middle of the three new LGA2011-3 socket parts introduced by Intel last year. It is unlocked for easier overclocking, uses DDR4 memory in a quad-channel bus (requiring four sticks of matched memory DIMMs rather than two like dual-channel memory), has six cores (with twelve threads) and 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes.

A lot of people would argue that the 5820K is all that's needed, but I'm planning on going with 2-way SLI initially with room to go up to 4-way SLI later. The 5820K PCIe lanes are pared back to 28 from 40. If we were only gaming on a 1080p monitor with a single graphics card, 28 lanes are plenty. My belief is that a system at this level should be paired with at least a 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) or more likely, a 4K monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels) and dual Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI. I think those lanes are going to be pretty darn handy.

In addition to SLI, we're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both aid in overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $560.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

Unlike other Intel CPUs, these don't come with any stock cooler. Intel surmized (correctly, in my opinion) that people building with these CPUs aren't interested in a stock CPU fan and heatsink. Instead, they will want to use their preferred air or water-based system. For this build, I'm using a Cooler Master Nepton 280L (RL-N28L-20PK-R2) closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have be very positive and the $120 price tag is reasonable. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room.

Motherboard

When it comes to enthusiast builds, I like Asus. While Gigabyte and MSI have very good boards is this arena, Asus wins my head and heart. Their ROG series has more tweaks than I will likely understand. Even their low-end enthusiast boards have the key features that makes the board stable and overclockable. Also, Asus really loves to promote their products. You will find Asus reps at gaming conventions and talking on hardware sites. I get the sense they really understand the enthusiast community and love what they do. They also have a really interesting YouTube channel, PCDIY, where they talk about all manner of overclocking and tweaks applicable to Asus and other products

I want a motherboard here that makes every tweak I've ever heard of and a few I haven't. I also want more ports than I can ever use. The Asus Rampage V Extreme/U3.1 is an enthusiast's dream in those regards. It is a based on an Intel X99 chipset. That board has twelve SATA 6Gb/s ports, two SATA Express ports, an M.2 (Gen 3.0) socket, 8 DIMM slots, five PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, two USB 3.1 slots (in the form of an expansion card), ten USB 3.0 ports on the back I/O panel plus four more (two headers) placed in the middle of the board near the SATA 6 connectors (for front-panel case connectors), two USB ports on the back I/O panel plus four more (two headers) on the motherboard.

This motherboard also comes with OC Panel, which is an overclocking tool that can be handheld or converted to be mounted in a 5.25-inch drive bay. The tool displays several overclocking values, can be used to apply overclocking profiles, control fan speeds and more. It also has built-in 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wireless networking (whether you want it or not) and Bluetooth 4.0. The integrated sound has several features to work with up to 7.1 speakers and a feature to improve audio when using a headset (via the front panel audio). This isn't even a complete list of all the features.

GPU (Graphics Card)

Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.

For this build, I'm going with a pair of Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphic cards in SLI. This motherboard supports two cards in X16 mode (requiring 32 PCIe lanes). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti Superclocked ACX 2.0+ (06G-P4-4993-KR) which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. Each card has a dual cooling fan unit and has an HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. Each can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but our target in this build is to be able to support a single 4K resolution monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). Each card requires two 8-pin PCI-E connectors. That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W (supplied by the motherboard) + 150W (1st 8-pin PCI-E) + 150W (2nd 8-pin PCI-E) for 375W total. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 250W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom.

Memory

This motherboard sports eight slots supporting two banks of DDR4 memory in a quad-channel arrangement. We are going to fill half of those with 16GB of DDR4-2666 CL13 DIMMs from the Kingston HyperX series (HX426C13PB2K4/16). Technically, a gaming system will run fine on 8GB of RAM, but we want to take advantage of the quad channel architecture and putting four 2GB DIMMs in there just seems silly.

This motherboard has been tested with up to DDR4-3200, but the sweet spot at the moment seems to be DDR4-2666 and the HyperX memory has the best timings on the Qualified Vendor's List for the Asus Rampage V Extreme. Since DDR4 RAM is the new hotness, it hasn't had its price driven down yet, so this is a bit pricey at $225.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

No moving parts. Starting off with a screaming fast Samsung SM951 512GB AHCI MZHPV512HDGL-00000 M.2 80mm PCIe 3.0 x4 SSD. I could not find the official data at Samsung, so I offer this TweakTown review instead. This drive has up to 2150/1500 sequential read/write data transfer rates, which is about four times the read speed and three times the write speed of a fast SATA 6Gb/s SSD and so far ahead of rotating hard drives, they aren't worth mentioning. However, this comes at a cost of $370. (Note that PC Part Picker doesn't have a category for this class of SSDs yet, so this was added as a custom part using Newegg's listing. They were $30 cheaper than anyone else I could find. They were $40 cheaper when I first wrote this, but raised the price $10. I better write faster.) It's going to absolutely scream. My system boots in 15 - 20 seconds on a Samsung 830 from a couple years ago; this one should boot before you even finish thinking about it.

Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a screaming fast SSD with a pair of fast, large(r) Samsung 850 EVO MZ-75E1T0B/AM 2.5" 1TB SSDs. We can even put those in RAID 0 if we like. That's 2.5 TB of disk space without any rotating hard disk drives. We have plenty of room to add one of those if we need it for video or the like, but the going in stance is SSDs all the way. They go for $360 each, so that's about enough cost for storage.

PSU (Power Supply)

Wimpy PSUs need not apply here. We have two high-end video cards, a power hungry CPU and motherboard, and they all need unwavering power. PC Part Picker estimates this build at 779W. That doesn't include the M.2 Samsung SM951 512GB drive, which is estimated at 6.5W. If we want a PSU at 50-60% load when this system is running full tilt, that's a 1310W to 1572W PSU. (The PC Part Picker total is an estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers they used to make the estimate.)

I still want a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked the EVGA SuperNOVA G2 1600W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular PSU for this build. At $325, it alone costs half of what some complete systems cost, but it is what this type of system deserves.

Case

A system this good should be cuddled inside a killer case. I actually wanted to go with something a bit snazzier, but I really couldn't find one that had the right amount of pizazz without looking gaudy. At one time, there were a number of companies doing custom painted cases, but I wasn't able to find one still left in the business that had something as big as I was looking for. I eventually settled on the subtle, but still great-looking Corsair 900D ATX Full Tower Case. The black brushed aluminum front looks quite professional - like this is not a system to be triffled with. At $340, it's not cheap, but then cases built like tanks are bound to cost more.

This case is tall and deep - 25.60" long x 9.90" wide x 27.20" high. It's all aluminum on the outside with a steel frame and weighs 41 lbs empty. It can handle a pair of PSUs or a PSU and a water-cooling system reservoir. It has room for nine 3.5" or 2.5" drives (or up to fifteen with the purchase of additional drive cages) and four 5.25" optical drives. It has fifteen fan mounting locations for regular fans or less if one or more of the five radiator mount points is used. There are four USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports on the front (which I wish was the other way around) tucked in behind a closeable panel at the top. Dust filters cover all the air intakes to keep the bunnies out. There's cable management everywhere there needs to be. Any build into this case will have plenty of room and should be able to be made quite tidy.

Optical Drive(s)

Even though an optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays, if we are going to have a 4K monitor with this system, it should be able to play the occasional Blu-ray movie. Since the LG 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE SATA Blu-ray burner (WH16NS40) is under $60, there's no reason not to have one in a system of this sort. If you find you need to back up 100-128 GB of data on a reasonably permanent medium, this burner can to that - at $12 - $27 a disc.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board audio, I found myself convinced by Asus YouTube videos on this motherboard that there's really no reason to go there. The on-board sound supplied by this motherboard sounds excellent on paper, and if it doesn't pan out, there's plenty of room to add one later.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $100. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to tread SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Enthusiast Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i7-5930K 3.5GHz 6-Core Processor 560
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 280L 122.5 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 120
Motherboard Asus RAMPAGE V EXTREME/U3 EATX LGA2011-3 516
GPU
2 - EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB Superclocked ACX 2.0+
($650 times two for 2-Way SLI)
1300
Memory Kingston 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR4-2666 225
Storage SAMSUNG SM​951 MZHPV5​12HDGL 512 GB M.2 SSD
2 - Samsung 850 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($360 X 2)
370
720
Sound Card Stock (motherboard - believe it or not) 0
Optical Drive LG WH16NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 50
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA G2 1600W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular 325
Case Corsair 900D ATX Full Tower Case 340
OS Microsoft Windows 8.1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   4623

OK. This one is a bit higher than my usual "money is no object" system at $4623. The dual GTX 980 Ti are a bit of a splurge. They would be wasted on less than a 4K monitor. Going with all SSDs is another high dollar decision, but I absolutely, positively won't build another system for myself that isn't using SSDs for booting and the primary storage. I'm able to get by with 1.5TB on my own desktop, but that's not the point. With this much SSD space, there won't be much of a reason to worry. If more space is needed, there's room for three or four hard disk drives in addition to the SSDs. It's a lot of money, but I don't think any of it is wasted. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

If I were to build this system, I would want to pair it with a strong 4K monitor. The Asus PQ321Q 31.5" UHD monitor would probably be my first choice at the moment. That said, at $1400, it makes this system - already pricey - downright expensive at about $6K.

 

2016 - 03 (March) Enthusiast Build

The Enthusiast Gamer Component List for March 2016


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the enthusiast build, I'm trying to build the most cost effective top-end system I can imagine. I don't really have a firm limit here, but expect it to be more than $2,000 and less than $6,000.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


I have to say that at this moment in time, I'm kind of stumped. The new Skylake processors have been out for a while, but LGA1151 chipsets like the Z170 have only 20 PCIe lanes and dual-channel memory support whereas the LGA 2011-v3 chipset has 40 PCIe lanes and has quad-channel memory support of the LGA 2011-v3 chipset . My going in stance was because of what I perceived as those shortcomings, the Intel Core i7-5930K would kick the Intel Core i7-6700K's butt. After all, the 5930K also has six (albeit slower) cores (with twelve threads). However, all the benchmarks I can find say it ain't so for at least for systems with single and dual (SLI) GTX 980 Ti graphics card.


My stance is that a system at this level should be paired with at least a 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) monitor or more likely, a 4K monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). While a single Nvidia GTX 980 Ti can handle 1440p reasonably, we will want dual Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI for 4K and above resolution. I though having 16 dedicated PCIe lanes per card were a requirement, but the numbers just don't reflect that. Triple or quad SLI systems probably still require a LGA 2011-v3 chipset's 40 PCIe lanes. There are no games out there that really require that kind of power, so triple and quad setups exist primary because they can and have the bragging rights. So, in a major departure at the moment - at least until I see the numbers from Skylake-E processors later this year - I think the Intel Core i7-6700K is the way to go. That means I'm looking at a $370 CPU instead of a $560 CPU.


