Friends, it was finally time to build my very own! I've always bought laptops making DIY unpractical but now due to my increasing (ahem) compute needs, I was ready to commit to a stationary beast of a PC tower. My Alienware 17 R4 laptop which had served me so well for 2.5 years was now limping along due to an aging CPU i7-6820HK even though it had plenty of GPU power of a GTX 1080ti with an external GPU chassis.
Truth be told, my laptop is perfectly adequate for all titles except for Fallout 4 VR- a game so poorly optimized that it needs a 8 core CPU released years after the original game to run full graphics. Right now I have to peg to 45 fps, reduce AA and supersampling, reduce load distances and shadows, turn off dynamic grass, turn off interior lighting and face lighting, turn off rain and radiation storms and dozens of performance mods to run stable. It hurts my eyeballs when I play and my vision is my one deteriorating resource. It's not quite potato mode but this was not a game I could currently give friends a VR tour even though it was the only game that contained my very own structural creations
. And of course I could not even think of upgrading to a next generation VR headsets without a beefier machine.
When you go all custom, you have all the freedom in the world which translates into making dozens of micro-decisions over hundreds of competing items then cross checking for compatibility. It literally broke my PC brain for the day, totally crashed h-ster.exe.
After painstaking review, I went with the following components. I've put down detailed decision making process below in case it may be of use to anyone else. It doesn't mean I recommend these components but you may be interested in the why and how I chose them. (I've put amazon links not to sell anything since I am not part of an affiliate program but just as convenience to myself.)
General Decision Factors
FUTURE PROOFING- By virtue of building a desktop, I could continuously swap out parts for probably a decade. I wanted head space to grow and base components like the motherboard had to be upgradeable with ample DIMM slots and PCIe support for SLI. I don't run multiple GPU configuration now because current VR games sadly do not take advantage of SLI. However it could be supported in the future so I was careful to choose a mobo with at least twin SLI support.
PERFORMANCE/COST Value Ratio
I want sufficiently high quality components without burning cash like an idiot. At the high end, you get diminishing returns at an exponential cost. I could buy faster 4000Ghz DDR4($409) instead of 3200Ghz($130 on sale) but I do plan to overclock a scootch which is probably the optimum performance gain I will see in game. For $60 more on the 4400Ghz, you can get an entire i7-9700! Since my sweet husband is financing this build, I find myself being more budget minded than I usually am. However I did dump a hundo more on the overpriced i9-9900K because.... because reasons. This PC is for making sure I have a high VR quality gaming experience for me and my friends for years to come.
RELIABILITY- Building a custom rig, I am on my own to troubleshoot individual components to send to the manufacturer so I went with brands that appeared to be the most reliable. With next generation components, it's hard to tell what is reliable since reviewers do such short-term performance tests. I had to parse through reviews and reddit threads looking for prevalence of problems.
AESTHETICS- I am not a fan of RGB, gold, or diamond encrusted RAM- way too flashy. However this giant box was going to be a major part of the living room visible from the dining room and kitchen so I had to go with something that I would like looking at while eating breakfast everyday.
CPU i9-9900k vs i7-9700k
Given Intel has stagnated and resorted to pulling hyperthreading out of the i7-9700K(a feature most core i7 had for years) to differentiate the i9-9900k, the i9-9900K touted "the fastest gaming computer in the world" might be the last Intel chip I buy. I'm not ready to go the Ryzen way just yet, AMD gives you overall less options with regards to motherboards and components.
The gaming benchmarks indicate the 9th gen i9-9900k performs only a few whiskers faster(if that) than i7-9700k for $100+ more and probably I would not notice a difference in game. Yes, everybody knows i9-9900k is poor value for money but still i7-9700K is 8 core 8 threads while i9-9900K is 8 core 16 threads and that hyperthreading will totally come in handy with my future ahem video processing plans! (In my mind, this is nothing compared to macbook upcharge.)
DRAM DDR4 3Ghz+
When did choosing DRAM become so complicated? Memory is something I upgraded regularly for 25+ years and I don't remember having to think this hard. I guess there has been never such a good time to be alive with so many RAM options.
- Capacity: 16GB. I've been using 16GB on my alienware all this time without exceeding 12GB. With Amazon Prime next day shipping, no need to pre buy too much memory until you need it since prices will be dropping all 2019.
- Speed: 3200MHz DDR4 is the sweet spot of gaming performance to value at the time of purchase as the Corsair Vengeance LPX was on super sale ($130 from $219).
- Overclocking- probably you couldn't push RAM that hard b/c the vendor would bin it for higher speed category (3333Mhz,3466Mhz)
- Brand: Was going to get whatever top brand was cheapest, most likely a Corsair or G.Skill
- aesthetics: No RGB although I regret my decision. I should have used the RGB to display DRAM temperatures.