In addition to SLI, we're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both aid in overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Unlike most CPUs, these don't come with any stock cooler. Intel surmised (correctly, in my opinion) that people building with these CPUs aren't interested in a stock CPU fan and heatsink. Instead, they will want to use their preferred air or water-based system. For this build, I'm using a NZXT Kraken X61RL-KRX61-01 closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have be very positive, it comes with a six-year warranty and the $140 price tag is reasonable. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room. Here are reviews from Tweaktown and HardOCP.


Motherboard


Once I pick the CPU, the motherboard is next, and is generally it is not hard for me to choose one. I have mentioned before that when it comes to enthusiast builds, I prefer Asus. Their ROG series has more tweaks than I will likely understand. They also have a really interesting YouTube channel, PCDIY, where they talk about all manner of overclocking and tweaks applicable to Asus and other products. The price range I tend to look for for this build is $250 as a rough starting point and up to the cost of the CPU (which is $370 in this build). I will go higher if there's it gets me a feature I want to take advantage of, but spending more on the motherboard than on the CPU just seems somehow. I also feel it's wrong to spend less than 1/2 the cost of the CPU on one.


Looking at the Asus offerings in this range, we have the ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII FORMULA, ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII HERO ALPHA, ASUS Z170-DELUXE and ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII HERO. However, each of those models seem to be having quality issues. It's rare to see users report such a high rate of build problems on so many models, which includes quite a few DOAs. I also considered the ASUS SABERTOOTH Z170 MARK 1, but while it seems to be having fewer build issues, the memory speeds supported seem artificially neutered at around 2400MHz-2666MHz maximum. (It still has the high grade components as earlier SABERTOOTH models, so my only guess is that it is artificially limit so that it doesn't compete with the ROG models.)


Next, I looked at Gigabyte's offerings, which includes the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 at around $200, the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-UD5 TH (where the "TH" stands for Thunderbolt) also at about $200, the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming GT at $230 and then a big empty hole until the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE at $380 and the GIGABYTE G1 Gaming GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 at $480. The GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE comes with all the overclocking bells and whistles you could want including the largest number of buttons on a motherboard I've ever seen, 22 phases of power filtering, 4-way SLI support, three M.2 devices, very high memory overclocking and much more. However, several professional and customer reviews mentioned that the board has issues recognizing USB devices during the boot - including the keyboard and mouse - until they are disconnected and reinserted (in other USB ports by some accounts).(Interestingly, most assumed it was an issue with their keyboard and mouse and not the board in general.) That's a daily headache I don't need.


The choice I finally decided upon this is the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming 7. I almost feel like I have to apologize for how little it costs, however I won't. It's got everything I need for the high-end build I have in mind. So much so, I wonder why it is only $200. It inherits a lot from its (much) higher-priced sibling, the Gaming G1. The motherboard has dual PCIe Gen3 x4 M.2 slots supporting up to 32Gb/s data transfer per slot with PCIe NVMe SSDs (as well as SATA and AHCI support). These two slots support RAID configurations, and an insanely fast RAID 0 set up is what I have in mind for this build. Other storage support includes 3 SATA Express connectors (which I don't see any use for at this time), six SATA 6Gb/s connectors from the Z170 chipset plus two more SATA 6Gb/s connectors from the ASMedia ASM1061 (supporting AHCI mode only).


This board has dual GB NIC for Ethernet connections. One uses the Intel Gigabit LAN controller and the other users a Rivet Networks Killer 2400. The latter is supposed to offer better online gaming and media performance, but the Intel chip is no slouch either. The two NICs cannot be teamed, but I'm not a big believer in that anyway. I'm not convinced there's any advantage to pairing two gigabit LAN connections to a 60 Mb/s spout. If I did a lot of competitive gaming on a local LAN, I would care.


The motherboard supports dual graphics cards in Crossfire or SLI (in PCIe x8 x8) and three graphics cards in Crossfire (in PCIe x8 x4 x4). However, when using the second M.2 slot (M2H_32G), the PCIE x4 slot is no longer usable, so triple-Crossfire would not be an option. Not to worry as my intent is to go with two Nvidia cards in SLI.


Memory-wise, the Gaming 7 has 4 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots and supports dual-channel memory mode up to a maximum of 64GB or RAM.


The Gaming 7 has USB connections galore starting with a USB 3.1 Type C connector on the back I/O panel that is Thunderbolt 3 certified, a second Type A USB 3.1 port also on the back panel, five USB 3.0 ports on the back and motherboard headers four more USB 3.0 ports (via the Z170 chipset and a Renesas USB 3.0 hub) and four USB 2.0 ports. I do wish there was (and I believe there is) a way to get the USB 3.1 Type C connector to the front of the machine. I have seen an add-on front panel adapter that does just that.


The onboard sound on the Gaming 7 is a step above what most motherboards are offering. It is using a Creative Sound Core3D quad-core audio processor. As I understand it, this processor is the same or nearly the same as Creative's discrete sound cards. Additionally, it also has what Gigabyte is calling the "AMP-UP Audio Technology that sports an upgradable OP-AMP (but I could not find any available upgrades), high-end audio components, gain boost for the headphone jack and isolated audio circuitry.


This may be the most I've ever written about a motherboard for this section. I'm just amazed at all that $200 can get you. I also took a good hard look at the MSI Z170A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM for $270, and that would be my second choice. The main thing it offers for the extra $70 is triple and quad SLI support. However, it lacks a second NIC like a Killer NIC. To use the M.2 slots in NVMe mode, additional turbo modules are needed, which seems a bit like gouging to me on a board that's already near the middle to top end in price.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, I'm going with a pair of Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphic cards in SLI. This motherboard supports two cards in X8 mode (requiring 16 PCIe lanes). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti FTW GAMING ACX 2.0+ 06G-P4-4996-KR, which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. The card has a dual cooling fan unit to keep it cool and has a three-year warranty.


For output ports, each card has an HDMI 2.0 port, three Display Ports (1.2) and one dual link DVI-I port. Each can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but our target in this build is to be able to support a single 4K resolution monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). Each card requires two 8-pin PCI-E connectors. That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W (supplied by the motherboard) + 150W (1st 8-pin PCI-E) + 150W (2nd 8-pin PCI-E) for 375W total. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 275W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom if needed. This setup will be able to laugh in the face of a VR headset .. if it had one. Heck, attach two.


Memory


This motherboard sports four slots supporting two banks of DDR4 memory in a dual-channel arrangement. We are going to fill half of those with 16GB (as 2x8GB DIMMs) of G.SKILL Trident Z F4-4000C19D-16GTZ rated at a maximum frequency of 4000MHz. The motherboard supports a maximum of 3800MHz memory, and we will likely start around 3200MHz and see what we can comfortably work up to. DDR4 RAM prices have dropped like a rock since its introduction (and the Z170 chipset made it mainstream). Even though this is top-of-the-line memory, it is only $155. I say "only" because last summer this memory would have been upwards of $300 if it existed, which I don't believe it did.


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


No moving parts. Starting off with a screaming fast Samsung 950 PRO M.2 512GB MZ-V5P512BW, which support NVMe data rates of This drive has up to 2500/1500MBps sequential read/write data transfer rates, which is about four times the read speed and three times the write speed of a fast SATA 6Gb/s SSD and so far ahead of rotating hard drives, they aren't worth mentioning. This comes at the low, low cost of $322. It's going to absolutely scream. My system boots in 15 - 20 seconds with a Samsung 840 from a couple years ago; this one should boot before you even finish thinking about it. I'd like to get a pair of these and run RAID 0 on them, but with the dual graphics cards taking 16 PCIe lanes (in x8 x8 configuration for SLI), I think there's insufficient PCIe lanes for two drives.


Since 512GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair screaming fast SSDs with a pair of fast, larger Samsung 850 EVO MZ-75E1T0B/AM 2.5" 1TB SSDs. We can even put those in RAID 0 if we like. That's 2.5TB of disk space without any rotating hard disk drives. We have plenty of room to add one of those if we need it for video or the like, but the going in stance is SSDs all the way. They go for $260 each (down from over twice that a year ago and $50 less than a few months ago), so that's about enough cost for storage.


PSU (Power Supply)


Wimpy PSUs need not apply here. We have two high-end video cards, a power hungry CPU and motherboard, and they all need unwavering power. PC Part Picker estimates this build at 720W. If we want a PSU at 50-60% load when this system is running full tilt, that's a 1200W to 1440W PSU. (The PC Part Picker total is a worst-case estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers used to make the estimate.)


I still want a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked the SeaSonic X Series 1250W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply. SeaSonic is my favorite PSU vendor at the moment and this is the largest PSU they offer. At worst case, the system would only be pushing this PSU at 58.4% of it's rated load. This PSU sports a 104A single 12V rail. It also has a five-year warranty.


Case


I usually don't go in that much for aesthetics, but that snazzy white, red and black motherboard would look oh so nice in a white case. Even better would be one with some red accents. I came across the Corsair 760T White V2 ATX Full Tower Case, and while it doesn't have any red accents, it's so nice looking that stopped searching. This line of cases are known for being easy to build into. It has plenty of room for the radiator from the CPU cooler, built in 2.5 drive mounts for the SSDs, and the full side window is a nice, unique look. The cost is $170, which is about where the cost of the case in this build usually is. You could always add a set of red LEDs lining the side window for that extra snazziness.


Optical Drive(s)


Even though an optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays, if we are going to have a 4K monitor with this system, it should be able to play the occasional Blu-ray movie. Since the LG 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE SATA Blu-ray burner (WH16NS40) is just under $60, there's no reason not to have one in a system of this sort. If you find you need to back up 100-128 GB of data on a reasonably permanent medium, this burner can to that - at $12 - $27 a disc.


Sound Card


While I still like discrete sound cards and think they produce better sound than onboard audio, I think this motherboard's solution from Creative is an exception. The onboard sound supplied by this motherboard sounds excellent on paper, and if it doesn't pan out, there's room to add a discrete sound card later.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media) already, be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whatever operating system you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Enthusiast Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz Quad-Core 370
CPU Cooler NZXT Kraken X61 106.1 CFM Liquid 140
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 ATX LGA1151 200
GPU
2 - EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB FTW ACX 2.0+

($640 times two for 2-Way SLI)

1280
Memory G.Skill TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3600 155
Storage Samsung 950 PRO 512GB M.2-2280 SSD (MZ-V5P512BW)

2 - Samsung 850 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5" SSD ($260 X 2)
322

520
Sound Card Stock (motherboard - believe it or not) 0
Optical Drive LG WH16NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 55
PSU SeaSonic X Series 1250W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular 179
Case Corsair 760T White V2 ATX Full Tower 170
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM (64-bit) 87
     
Total   3478

Wow. My July 2013 build was $4623, and this one comes in at $3478 - a full $1145 difference. I don't feel this is $1100+ less of a system. The SSDs and RAM prices have dropped significantly, which is part of the reduction in the cost. Going with the top-of-the-line Skylake CPU available (at this time) over a Haswell-E CPU save several hundred dollars, and the Gigabyte motherboard save about $350 more. I don't feel anything significant was given up to work with those. We lost two full cores (four thread), 1/2 the PCIe lanes (most of which were going to the GPUs in x16 x16 mode) and quad-channel memory. Even so, most of the benchmarks I've seen put the 6700K right up there with the 5930K. The Skylake-E CPUs are due out in 2016 (Q2 or Q3 are rumored), and will likely return back to six or eight core parts and an LGA 2011-v3 socket.


We did not give up the dual GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI. They would be wasted on less than a 4K monitor, but with good 4K monitors dropping below $700, there's no reason not to have one. We also didn't give up on going with all SSDs. I absolutely, positively won't build another system for myself that isn't using SSDs for booting and the primary storage. I'm able to get by with 1.5TB on my own desktop. With 2.5TB of SSD space, there won't be much of a reason to worry. If more space is needed, there's room for three or four rotating hard disk drives in addition to the SSDs. It's still a lot of money, but I don't think any of it is wasted. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

PC Building Tips

This section is where I will try to impart some advice on building your own desktop PC. All the desktops I currently own, I have built myself. That's been true for nearly a decade, now. The topics will be limited to desktop PCs, because you really can't build your own laptop. I won't try to cover everything here .. at least not initally. There are a number of good sites containing tutorials and help on building your own desktop PC. I'll stick with a few tips to counter problems I see made when people build their own desktop computers and to help with the selection of components.

Where I Buy Components

There are literally hundreds of web sites with low-cost computer components. The best of these are very, very good. The worst of these are the stuff nightmares are made of. I'm going to list sites here that I purchase from frequently .. or at least consult frequently. If you look at my Current Rig page, you'll see my top two stores are Amazon and Newegg. I also find deals at B&H Photo Video fairly often, but usually usually when I'm in the market for home entertainment components and cameras.

Can I just take a second to say what genius idea the Amazon Prime plan is (in my opinion)? With free two-day shipping, I buy stuff from Amazon I'd never consider otherwise - like tea, light bulbs and dog treats.

I had to do a bit of research to figure out if Amazon or Newegg is my main source for computer components. Before I became an Amazon Prime member, it was clearly Newegg. Since then, it's a least slightly tilted in favor of Amzon. I purchased my first item - a book - from Amazon in 2000 and my first item from Newegg in 2001. However, before Amazon Prime, I bought less than a dozen things from them per year. I'm on track to have at least 60 orders this year. Genius.

Like Newegg, Amazon has fantastic order tracking and a complete, searchable order history of my purchases. If I revisit a product page of an item I've purchased before, Amazon puts a link at the top saying when I bought it with a link to the order. That's something Newegg doesn't do, and it's quite handy. Amazon has reasonable product search functionality, but Newegg has them beat by far. Sorry to say this Newegg, but I often do product research on your site and buy from Amazon. Their prices are usually the same or cheaper, but the free Prime shipping usually tips the scale.

Recently, Amazon started having Sunday delivery in addition to Saturday delivery. On the rare occasion I need it for work on Monday, this is quite handy. I don't know the exact number of orders I have had with Amazon, but it's in the hundreds somewhere. I've returned two items and one item was lost during shipping. I had no hassles getting my money back.

Newegg is still one of my favorite web sites from which to buy computer components. At last check, I have placed over 100 orders with them ranging from $7 to $1400. How do I know this for certain? Like Amazon, every order I've placed with them is available in my account order history on their web site. This includes a complete listing of everything I've purchased and how much I purchased it for. Several times, I've used this to check what products I put in which build. It's quicker to look this up online than to try to look through my files or pop the side off of a machine. It also makes it very easy to buy another of the same item to put in a different machine or recommend it to someone. My first purchase from Newegg was a Leadtek TI200/TDH GeForce3 Ti200 64MB AGP 4X Video Card which I bought in October 2001 for $229. I'm sure it was a bargain at the time.

I don't think I've ever had a computer build that didn't have at least one part from Newegg. In fact, I'm sure it's more than one part per PC, but I don't want to take the time to check. One feature that keeps me going is that finding items on Newegg is wonderful. Their Guided and Advanced Search are both good at whittling down items, but the Power Search is the real winner. I can reduce hundreds or thousands potential components down to the dozen or two one that really fit my build in mere seconds. The number of times I've posted the results from those searches as an answer to some forum post must now number in the hundreds if not thousands. No other site has search capabilities this extensive. You say you want a new, retail version of an Intel LGA-1150 CPU that's at least quad core with a base clock of no less than 3.2 GHz? Go to Newegg's power search with desktop CPUs, check the appropriate boxes and click search. (12 products matched on May 16th 2015.)

Newegg also has daily "Shellshocker" deals that start at midnight PDT. Another deal starts at 10 AM PDT and then 1, 3, and 6PM PDT. That at least gets me to look at the site once a day during the week. (On the weekends, the deals tend to things other than computer-related items.) I've purchased a number of the deals, and they really are good deals. Sometimes fantastic deals. Newegg also has a mobile app that features one special mobile-only deal a day, and that one usually is a very good deal.

I used to be such a Newegg fan I practically shopped nowhere else, however, in the last couple years, there's been a few chinks in the armor. It used to be that all orders I placed with Newegg arrived in two or three days - most of those with free shipping. Newegg has added "Super Saver" and "Standard" shipping options, which are often the only way to get free shipping nowadays. That's fine if the price is really good and/or I'm OK if the item doesn't arrive for five to seven days. They've also started using the US Post Office for the Super Saver shipping. I get complete email tracking of when the order is accepted and charged and another (with tracking numbers) when it is shipped - until the USPS gets it. Then, I often get no tracking info whatsoever until the item is delivered. That, I am not happy with. I generally try to make sure to get the two to three day shipping. If I can't get it that way from Newegg, I generally can get it from Amazon.

The second chink in the armor is that Newegg now allows other dealers to be listed in their searches and sell products through Newegg. In theory, that should be fine except that (at least for the things I am looking for), the prices of the other dealers are bad. Sometimes to the point of being laughable. The times where their other dealers prices are in line with Newegg (or Amazon) are so few, that I find their addition in the search results to be unwelcome noise. Oddly, having other sources like this is something Amazon has always done, but it doesn't bother me with them. There's several reasons why this is so, but at least, I can check the Amazon Prime checkbox which eliminates anyone that doesn't ship it for free and guarantee two-day shipping.

I've yet for Newegg to get an order wrong, but have had to return a few items I bought, and RMAs are easy to request online. One item was a video capture card that refused to work with one particular motherboard. (I had purchased that video card before and had no issues with it.) I received refunds in about a week to two weeks. They do charge a restocking fee, which I wasn't overly pleased with, but since they would have to sell the card (for less) as an open box item, it was not a great situation for anyone. It's not their fault the card was incompatible. (Not really mine either.)

Even though I might have a couple issues with Newegg, I've still ordered hundreds of items from them since 2001. I wouldn't hesitate to ramp that up to thousands if the need arose. They've yet to make a mistake on an order or to be late on shipping an order. My returns were handled fairly and efficiently. I've recommended Newegg to many friends and those that purchased from them have the same experiences that I have. There are very few companies online or otherwise that run with this sort of quality.

Micro Center is my CPU and motherboard store. ... Next section.

No, really, that pretty much sums it up. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near a Micro Center store, which I do, you can take advantage of their fantastic deals on CPUs. They are consistently $40 - $100 cheaper depending on the model of CPU. If you aren't set on a specific motherboard, you can often get another $40 off a CPU/motherboard bundle. The motherboards offered in the bundle are pretty good ones, too. The catch is that these prices are in-store only; you have to go there and buy them in person. They are, of course, hoping to get you to buy other things (or everything) while in the store. They sometimes succeed, too. You have to pay sales tax, but Amazon now collects that anyway, so that's a not an factor.

For example, in May 2015, an Intel Core i5 4690K is $240 at Newegg and $236 at Amazon. It's $200 at Micro Center. Likewise, an Intel Core i7 4790K is $330 at Newegg and Amazon, but only $280 at Micro Center. If I was forced to "settle" on an Intel 4690K and Gigabyte GA-Z97X-Gaming 7 motherboard, I could get both from Newegg for $425 (with three-day shipping) and Amazon for $418 (but without two-day Prime shipping or $453 with expedited shipping) or I could go to Micro Center and pay $350 (with tax). Every gaming PC I've made in the last 3-4 years has a CPU from Micro Center and often a CPU/Motherboard bundle.

B&H Photo Video is my first thought any time I need audio or video equipment - especially cameras, but also projectors, A/V receivers, speakers and the like. Their catalogs - yes, they still mail out catalogs - are adult toy catalogs. In addition to all things audio and video-related, they also sell computer components. While their prices are generally competitive, their selection is smaller than Amazon or Newegg as components are not their focus. When I recently decided to upgrade to a higher-resolution monitor, I checked at B&H Photo Video since video-editing systems (and therefore monitors) are right up their alley. I found B&H Photo Video had the monitor I was looking for both cheaper than Newegg and Amazon, with free shipping and they don't charge sales tax. They also had the video card I was looking for, again, with no sales tax charged. The sales tax alone was over a $60 difference in the total. The monitor was quite a bit cheaper, too.

If you need heatsinks, fans or cables, this is a great place to get them. In addition to fans for computer cases, video cards, etc., they sell cooling solutions and case modifications like lighting kits. They are also a good source for all those odd fans you may come across like the tiny ones found on some motherboards and video cards. I used to get most of my fans here because they were often cheaper than Newegg when shipping was considered. Newegg often charges as much to ship a fan or cable as the fan or cable itself costs. With Amazon Prime, that's not an issue, but Coolerguys selection is just way more extensive.

PC Part Picker is not a place you can buy things from directly as it's not a store. However, it helps put together a list of components with the least cost. The prices it quotes are the lowest of those taken from a number of stores that it knows about. (The user has the choice of the store regardless of the cost.) The downside is that it doesn't have data about every single store. It does have the major ones like Newegg, Amazon, B&H Photo Video and Micro Center among others. It also covers several countries besides the US like the UK, Austrailia, Spain, Germany and Italy. I can't vouch for how good of a job it does for countries other than the US.

PC Part Picker tries very hard to make sure the components you put together when picking the parts for a system build are compatible. If you pick an Intel LGA 1150 socket CPU for example, the only motherboards offered later are those with an LGA 1150 socket. The memory offered will work with the motherboard, etc. It's getting pretty good at cross checking. While picking each component, a number of filters are available that are specific to the component.