I also relied on gaming DRAM benchmarks to figure out the performance to cost ratio.
GPU GTX 1080ti vs RTX 2080ti
Right now, with a CPU throttle, I barely break 70% usage on my 1080ti. Given I don't play and won't play games where real time ray tracing would matter, I don't need to shell out $1400+(with CA tax) more to upgrade for possibly ~30% boost. At that price, I should expect at least 66% improvement, no? (You can read my very detailed post here on the 1080ti selection.
Like many, I was truly underwhelmed with Nvidia's RTX launch- IMHO they focussed on the wrong things and let AMD beat them first to a 7nm GPU. You know Nvidia couldn't sell ray tracing when Jensen Huang kept blathering on about "it just works"- an infamous quote for which Todd Howard is lampooned regularly. DLSS(deep learning super sampling) is even worse and totally useless for most of the games out there- who's gonna pay to have in their game crunched through hyper expensive NVIDIA's DGX SaturnV supercomputing cluster to build a learning model for subpar results. Games I play- heavily modded dynamic games, older titles, and indy games- will never have RTX's DLSS. DLSS is misleading since it's upscaling 1080p for performance gain. Jensen Huang should play Red Dead Redemption 2 on PS4 Pro at 4k just to what performance magic is.
Motherboard Selection Agony
Selecting my mobo was probably my hardest decision of the entire exercise.
My basic requirements:
- form factor- ATX. I briefly fantasized about an eATX going dual socket but came to my senses once I chose the i9-9900k
- chipset: latest z390
- SLI support (2x)
- Reasonably powerful VRM- no doubled up phases like Asus
- integrated WIFI
- at least 2 m.2 slots, as many SATA ports as possible
- RAM- 4 slot dual channel good enough
- integrated graphics support- this wasn't originally on my list as I blithely thought all mobos supported this until I ran into one that didn't.
- PCIe armor, i.e. fortified steel PCIe slots- these here GPUs are heavy and GPU sag on a horizontal mount is a real thing, I'm down by less than centimeter right now.
- price- The thought of spending $500 on a mobo seems wrong some how and I was shooting for midrange ~$250.
- pretty good overclocking performance (it didn't have to be the best given all my other requirements)
Z390 Motherboard Selection: MSI vs Gigabyte vs Asrock
For z390 boards, you pretty much have MSI, Gigabyte, Asrock. Asus had a controversy over the "fake" doubled up phases on their VRM
and since Hardware Unboxed showed it being significantly hotter than the rest of the z390 boards, Asus ROG XI Maximus Hero was not in the running.
I had planned to get one from the much touted Gigabyte Aorus
line but there were so many bad Newegg reviews and a reddit thread complaining of mobo woes. The last thing you want is a temperamental motherboard. Same with ASRock Z390 Taichi Ultimate which had much better specs(3 m.2s) than my MSI selection but had some nasty Newegg reviews. Let's just say at the time of selection, MSI while middle of the pack in terms of performance and features but had the most benign least scary complaints - 15/15 all 5 stars on NewEgg.
MSI has multiple z390 models for each of their MPG and higher end MEG line. I had planned to get an MSI Z390 MEG ACE but in looking at the IO panel, I noticed it had no Integrated Graphics support! What if your GPU dies or won't work with your BIOS without extra configuration.
I ended up with the sensible if not boring MSI z390 Gamer pro Carbon AC
) after going through this exhaustive 20 page review- https://www.guru3d.com/articles-pages/msi-mpg-z390-gaming-pro-carbon-review,1.html
with special attention to the overclocking
page.) Every board has it's strengths and weaknesses but I ultimately chose perceived reliability.
I had 3 decisions forks:
- wattage - Unlike RAM, choosing wattage is somewhat Goldilocks situation where more is not better since you can pay up the wazoo in electricity bills. However I wanted to reserve head room for adding more power hungry components like a second GPU. The Corsair HX1250 watt was on sale for $129 as the 850 watt version and I almost got too greedy until I computed the PG&E bill. There is a sweet spot of peak efficiency and so I wanted to be at 60%. You can compute your wattage on-line with https://outervision.com/power-supply-calculator and mine came to 506 watts with 1 gpu (756 watts for 2gpu) so I went with a 850 watt.
- features - fully modular, over voltage protection, under voltage protection (but these come with most high end PSUs nowadays)
- brand - Kind of a no brainer for me and just went with a trusty Corsair with the 10 year warranty. I could have easily gone with the EVGA Supernova, but my brain had been sandblasted by mobo decision making.
- model - Corsair has multiple lines, CSX/RMX/HX/AX based on efficiency 80 plus certification levels and few features. HX (Gold, fully modular,OVP,UVP) was good enough for me. I didn't see paying $50 extra for a few percentage points gain for the top AX line when I would be only running 50-70% anyway.