Reseller Ratings is also not a store. It's a place where online retailers can be rated by their customers. If you find a price online that seems too good to be true, check with Reseller Ratings, and you may find out why. You might expect Reseller Ratings to degrade into being a general B**chfest, but I don't find that to be the case. Unless I know the reseller well enough to trust them, I won't buy from a retailer that has less than an 8 out of 10 (8/10) or not enough reviews. Amazon's my one big exception. They have a 6.8/10 at the moment, but I personally have not had any issue with Amazon. Newegg.com has a 9.82/10. Micro Center has an 8.5/10, but that likely refers mostly or completely to online orders from their web site.

Keep in mind, Reseller Ratings isn't specifically for computer-related purchases. You can find rathings for Zappos (9.17/10) as well as Kohl's (1.67/10 - ouch). If you want to have some fun, read the entries under the Best and Worst List.

Popular Myths When Choosing Components

I often hear the same rumors or half-truths when helping someone build their first PC. They read X is better than Y in some article or blog, and now, it's stuck in their brain. I do have certain brands I tend to like above others, but I've been building these things long enough now to see trends change. Today's "facts" become tomorrow's untruths on a fairly regular cycle. The following are some things I've heard or discussed directly or through forums with a number of people that are patently wrong. Try to avoid these when putting together the components for your build.

Intel processors are better than AMD processors (for gaming)
I've been building PCs long enough to remember when AMD blindsided Intel with the release of the AMD Athlon K7 in 1999. (At least, it seemed like Intel was caught with its pants down.) AMD's architecture allowed them to perform more processing at the same clock speed, making the K7 the fastest CPU available. The Thunderbird core that followed was faster still and clock speed was no longer the only measure of a CPU's performance. The Athlon 64 that came after that kept AMD in the lead. I built gaming systems on AMD CPUs until Intel released its Core 2 systems in 2006. I keep a tiny light lit hoping it will happen again, but it's getting a bit dim.

This is a rumor that is not completely false. It is true (currently - and for the last five years or so) that at the top end of the cost and performance scale, Intel processors have a measurable advantage over AMD processors. That is, if you're planning on spending at or over $250 for the CPU alone, than one of the Intel Core i5 or i7 processors is the one to pick. However, if you're budget limit for the CPU is around $150, picking Intel or AMD CPU becomes less clear cut. The best approach is to figure out the maximum you're willing to spend and then figure out the best CPU - Intel or AMD - that's within that budget.

Tom's Hardware is one of my favorite sites for doing research when working up the specifications for a new system. Recently, they added a Best Gaming CPU for the Money monthly column. That's a great place to start. Go to the CPUs section of the site and look for the latest column. The CPU dictates what motherboards you can get, so pick that first.

Nvidia graphics cards are better than ATI graphics cards (or vice versa)

This is a rumor that I wish I felt was more of a rumor. In sheer number-crunching, Nvidia and AMD have done a pretty good job of slotting their video cards into a line of price/performance. It should be as simple as figuring out what your budget is and then buying whichever manufacturers card you can get within that range. The truth - for me at least - isn't that simple. For me, if the "correct" choice is an AMD card, I balk. If it's at all possible to bump up to the next highest Nvidia card from that initial choice, I'll take it every time. Why? The answers is video drivers and build quality.

I have had and still have at least one AMD card in my systems. It is not, however a gaming system. It's a Linux box that has an AMD card typically used for home theater PCs. My last "gaming" AMD card was actually an ATI Radeon (R300) 9700 (from 2002). It had to be replaced because of bad capacitors on it resulting in displaying the pink checkerboard of death whenever trying to play a game. I got it direct from ATI, so I had to ship it to Canada for replacement. I remember this because Canada wanted me to pay an import tax for the declared value.

More recently, a friend tried to use an card made by MSI based on an AMD R9 290X GPU. It was the correct card for his budget, and the R9 290X has decent reviews. His first card booted fine, but would lock up whenever he tried a game. Sad, but any manufacturer can have an occasional issue, so he got a replacement. The second one had the same issue. This time, we tried it in my gaming rig thinking it might be some issue specific to his system. It got a little farther, but running 3DMark locked the system up within a minute or so. Eventually, that one died so bad, I couldn't even get back into Windows long enough to uninstall it. The AMD Catalyst drivers are so bad, I blue-screened when I tried to put my actual video card (by Nvidia) back into the system. I had to nuke and pave my OS to get the system working again. This could have been an MSI issue with AMD cards, perhaps. That said, we replaced that card with an MSI card based on the Nvidia 970 GTX. It cost more, but now, there are no problems with it in his system. That leaves me rather soured on AMD cards.

The bottom line is technically, you shouldn't necessarily pick Nvidia or AMD as always being the best. Look and see what makes sense for the budget available. Tom's Hardware also has a GPU section like the CPU section and a publishes similar articles entitled, Best Graphics Cards For The Money for the current month.

Installing a larger power supply means my system will use more power

This is a question I've answered online on more than one occasion. I have taken the liberty of copying myself. I'll sue myself for infringement later.

Computer power supply units (PSUs) are on-demand current draw devices. That is, they only supply as much power on the various voltage lines (3.3 V, 5V, 12V, etc.) as the components in your PC require. As such, if you were to replace your current power supply with a larger rated one (without changing any other components in your system), the difference in the current draw should be negligible. More than that, if you replace an old, poorly-designed 300W PSU with a new, more efficient 550W model, it's even possible the current draw will be decreased not increased due to increased efficiency. Efficiency is the ratio of power consumption from the wall socket compared to the power delivered to the computer components. A loss of efficiency manifests itself as heat generation. A PSU that is 85% efficient wastes less electricity in the form of heat than a 70% efficient PSU.

Power supplies tend to operate most efficiently when they are being driven at 50 - 75% of their rated maximum load. Let's say you've been adding hard drives over time (even external ones if they are powered by the USB port) and have upgraded your video card as well. The 300W power supply was fine when you first got your system, but now, let's say you are using 260W as a worst case. (It won't always draw that much, but when playing a video game that is driving the graphics card and the CPU hard, it may stay at that draw for extended periods of time.) Your 300W PSU is being forced to operate at 87% of its rated max. A 550W PSU on the other hand would only be operating a 47% of its rated max. The 300W power supply - because of the loss in efficiency converting 120V AC current to 3.3V, 5V, 12V, etc. DC current when loaded above 75% - may require more current from the wall to deliver 260W than the 550W supply would require to do the same. (It's more complicated than this in that it matters how much current is needed by each of the voltage "rails" such as 12V compared to 3.3V rather than just the total power. I've also ignored talking about thermal design power altogether.)

That said, it's a good idea to check the output of an existing PSU and upgrade it when adding components with a higher current draw - which is most often a new video card. Some of the very high end graphics cards now require 250W or more when they are running full blast. Put a pair of those in an SLI motherboard and you see why 1000 W supplies are needed. (You are potentially at 50% load of the PSU with the graphics cards alone.) So, if you do upgrade your graphics card, chances are you probably will draw more current from the wall. However, that's not the function of adding a new PSU. If you want to verify or measure this, purchase a cheap Kill-A-Watt power meter and check the amperage used before and after replacing the power supply. The difference should be barely noticeable. Try the same after upgrading a graphics card to one that uses more power, and there will be a difference.

Backups ... Just Do It!

If you are unfamiliar with the terms RAID 1 and RAID 0, don't get too concerned just yet. They will be explained below. For now, just know that RAID 1 is drive mirroring where all data is written to a pair of drives such there are always two copies of every file.

I have used a number of backup schemes over the years. In the not-too-distant past, most of them relied on some form of redundant, automatic backup such as RAID 1 (mirroring) or RAID 0 + 1 (striping plus mirroring). However, a while back, I decided that was not good enough and moved to a scheme of using software - in my case, CrashPlan (Plus) - to back up my desktop, my laptop and my wife's laptop to a separate PC in my house just for that purpose. Additionally, I have CrashPlan back up the same machines (and my backup machine) off site to their servers (called CrashPlan Central). The bottom line is that it's almost a requirement to have some form of active hard drive backup, and the good news is that it's not that hard.

Do Not Trust Your Data to Any Hard Drive Manufacturer
I don't receive any compensation for the hardware or software products mentioned. I may not have even used some of the products mentioned. Those are included only as illustrative examples where needed.

The following is my personal experiences with computer storage over the last 30 years or so. Sadly, the necessity of having some backup scheme for my hard disks to guard against hard drive failure increased dramatically for me in the early 2000s. Originally, I would set up a RAID 1 array fully expecting to never replace either disk. The rare occasion when I did have to replace one justified the cost in my mind. I could be quite smug when I slapped in the new replacement disk, chose to rebuild the array, and lost nothing (save the time to rebuild and the cost of the new disk). That fact was that in the early days, the majority of RAID 1 arrays that I set up would go through their entire life with no failures. I know of a couple systems I built running a RAID 1 array that were 4-5 years old and still running on the original drives.

Unfortunately, that changed. By 2005 or so, I set up a RAID 1 array fully expecting it to be necessary. I'm not sure what happened with the hard disk manufacturer's, but reliability just took a dive. I suppose it could be me; I'm using twice as many hard drives in the systems I build, so it follows I would see twice as many failures. I believe, however, that's not entirely the cause. As I mentioned above, my early RAID 1 arrays for the most part ran their entire life without any replacements. In the last few years, more than half of the RAID 1 arrays I've set up have required at least one disk replacement.

This trend doesn't seem to be limited to a particular manufacturer either. I typically use Seagate or Western Digital (WD), but I have occasionally used Samsung and IBM (now Hitachi) drives as well. I don't use the latter two often enough to include those two in the following statement: In my opinion, no hard drives can be trusted. It seems to be Seagate's opinion, too, as they first reduced their warranty from five years to three, and now that warranty is down to two years on standard models. WD has three years on most drives with their premium models at five. What that should mean to anyone with a drive older than three to five years is that it should be expected to fail at any time.

For a long, long time I was an utter Seagate fanboi; it's the only brand of drive I would use in builds. When I first started using RAID 1 arrays, WD had a couple embarrassing manufacturing issues, which they initially denied and eventually acknowledged. I myself wouldn't touch the things. In 2006 or 2007, I built myself a new desktop PC with a RAID 1 array using a pair of Seagate 120GB drives. One of the drives failed fairly quickly. Because I had used so many of their drives over the years with no failures, I figured it was just my time to get a bad one and replaced the drive. Then the other drive failed within a year. Both were covered by the (then five-year) warranty, but that's not the point. Had I not used a RAID 1 (mirroring) setup, data would have been lost. I didn't feel I could trust that particular model and tried my luck with a larger 250GB Seagate. One of those failed just under two years later. Like the others, it was still in warranty, but this was not what I expected from Seagate. RAID 1 was saving the day again and again, but I really wished it wouldn't have had to.

I had a similar experience in a desktop PC I built for my daughter to take to college. One of the 250 GB Seagate drives (in RAID 1) failed after less than two years. During this same time, the company I worked for bought three WD250 GB external USB drives for a few of us working offsite to use for backing up our laptops. All three died; mine lasted the longest - almost two years. In my opinion, all hard drives should be regarded with the belief that they will fail before they are out of warranty, so having a backup is absolutely required. Some time during all of this, I decided to use RAID 0 + 1 in my gaming desktop. That required I add another pair of Seagate 250GB drives in order to effectively get 500 GB of space. Of the four drives in use, I had three failures including one where the replacement for a failed drive also fail. I switched to using Western Digital Black drives, which had (and still have) a five-year warranty.

I now use SSDs (solid state drives) as my main boot and file drives. Their cost is low enough to be viable replacements for HDDs (standard hard disk drives), but still high enough that doubling the number of drives needed (as used in RAID 1 mirroring) is prohibitive. I also have a pair of WD Scorpio Black drives, which have a five-year warranty. Still, I don't have enough faith in any of them not to have a complete backup elsewhere. That is where CrashPlan comes in. In the rest of this article, I'll go through the ways I have (and you can) backup your hard disks.

Approaches I Have Used for Hard Drive Backup

Hopefully, I made a convincing case above that hard drive backup is absolutely essential. It was always a good idea, but with what I'm seeing as the current state of hard drive reliability, it's no longer an option. There are lots of effective ways of maintaining a backup. In the links below, I will go into a number of them that I have used.

 

RAID 1 - Disk Mirroring

RAID 1, for those who don't know, uses a pair of disks whereby anything written to one disk is also written (i.e., mirrored) in parallel to the other. I used RAID 1 in desktop builds - both for gaming and business use - for over a decade with very good results. On RAID 1's minus side, half the disk space is lost since, for example, two 500GB drives appear as only one 500GB drive. Also, the writes don't occur completely in paralled and the two drives require synchronization to ensure that everything was faithfully copied to both drives. This slows the write speed of a RAID 1 array down to being a bit slower than writing to a single disk.

If you decided to go with a RAID array, consider purchasing the hard disks from two different sources. (Make sure the model number is the same, however.) Doing so decreases the likelihood of getting two faulty drives from the same "bad" batch.

On the plus side, is that in the event either one of the two disks fails, no data is lost. That's the big plus that saved me from data loss a number of times. Also, when reading files from disk, the RAID 1 array can read alternate blocks of a file from both drives simultaneously to nearly double the read speed. (This is similar to how RAID 0 striping works all the time. See below.) In a gaming system, significantly more time is spent reading from the disks than writing, so RAID 0 gave me a noticeable increase in speed when booting, loading games initially, switching maps/level, etc. When and if a disk fails, that boost in read performance (and the security on having a constant backup) is lost until a replacement is installed and the files are copied from the remaining drive to the new drive. (This is called rebuilding the RAID array, and while this is in progress, it's a very good idea not to use the system. It's going to be really slow anyway, so just give it the necessary time to finish.)

A RAID 1 array can be build as a "hardware" or "software" array. Hardware arrays are those that use a motherboard with a chipset that supports RAID. Most current motherboards, even lower-end ones, support some form of hardware RAID. Sometimes, it's only RAID 0 and 1. (More on RAID 0 in a bit.) Optionally, we can to buy a RAID controller add-in card to create a hardware RAID 1 array. The higher-priced add-in cards are often faster than the RAID solutions found on motherboards, so it's a good alternative. Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 also support creating RAID arrays though the operating system software. I personally have not used a software RAID, and it wasn't clear from what I read if a software RAID can be used as the boot drive. I know a hardware RAID array can be the boot drive as that's pretty much the only way I have done it.

The second thing we need is a matched pair of disks. Technically, the disks don't have to be the same, but it's more efficient that they are. If a 1.5 TB drive is paired with a 2 TB drive, the resulting RAID 1 array will be 1.5 TB with the extra 500GB of space on the 2 TB drive wasted. If the two drives have a significantly different write times, the effective write time is that of the slower drive (plus the overhead for synchronization). This would waste the potential speed of the (presumably more expensive) faster drive. Typically, I just get a matched pair of drives from the outset. That said, it's a good idea to get each drive from a different source. That way, if the vendor happened to be the unlucky recipient of a bad batch of drives, the system we build with them won't inherit all the same bad luck.

When installing the disks, it is best to leave airspace between the drives if possible. If the drive cage has a fan that moves air across the drives, that's even better. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way as much as possible. The picture below shows a pair of drives with a fan in front of them that draws cool air in from the front of the case. (The case is an Antec Nine Hundred.)

RAID 1 drives installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb

Setting up a hardware RAID array varies by motherboard, but the basics tend to be the same. Rather than write my own instructions here, I'll just point to one of the many references I found on the subject at PCWorld. Really, the main trick for setting up a hardware RAID in Windows is having the correct drivers onhand (on a USB stick, CD or DVD) during the Windows installation process. For an example of setting up a software RAID array, this article at Overclockers seems to be pretty complete. It's not something I have done, myself.

Although RAID 1 has saved my hide on a number of occasions, it's only part of a good backup scheme. For example, RAID 1 won't protect against accidental deletion of (irreplaceable) files. Nor does it protect against viruses. Therefore, it's still a good idea to perform periodic backup of critical files to CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, an external disk, a spare internal disk, another computer, a network file server or a backup server on the Internet. This need not be a backup of everything on the disk (like RAID 1 does), but it should be those documents, audio files, pictures, and movies that you yourself have created and would not be able to replace. Several of the following sections talk about these alternatives.

RAID 0 (Striping) Plus a Backup Drive

RAID 0 is the preferred hard disk solution for the fastest disk access possible and is very popular in gaming desktops (and some laptops). With RAID 0, files over a certain size - called the stripe size - are broken into "stripes" and the stripes are written to alternating disks. Generally, the number of hard disks in a RAID 0 array is two, but it can be more. If it is two, the first stripe-sized block of a file is written to one disk and the second is written to the second disk. The third stripe is written to the first disk, and so on. The stripes can be fed to the two disks in parallel nearly doubling both their read and write speed.


The first and major plus as mentioned is the greatly improved read and write speed. Also on the plus side, unlike with RAID 1, no disk space is lost in RAID 0. Two 2 TB drives would appear as a single 4 TB drive. On RAID 0's minus side, if either disk fails, all files over the stripe size are effectively lost since half of a file (assuming a two disk raid) is little better than no file. One way to resolve this problem is to have a third non-RAID disk that matches the size of the RAID 0 array (or larger). This drive will be used to contain one or more more backups of the RAID 0 array. Some form of backup software such as Acronis True Image Home 2015 would then be installed and configured to perform backups on a regular - typically nightly - basis.


Acronis True Image has a feature named Acronis Nonstop Backup that automatically creates incremental backups of files and folders (or even partitions) every five minutes allowing users to roll back their system, files, and folders to a point in time in the past. While this sounds good, it may well defeat the purpose of a RAID 0 drive or at least reduce it. There would need to be some sort of synchronization or checking of the backup in real time that would slow down the RAID array. Since it's incremental, it may not be much in reality. Acronis also has a powerful scheduler to make the backup at some time when you are not on the computer. This would not interfere with the computer while it's in use, but the risk is losing any data created since the last backup is run.


Acronis is not the only backup program to consider. Macrium (Reflect) and Paragon (Hard Disk Manager) are also quite popular. At various times, various releases of one or the other products have had issues. I currently use CrashPlan, which could be used for a backup scheme like the one above, but it really meant for backing up one computer's files to another (which could be a local PC, a friend's PC over the Internet, or even CrashPlan's own servers).


From a build point of view, for hardware RAID, we need a motherboard that supports RAID or we need to buy a RAID controller add-in card as before. For software RAID, we need an operating system that supports that feature (also as for RAID 1). The second thing we need is a matched pair of disks and a third disk that's approximately the size of the RAID array. The disks to be used in the array don't have to be the same, but the array is generally more stable if they are. If a 1 TB drive is paired with a  1.5 TB drive, the resulting RAID 0 array will be twice the size of the 1 TB drive or  2 TB with the 500 GB of extra space on the 1.5 TB drive wasted. If the two drives have a significantly different write times, the effective write time is that of the slower drive. This would waste the potential speed of the (presumably more expensive) faster drive.


As for the backup drive, it may either be external or internal. If using an external, try to use USB 3.0 (or above) or an eSATA connection. Disks are installed using the same rules of thumb as with RAID 1. Leave airspace between the drives if possible and use or install fans for the drive cage, if possible. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way if possible. The picture below shows a pair of drives used for RAID 0 and a third, larger drive used for backup. (The case is an Antec Nine Hundred.)


RAID 0 drives and backup drive installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb


As before, rather than giving instructions for setting up a RAID system here, please refer to the list of guides found on the Internet such as those listed in the first section.

RAID 10 (1+0) - Mirroring and Striping

In the RAID 1 (mirroring) discussion, it was mentioned that the write speed of such an array is slightly slower than writing to a single disk. On the other hand, RAID 0 yields a write speed that is nearly double that of a single disk (because it involves writing simultaneously to two disks). What would be ideal is to have the continuous backup that RAID 1 affords while somehow keeping the write speed of a RAID 0 array.

Somewhere along the line, somebody realized that if we had a pair of identical RAID 1 arrays, we could write to those using the striping technique of RAID 0 and let the RAID array perform the mirroring as time permits. This is the essence of the solution provided by RAID 1+0, which is also known as RAID 10. It is almost always written as RAID 10. Essentially a pair of RAID 1 arrays is used in a RAID 0 array, which makes it a stripe of mirrors. This gives us (nearly) the speed of a RAID 0 array with the data redundancy and security of a RAID 1 array. A RAID 10 array requires (a minimum of) four hard disks and like a RAID 1 array, only half the total disk space is accessible. However the write speed to that array is essentially the same as that of a RAID 0 array. Even better, the read speed is double that of a RAID 0 array. For a gaming system, which tends to do a lot of burst reading (when switching levels or areas for example), this can make quite a difference.

The first and major plus of RAID 10, which was already mentioned, is the combination of the advantages of RAID 0 speed and RAID 1 security. If any single disk fails, no data is lost. The failed disk can be replaced and the RAID rebuilt from the remaining disks. In theory, two drives can fail so long as they do not both contain the same mirrored stripe. In general though, we are trying to guard against a single disk failure while maintaining RAID 0 (or better) performance.

From a build point of view, we need the motherboard support for RAID 10 or an add-in card that supports RAID 10. This time, however we need a set of four matched disks. The same caveats about disk size and speed apply as in RAID 0 and RAID 1. One additional factor in the mix is that you need a case that hold four internal hard disks and still have decent air flow. Leave airspace between the drives if possible and use or install fans for the drive cage, if possible. The power and data cables should be kept out of the way. The picture below shows four drives in RAID 10.