Air Cooling vs Liquid Cooling
After much agonizing, I decided to stick with tried and true air cooling cuz a water cooling system will eventually break your heart. Custom loops are not for me- too much maintenance and high high chance of leakage (see all the youtube water cooling proponents/experts JazZ2cents and bitwit crying over unexpected leaks.) Even with the all-in-one AIO units, certain small percentage leak- ample evidence on youtube and reviews. Unfortunately there is no 100% leak proof system, someone somewhere will have water sprayed all of their system through no fault of their own and that's not going to be me. Since I'm am only overclocking moderately for gaming boost, I could not see a worthwhile payoff in liquid cooling besides possibly saving space but my case is a cavern.
In the air cooling space, there is only one undisputed king- the Noctua NH-15. Noctua performs just as well if not better as some AIO Liquid Cooling solutions. It's quieter, and gives you a 6 year warranty. Too good to be true?
Yes, there is one catch, actually 2 (no actually 3). You have carefully curated the LED aesthetics of your case and now you have insert this weird prosthetic flesh colored thing with brown fans- obviously designed by a synth.
There is also a second catch. This thing is huuuge dominating the motherboard but I looked up compatibility charts
and decided that skin colored fan frame would not deter me.
2/1/2019 Update- Due to it's bulky size and design, the fan install was the most painful part of my build. (See Part II
) Yes I could technically fit this fan on the MSI board but it forced me to pull out the power cable in front on the blue cable bar messing up the clean look. But the weird prosthetic double fans already ruined any hope of a pretty case. But all is forgiven since it keeps the CPU cool.
Case: NZXT H700 vs Phantek Evolve X
There is a dizzying selection of tower cases all with their nifty design innovations balancing airflow and sound. Here's what I thought I was looking for in order of importance although I'm not going to lie. Phantek Evolve X is the superior case but it just didn't come in a snappy blue like the NZXT...
- Size - Mid-tower because I'd have to get rid of the wood stove to make space for a full tower. For those using laptops, a mid-tower is a cavern. You could probably raise 4 rabbits in it.
- Modularity and Accessibility
- easy side panel, top panel, PSU access
- Cooling - It didn't have to be the absolute coolest, just balanced and not a known heat trap.
- Cable Management
- Not too zany with 1 glass side panel
After working with the NZXT H700 Case, I'm moderately satisfied. I'd buy it again because well, the color of sea and sky, what's there not to love. The blue highlight matches so well my personality since I just don't like boring sleek grey(anthracite grey...)/black/silver tones so prevalent in all gadgetry now aways. Sadly the iconic blue cable bar is bent just too high so the motherboard 24pin cable bends very awkward underneath.
Component Vendor: Amazon vs Newegg
The only reason I went with Amazon is that due to Prime, I ordered everything on Saturday and had it shipped by Monday noon. I booted up my new machine by 5pm Monday. Take that Digital Storm.
Weirdly, I put everything into Newegg since it appeared they had cheaper prices than Amazon. Amazon must do some tracking because when I kept going back and forth, Amazon's price had normalized to be identical to Newegg prices in my cart. However be aware that while Newegg has a price match guarantee, Amazon does NOT.
How Much Money Did I Save DIY?
I had planned to buy a build from OriginPC or Digital Storm but still use my original GTX 1080ti. OriginPC appears not to let you purchase a system without a GPU at least on-line but Digital Storm does. Plus DS is out of Fremont so I could go pick it up reducing any shipping mishaps. I had spec'ed out their $2700+ Velox when I noticed that they had a crazy long processing date "Ship Within 20-25 Business Days ". A month or more!!! Yelp reviews confirmed such long dates and worse if you tried to cancel the order, they would charge you a 5% fee even though they hadn't started building. Combined with unacceptable wait times and an exorbitant integrator's upcharge ($2500 for a desktop without a GPU!), I realized I could easily build my own exactly how I want it for much much cheaper.
From Digital Storm, Velox $2,512.00
Chassis Model: Digital Storm Velox
Processor: Intel Core i9-9900K
Motherboard: MSI MPG Z390 GAMING PRO CARBON AC
System Memory: 16GB DDR4 3000MHz Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro (RGB Light Bar)
Power Supply: 850W Corsair RM850x (Fully Modular)
Storage Set 1: 1x SSD M.2 (512GB Samsung 970 PRO)
Storage Set 2: 1x Storage (2TB Seagate / Toshiba)
Extreme Cooling: H20: Stage 2: Corsair H100i PRO - 240mm Liquid CPU Cooler
The Amazon purchase came under $1700 with better components (faster ram, better PSU) but I need to do a full spreadsheet analysis but nobody's got the time right now. Benchmarks to run. Tuning and overclocking to get on.