RAID 10 drives installed - image 1 0f 1 thumb

Note that I did not talk about software RAID in the last paragraph. As far as I can tell, Windows 7 does not support RAID 10 directly, so a hardware RAID is the only option. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 support a newer concept called Storage Spaces. Storage Spaces don't provide an exact equivalent to RAID 10, although they do have support configurations with similar goals. However, that's not something I have used (and a bit beyond the scope I was trying to cover here).

Also note that I only discussed RAID 10 and not RAID 01 (also known as RAID 0+1). While RAID 10 is known as a stripe of mirrors, RAID 01 is known as a mirror of stripes. Most motherboards only support RAID 10 and not RAID 01. RAID 10 and RAID 01 require the same resources and yield the same performance benefits. The devil in the details is more involved than I want to get into here, but suffice it to say that RAID 10 is inherently more stable than RAID 01 when a drive failure occurs. A good article on why this is so can be found at The Geek Stuff.

As before, rather than giving instructions for setting up a RAID system here, please refer to the list of guides found on the Internet such as those listed in the first section.

 

My Current Backup Approach

Although I have used RAID 1 and RAID 10 in the past - even occasionally RAID 0, I am not currently using any of those approaches to maintaining my backups. In fact, I don't even have a RAID setup in my current desktop even though it's perfectly capable of supporting one. I even have a pair of matched hard drives.

Recently, I've switched to using Solid State Drives (SSDs( in place of HDDs. My system boots lightning fast and games load almost too fast. However, when it comes to RAID systems, the cost of SSDs makes raid a bit prohibitive. I have a 256GB SSD and 500 GB SSD and when I bought them, the cost of a pair of 500 GB SSDs like the one I have would have been nearly quadruple what the cost of a pair of 1 TB HDDs. That's not the cast any more as the drive has dropped from nearly $300 when I bought it to $178. That's the quote I got today from Newegg, and though it's a sale price, it's not much off the regular price. I probably could set up a RAID system if I wanted to, now, but I'm happy with the solution I have.

I have switched to using CrashPlan from Code42.com, which is backup software that lets me pick the files and folders I want to back up and copies those to another system. CrashPlan is available as both a free version and a subscription version. The free version of the software supports backing up to an external disk, another computer in your house and even a friend's computer (you can "barter" to back up each other's files). The backup files are encrypted, so nosey people can't poke around in your offsite backups.

I used the free version to back up my desktop, laptop and another laptop for about a year. I never once got hassled to sign up for the subscription plan. CrashPlan Free worked well and transparently. There were just several advantages to the subscription plan that I decided I really wanted. The first was having offsite backups to Code42's CrashPlan Central servers. The free version has daily scheduled backup (although I seem to recall being able to kick off an manual backup anytime I liked), whereas the subscription version has "continuous" backup. It's not absolutely keystroke-by-keystroke continuous, but it's within minutes of a file being changed. CrashPlan also has a mobile app that lets me access any file backed up to CrashPlan Central from anywhere. Both versions allow you to restore deleted files, but the subscription allows file versioning with - as far as I can tell - unlimited backup versions of a file. I am using the family plan which allows me to backup up to 10 computers with no data limits.

A couple of extra-cost services that I Code42 offers, which I have not used but am glad are available are the Seeded Backup service and the Restore-to-Door service. The Seeded Backup service exists to help get you going with offsite backup to CrashPlan Central. A drive is shipped to you and you backup to that drive. Then the drive is shipped to CrashPlan (shipping included in the cost) and they seed your cloud backup from there. I have a really good Internet connection, and it still took days to get my initial backups established on CrashPlan Central. If you have a slower Internet connection and lots of data to backup, this service is probably worth it.

The Restore-to-Door service is the opposite of the Seeded Backup service. If you had a catatrophic loss of data - say due to fire, flood or theft - that left you without a local copy of your data, you can have a disk with your last backup sent to you and you can restore it back to the same or another system. Once you are done restoring your files, you use the included return label to send it back.

I also find the CrashPlan support site to be be helpful and well done. There were some tips there that I had not even considered, one of which was the Gamer's Guide to CrashPlan. Since CrashPlan maintains multiple copies of changed files - including saved game files - I can always get back a previous game save (assuming I know where to find it) even if the game doesn't keep multiple saves. Most of the games I have nowadays were purchased from Steam. Getting the game files back is straightforward enough. However game saves is another matter. Some games synchronize the saves to the cloud (which has occasionally caused its own issues), but others don't. A way to be sure is to stick them on CrashPlan Central along with everything else.

 

Craig's Current Computer

This page is the component list for the gaming rig I'm using today. My build tends to be a case study of bang-for-the-buck components over time. I rarely (but more or less recently did) perform a full upgrade; I tend to have more of a rolling, constant upgrade in the works. It's certainly not going to be the very hottest thing out there, but it's certainly not going to have cost me like the hottest thing out there either. I tend to try to stay between the mainstream and enthusiast rigs in cost, but much closer to the mainstream prices.


Craig's Current Computer Component Census (November 2016)


Since I tend to purchase partial upgrades over time, I'll put down the dates that I purchased each component as well as the price I paid at that time. As time goes on, those prices tend to drop, so you could probably pick up the exact rig I have for less than what's listed below or create a better one for the same amount. That's just the way it is with computers. Now that I've said that, last July I pretty much did do a full upgrade: a new motherboard, CPU, GPU, memory and CPU cooler. I wanted a rig guaranteed to handle any VR headset (which I still don't own). That meant a new GPU in the form of a GTX 1080 (though the GTX 980 I had probably could have done the job). But then, my CPU just hit four years old, so it really was due for an upgrade, which meant a new motherboard, which meant new memory, which meant a new CPU cooler. (Technically, I could have used the old cooler, but that CPU, motherboard, memory and cooler went to a new home.)


Craig's desktop PC - exterior front, left-side view - thumbnail


Craig's desktop PC - exterior front view - thumbnail


 


CPU


I upgraded from an Intel Core i7 3770K to an Intel Core i7 6700K. I also opted for all-in-one water cooling, so I overclocked the CPU from 4.0GHz to 4.5GHz. I know I don't "need" the i7's extra threads for gaming versus the Core i5 6600K, but I wanted them anyway. (Not everything I do is gaming.) I also don't "need" the extra speed for the games I have, but the water cooling keeps the CPU at such a nice temperature, I feel comfortable leaving it there.


Craig's desktop PC - CPU settings - image 1 0f 3 thumbnail


Craig's desktop PC - memory settings - image 2 0f 3 thumbnail


Craig's desktop PC - memory SPD settings - image 3 0f 3 thumbnail


 


I bought this CPU at Micro Center in July of 2016 for $310 whereas I bought the 3770K in July of 2012 for $290. (With the introduction of the 6800K, the price of the 6700K has dropped to $260 as of November 2016.) In the past, I'd be looking for a new CPU way before a four-year run, but I really didn't have any issues running the latest games. However, I knew it was going to be a bottleneck with the new GPU. The Intel 6700K uses an LGA 1151 socket as opposed to the 3770K's an LGA 1155 socket, so that meant I needed a new motherboard, too. As that last two or so CPU upgrades I have purchased, I got it at my local Micro Center. The CPU was about $50 cheaper than Newegg or Amazon. The catch is that it is in-store only. Luckily, my nearest store is about 20 minutes from where I work. To sweeten up the deal a bit, they had (and almost always have) an additional $30-40 off when purchasing a motherboard combo.


About seven years ago chose a dual core processor with a faster clock speed over a quad core processor because games at the time did not make good use of the extra cores. I attended an online seminar where I got confirmation of that from an Intel person that I'll paraphrase here:


"At the Intel Core i7 and Corei5 Launch webcast that Newegg and Intel hosted, I asked the following question: Are game developers starting to take advantage of the dual and quad core processors? A manager on the Intel extreme motherboard team said that she was a gamer, too, but she was not seeing the developers make use of the multiple cores/threads yet."


Times have changed. Now, there are games that perform poorly on CPUs with two or fewer cores because they are dependent on the hyperthreading capability to maintain high frame rates. Coupled with things like Intel's Turbo Boost, having a least four cores is probably the sweet spot at the moment. Going beyond a quad core is probably still overkill, but the games coming out now definitely use multiple core as they are heavily threaded. There are a number of articles from time-to-time that talk about PC game performance, but a good site that seems to measure a good number of games and in a consistent manner is the Dark Side of Gaming: PC Performance Analysis section. They don't cover all new games for sure, but they hit many of them and games that span a number of gaming engines. They tend to avoid games that are anticipated to run well on just about any modern system.


CPU Cooler


I decided I wanted to try a all-in-one water CPU water cooler. I could have gotten a Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO, but my plan was to overclock the CPU from day one. Because my case wasn't made to support a dual-fan radiator (in fact water cooling at all was rare when I got this case), I went with a single-fan Corsair Hydro Series H60.


Corsair H60 CPU Cooler - thumbnail


Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus CPU Cooler - thumbnail


 


Compared to the heft of the Hyper 212 Plus it replaced, the H60 is downright diminutive. The picture on the left above is the H60 and the one on the right is the Hyper 212 Plus (shown with an iPhone 4 as a size reference). I didn't realize just how much space the 212 took. I'm sure the H60 helps airflow was well as being a better overall CPU cooler. One difference when building this system is that I generally put the CPU, cooler and memory on the motherboard before installing it into the case. With the radiator/fan assembly of the H60, that's really not practical. So I installed the H60's back plate before putting the motherboard in the case and installed the cooler (technically, the "cold plate") and radiator/fan afterwards. I also removed the existing rear 120mm case fan and used the H60's radiator/fan in its place.


Motherboard


I'd been so happy with the Asus Sabertooth Z77 motherboard that I used with the 3770K that I went with the Asus TUF Sabertooth Z170S for this build. See the thumbnail below. It was purchased as a bundle with the CPU in July 2016 from Micro Center for $158, including a $30 bundle discount. (So it was regularly $188.) This motherboard has six SATA 6.0Gb/s and/or two SATA Express connections (that would overlay four of the six SATA connections if both were used), one M.2 socket (2242 through 22110 with PCIE mode), six USB 3.0 ports (two on the back and four motherboard headers), eight USB 2.0 ports (four on the back and four headers on the motherboard), a single USB 3.1 port, a decent audio chip with shielding and a separate layer (which I don't use). Their are four DDR4 memory slots supporting up to 64GB of RAM and XMP profiles up to 3200MHz. There are two PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots for graphics or other expansion cards (of which I use one in x16 mode as opposed to two graphics cards in x8 mode) and one PCI Express x16 slot that supports up to x4 mode. Additionally, there are three PCI Express x1 slots.


Motherboard top view - thumbnail


Motherboard I/O panel view - thumbnail


Motherboard I/O panel fix - thumbnail


As-built view - thumbnail


I had a few issues with the I/O shield during installation, which is a bit unusual. That's generally an innocuous part. First off, remove the TUF LANGuard sticker over Ethernet port before building (as shown in the second image above). I saw that sticker and realized that would be a PITA to get off after the motherboard is installed. One potential issue avoided.


It's not visible in the picture, but the I/O shield is backed with thin foam layer covered with conductive foil. It's a nice alternative to the metal grounding "fingers" most I/O shields use (that can get stuck into various ports when the board is inserted). However, the lower left corner of the foam got folded over when I inserted the motherboard - covering a couple of the USB 2.0 ports. I could have fixed that with a razor knife, but I ended up fixing it the "right way" by taking the motherboard partially back out and straightening out the foam. That added an hour to the build that wasn't necessary.


However, the I/O shield wasn't done being a pain. When I went to plug in my Ethernet cable, it wouldn't stay in. There's a tab in the shield that surrounds the Ethernet port that sticks up enough to depress the Ethernet cable's release tab. I have no idea what possessed the designer to put that tab there. I fixed the problem with a "end-user modification" involving needle nose pliers. (See the third picture above.) The final picture in this series is the "as-built" view of the motherboard with all the parts installed.


This motherboard supports very fine-grained tuning for overclocking, and it was my intent to overclock from day one. The auto-overclock similar to earlier boards was still available, but I found manual overclocking to be more beneficial. I am running the CPU at 4.5GHz as opposed to the stock 4.0GHz. I could probably get more, but this is stable and seems to be sufficient.


Graphics Card


I had already recently splurged big time on a new GTX 980 graphics card. However, I wasn't convinced it would handle a VR headset (assuming I buy one in the near future). I was lucky enough to snag an ASUS GeForce GTX 1080 8GB ROG STRIX OC Edition Graphic Card (STRIX-GTX1080-O8G-GAMING) in July 2016 for an outrageous (for me, anyway) $680 from Amazon. The supply chain isn't quite as constrained as it was when I got this one. I discovered and credit NowInStock.net for getting it then at all. I set it up to notify me when it was in stock, which it did. It was sold out from Amazon less than 10 minutes later.


One word of caution to others: this card is really, really big. In the first picture below, I laid the Asus GTX 1080 next to the EVGA GTX 980. It's probably an inch and a half longer. The official dimensions at Asus are 11.73" long x 5.28" high x 1.57" thick. In the second picture, you may be able to tell that in order to get this card to fit, I had to move the drive cages one notch farther out. It doesn't look bad, but it's the absolute maximum size graphics card that I could get in this case. The third and fourth pictures show the front (cooler) and top views and the final image is of the video ports supplied by this card. Unlike other manufacturers, Asus has two HDMI 2.0 ports and two Display Port sockets (as opposed to one and three of the same, respectively). This is to support VR headsets using two HDMI ports.


Asus STRIX 1080 versus EVGA GTX 980 SC - thumbnail


Asus STRIX 1080 case adjustment - thumbnail


Asus STRIX 1080 cooler - thumbnail


Asus STRIX 1080 top - thumbnail


Asus STRIX 1080 video ports - thumbnail


The rule of thumb I usually impart to others is that when building a mid-range gaming system, expect to pay from 100% to 130% of the cost of the CPU on the video card. This generally holds pretty well. This time, I didn't listen to myself. You see, I had been lusting after the 2560x1440 pixel resolution (aka 1440p) ever since those cheap Korean panels started showing up on eBay. At one point, I was on my way to Micro Center to buy one of them. I was listening to a Maximum PC podcast during the drive, and a listener asked the question if an Nvidia GTX 670 was good enough to drive one of the monitors. The response was, "Oh, hell, no." That's the exact graphics card I had at the time; I drove right on past.


Driving that number of pixels takes a serious high-end card. The kind of high-end card I never seemed to be able to bring myself to lay out the cash for. Now that I have it, let me say that gaming at 2560 x 1440 is very, very nice. If you can swing it, I highly recommend it. The GTX 1080 was 234% the cost of the CPU. I bought an EVGA GTX 980 SC in December 2014 for $560, but when I heard the statistics for the new 1080s, I was sure that's where I needed to be for full out 1440p gaming and VR. I'm a very bad person. But I am a very happy gamer.


Monitor


While I lusted after the Korean 2560 x 1440 monitors, I never pulled the trigger on buying one. However, when I was throwing lots of cash at the video card, I also got a Dell U2713HM 27" Widescreen LED Backlit LCD Monitor from B&H Photo Video for $518 in December 2014. Yep. Paid less for the monitor than I spent on the (original GTX 980) video card to drive it. My previous monitor was also a Dell which always worked well. (Still does in fact.) I upped my resolution from 1920 x 1200, changed from a florescent to LED backlit and from a TN panel to an IPS panel. What a tremendous difference. I think that model has been replaced with the Dell U2715H, now.


Memory


To go with the new motherboard, I needed new DDR4 memory. The motherboard supports XMP up to DDR4-3200, so the memory I went with was 16GB (2 x 8GB) of Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3200 (PC4-25600) (CMK16GX4M2B3200C16) for $87 also from Micro Center. I had used similar Corsair Vengence memory with my last motherboard with really good results. For me, getting this to work at 3200 MHz consisted of setting the XMP profile in the BIOS and rebooting. That's it. 


I still have two of the four slots on the motherboard open so I could bump up to 32 GB or 48 GB of RAM (or 64GB if I replace this 16GB) if I ever need it. I really didn't even need 16GB as the games I play seemed to be happy with just 8GB. However, I don't have to worry about having a browser or other apps open when I play games.


Hard Drives


For over a decade, I was a proponent of using the motherboard's on-board RAID controller to set up RAID 0, RAID 1 or even RAID 0+1. There was a "dark period" where hard disk reliability from a number of manufacturers seemed to go into the toilet. Having mirrored drives (RAID 1) saved my bacon more than once. But the speed of striped drives (RAID 0) is very appealing to gaming. I went with a four-drive configuration that combined the two (RAID 0+1). When you take a period when even new hard drives are a bit flakey and stick four of them in your rig .. well, let's just say I got really good at swapping drives. It's all good, now. I don't use any form of RAID any more. Why? SSDs.


Along with a new motherboard, I bought a pair of Samsung 830 2.5" 256 GB (MZ-7PC256N/AM) SSDs in July 2012 from Amazon for $240 each. I was waiting for the price to drop below $1 per GB, and it happened. One drive would be a dedicated for the boot drive, user files and the basic apps like the Microsoft Office suite. The other would be dedicated to games - mostly a big Steam folder. I expected the difference to be dramatic. I underestimated it. I was blown away. From cold power on to being at the Windows login prompt now takes less than 30 seconds. If I discount the time for the motherboard to POST, it's about 20 seconds. Games load so fast that I don't get time to read the tips on the loading screens. I used to dread Windows updates - especially if there was a .NET update. Now, if I have a few minutes to spare, I've got time for the update. I will never build another system where the primary boot drive isn't an SSD. Period.


Many cases available today have mounts for 2.5" SSDs. My case doesn't have that, so I bought a SilverStone Technology 3.5-Inch to 2 X 2.5-Inch Internal Hard Drive HDD / SSD Bay Converter, Silver (SDP08) converter to mount both drives in a single 3.5" internal slot. I had to mount one of the drives upside down so that the cables didn't interfere with each other. Since there are no moving parts in SSDs, that's not a concern.


In November 2013, I upgraded the game SSD to a 500GB Samsung 840 EVO (MZ-7TE500BW) I bought from Newegg for $285. I know that spec-wise, the 840 is faster than the 830 was, but I can't really tell the difference. I just needed more space. The exciting part was that in just a little over a year later, and I doubled the space for a price not too far from same as the 256 GBs. The price just keeps on coming down. The 500 GB 850 EVO that replaced my 840 EVO is now $180 (i.e., over $100 less). I still recommend getting the largest capacity you can afford. An interesting characteristic of SSDs is as the capacity increases, the drive tends to get faster since the SSD's memory can be read in parallel "channels." The bigger the capacity, the more channels.


I regularly use the Newegg app on my Android phone to check the daily specials, which Newgg calls "Shell Shockers." In addition to the same specials everyone sees on the web site, the app also has from one to three "Mobile Exclusive" specials. In January 2016, one of those was the 1TB Samsung 850 EVO (MZ-75E1T0B/AM) for $289 shipped. That was $41 bucks off the price at the time, and I snatched one while cackling evilly. Now, just a month later (February 2016), the regular price is $295 at both Newegg and Amazon. I guess I just got out a little ahead of falling prices. I switched to the 500GB 840 EVO as my boot drive and the 1TB 850 EVO as my games drive. Note that it took two years (instead of one year) for the price of the 1TB 850 EVO drive to fall to the same price I paid for the 500GB 840 EVO drive. Now, I'm at 1.5 TB of SSD storage (and 2TB of regular HDD storage - next paragraph).


In addition to the SSDs, I have a pair of Western Digital Black WD1001FALS 1 TB drives with a SATA II (3 GB/s) interface. I purchased these from Best Buy as retail drives at the beginning of a drive shortage due to flooding in Thailand in December 2011. I paid about $75 each for them at the time (and could have sold them for $130 each at one point). They were in RAID 1 (mirrored) in my previous build. I use these now as my photo, video and audio storage. I also use SteamTool to offload games I have finished onto one of the two drives. Mostly, they sit around unused.


Sound


While the sound quality of motherboards has improved, I still prefer a dedicated sound card. I'm currently using a Creative PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Champion sound card that I bought from Newegg for $105 in October of 2011. It has the separate break out box that fits into an external 5 1/4 slot. I used to get a model with the break out box because my case didn't have front panel audio. I don't have that excuse any more, but I still like being able to control the effects and volume with real knobs and buttons. It's a control thing. I probably would have just reused my old Sound Blaster card, but alas, it was a PCI form factor, and newer motherboards no longer have PCI slots (not to be confused with PCI-e or PCI-Express slots). This version uses a PCI Express x1 slot.


Speakers/Headset


My speakers are ancient by any standards. I have had Klipsch 4.1 Promedia surround sound speakers since about 1999. I just about bought another speaker system because both subwoofer speakers had literally just rotted out with age. Someone clued me in that Klipsch sell replacement parts, and I took advantage of that. It's still going, and with the aforementioned repair, still sounds great. I paid $400 for these originally (as part of a system from Falcon Northwest - the only gaming system I ever bought instead of made myself). The replacement speakers were something like $60. They can put out way more than the volume needed to enjoy any game, video or audio. The volume knob is starting to go, but I'll hold onto these as long as I can. I'd buy another set of these exact speakers, but Klipsch stopped making the four-speaker version years ago. They still have the two-speaker version for sale.


I've had more headsets than I care to recall. My current one is the Kingston HyperX Cloud Gaming Headset (KHX-H3CLW) - the white ones. I'm not sure I can recommend these highly enough. They weren't super cheap at $70 (on sale) from Amazon, but they sound better than headsets for which I paid more. They are comfortable for hours, too. That's what the "cloud" part is. It's like putting a comfy cloud over my ears. At least, they stay on my head without putting it into a vise. The mic is detachable, and I leave it off when I don't need it. They come with every connection option I've ever seen. I can connect these to every device in my house (and my phone in my pocket) using one of the included adapters. They even have an airplane adapter (and come with a carrying pouch). Buy these.


Power Supply


I will take a moment here to bow my head an say a few kind, respectful words about my recently deceased OCZ GameXStream 700W (OCZ700GXSSLI) PSU. I purchased it in December 2006 from Newegg for $149. From then until June 2015, I used that same PSU for at least four different builds. I wrote in April 2015 that time is an enemy of PSUs, and I should probably think about replacing it soon. My "soon" was June 2015, when one morning when I awoke to the UPS complaining one of the inputs to it were shorted out, which turned out to be the PSU. OCZ's PSUs were apparently pretty hit and miss as far as quality, but for me, working for 8-1/2 years in a high-demand gaming PC rig is pretty darn respectable.


OCZ bought PC Power & Cooling - a well-respected PSU maker, and I believe their expertise went into the OCZ PSU I had. I'd even consider buying a replacement PSU from OCZ, except they went bankrupt at the end of 2013. Their SSDs are still for available for sale, but that part of OCZ is now a subsidiary of Toshiba. PC Power & Cooling was sold to and became FirePower Technology, Inc., and their PSUs are getting good reviews.


My (new) current PSU is the EVGA SuperNOVA 750W B2, which I purchased from Newegg for $75. EVGA doesn't make their own PSUs. These are made to EVGA's specifications by Fortron Source Power Group (FSP Group), which is a fairly well respected brand. This unit is "semi-modular" meaning that some of the cables are fixed and permanently connected to the unit. Others are optional and module. The fixed cables are the 8-pin CPU connection, the 24-pin motherboard connection and a pair of 6/8-pin GPU connectors. That's a pretty good guess. I used two of the three SATA power cables and one of the Peripheral (old 4-pin Molex power) cables. The later existing solely to power case fans in the top and back.


I've recently become a fan of SeaSonic, Corsair and EVGA's SuperNOVA line (made by Fortron/FSP) power supplies. Because I have at least three desktops in the house at any given time, I keep a spare PSU handy (as well as case fans of all sizes). That's why the purchase date of the EVGA SuperNOVA is May 2015. I'd actually purchased the exact model before that, but it went in to friend's gaming rig when his was shorted out. As my new backup to replace the EVGA B2, I've got an XFX Core Edition PRO850W coming from Newegg, which cost $90, but has a $30 rebate. (Normal price is $100.) Like EVGA, XFX doesn't actually manufacture the PSUs, and that PSU is made for XFX by Seasonic. There's a really handy list of who's-who in PSU manufacturers at Tom's Hardware. Unfortunately, it tends to fall out of date. Still, it's a very good reference.


Interestingly, almost all of my recent system upgrades are faster, but use less power than their predecessors. CPU - faster and uses less power; GPU - faster and uses the same power (I was already using Kepler card when I moved to this Maxwell-based one - and really, I went from a GTX 670 to a GTX 980, so it's great to break even.); disk drives - extremely faster and use less power. I also have fewer drives in my system. Overall, the load on the PSU is decreasing. (My UPS confirms this at the estimated run time has gone up with every upgrade.)


Case


My case is the second oldest part in my system (now that my old OCZ PSU died). It's an Antec Nine Hundred (the original version with USB 2.0 front ports rather than USB 3.0). I'm on the fourth build into the same case. The flexibility of this case has always been fantastic. This case has lots of features that I like including:


  • Bottom-mounted power supply
  • Two removable drive cages (with independent cooling fans) that each can hold three drives. Without the drive cages, the case can hold even more than that. I tinker with my machine more often than most. These drive cages make life much easier.
  • Again, lots of that ever important airflow and fans including a huge top fan.
  • Sides come off and go on very smoothly and easily.

At some point, I did have to replace both front 120 mm fans. That's it. I got this during one of Newegg's weekend sales for $99 and $10 shipping back in June of 2009. A similar case is still for sale, but the USB has been upgraded to USB 3.0. It's $95 from both Newegg and Amazon. Newegg has free 4-7 day shipping or $18 three-day shipping. (Three-day was the cheapest option at the time I got mine.) If you are an Amazon Prime member, two-day shipping is free.


Keyboard and Mouse


Since I spend so many hours at the keyboard between my job and my hobbies, I've been using an ergonomic keyboard for over 20 years. My first one was the Microsoft Natural keyboard made in 1994. I was forced to use a Microsoft Natural Elite for a while (when I wore the first one out). The Microsoft Natural Pro came out in 1999 and to this day, I think the Microsoft Natural Pro is the best affordable ergonomic keyboard ever made. When I found out they were discontinuing them, I bought five. Unfortunately, gaming is hard on keyboards, and the WASD and left control (CTRL) keys eventually gave out on all. It took years to go through my stash, but I eventually did. Now, I use the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. These keyboards pale in comparison to the Microsoft Natural Pro, but they are decent and cheap (at around $30-50). I bought a 3-pack on sale from Newegg for $60 in August of 2014. I still wear them out regularly, but I don't feel bad about it.


I'd gladly put real money into an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches if anybody made one for a decent price. No, $250 isn't a decent price. No, $400 and $1,000 aren't decent prices either. It should be $200, tops - preferably $150. Somebody, get on this, please. Oh, and please make it look like a keyboard rather than something that belongs in a medical examination room.


I'm currently using a Logitech G502 Proteus Core gaming mouse that I purchased from Amazon for about $80 in April 2014. I regularly see it for sale in the $60 range today, so shop around. I used to use the Logitech G9X, and I liked it a little more because it was a bit wider. That's been discontinued and the remaining stock is astronomical in price (over $250). Even so, the G502 is a pretty darn good mouse. The weight is adjustable, and I like mine pretty heavy. One of the G502's features is on-the-fly dpi ranges. That is, you can set three different DPIs as the default on-board profiles. In addition, there is a thumb button that serves to "downshift" from a higher to lower DPI for things like precision sniping in first person shooters. I believe the mouse software supports loading different DPIs for different games, but I really don't bother. The three on-board profiles do the job for me.


Operating System


I'm a subscriber to the Microsoft Action Pack program. As such, I have access to just about every operating system version Microsoft supports, is actively selling or about to sell. Until mid-September, I used Windows 8.1 64-bit on my gaming desktop. Now, I am using Windows 10 64-bit. (I see no use for 32-bit anything any more.) I like having something like the Start menu back and the fact Windows 10 understand SSDs (like using the TRIM command to maintain them and performing less frequent and more intelligent defragmentation of them). To be fair, Windows 8.1 handled my SSDs gently, too. Technically, I updated for free (as did most people I know), however, I'm still going to tally in the cost of a OEM Windows 10 license. (I still can get mine via the Microsoft MAPS program.)


Miscellaneous


DVD/RW Drives - I had a pair of these in my system. (No Blu-Ray/RW here - not even a Blu-Ray reader.) They are pretty much a waste of space. I bought a pair to make copying easier. Copying what, I can't say? I've purchased maybe three games in the last few years that weren't downloadable online. Those did require a DVD reader. Maybe once or twice a year, I'll burn a Windows OS DVD to use for an installation. Really though, I could get by with one USB-attached DVD/RW shared among all my systems. There's no need for a pair, certainly, so I recently removed the top one when replacing my PSU. I bought the pair from Newegg in June 2009 for about $30 each. They have SATA interfaces and so long as I have spare SATA ports on my motherboard, there's no reason not to hook them up. There's very little reason to hook both of them up, though.


Microsoft Xbox 360 Game Controller for Windows - I bought one of these to play Brother's - A Tale of Two Sons. I bought it from Amazon in January 2014 for $37. I think I paid less for the game than the controller. I figured I would use it on some other games, since many have controller support. That didn't happen. I find the controller way too imprecise for the first person shooter games I prefer. It does come in handy though. Occasionally, I'll find some jumping puzzle or the like that requires excruciatingly accurate targeting to complete. If I just can't get it done with a keyboard and mouse, I'll use the controller. The extra sloppiness required to allow a controller to be usable in such a game is generally enough to get me though. I never use them in a fight though.


Metal Front Panel 3.0 USB Hub - Since the version of the Antec 900 case I have doe not have any front-panel USB 3.0 ports, I added a four-port USB 3.0 hub that fits into an open 5.25 inch drive bay. I paid $25 for an E-SDS USB 3.0 4-Port 5.25 inch Metal Front Panel USB Hub from Amazon in September 2016.


Component List and Tally




















Component Description (Puchase Month/Year) Cost
Craig's Gaming Rig Component List
CPU Intel Core i7 6770K (07/2016) 310
CPU Cooler Corsair Hydro Series H60 (07/2016) 72
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth Z170 S (07/2016) (Micro Center Bundle price) 158
GPU Asus GTX 1080 8GB ROG STRIX OC (07/2016) 680
Monitor Dell U2713HM (12/2014) 518
Memory Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3200 (PC4-25600) (CMK16GX4M2B3200C16) (07/2016) 87
Storage Samsung 840 EVO 512 GB SSD (11/2013)

Samsung 850 EVO 1 TB SSD (01/2016)

2x Western Digital Black 1TB HDD (12/2011) ($75 each)
285

289

150
Sound Card Creative PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Champion (10/2011) 105
Speakers Klipsch 4.1 Promedia surround sound with subwoofer (12/1999) 400
Headset Kingston HyperX Cloud Gaming Headset (04/2015) 70
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA 750W B2 (05/2013) 75
Case Antec Nine Hundred (06/2009) 99
Keyboard Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (08/2014) 20
Mouse Logitech G502 Proteus Core (04/2014) 80
OS Windows 10 Pro 64-bit (Estimated) 100
Miscellaneous 1x DVD/RW Drives (est at $30 - from a long time ago)

Microsoft Xbox 360 Game Controller (01/2014)

E-SDS USB 3.0 4-Ports 5.25 inch Metal Front Panel USB (09/2016)
30

37

25
Total   3590

That final tally is a startling number. I ought not to let my wife see it. That said, I didn't buy these parts all at once. The purchases go back as far as 1999, but the average is probably more like 18 months to 2 years ago. That's pretty normal for me, as I tend to roll the system over piecemeal to stay up-to-date. The big ticket items are the graphics card and monitor that total almost $1,200. That's an uncharacteristic splurge for me, but wow, is it nice.