Monday, June 20, 2016

Building A New Computer: Selecting a Motherboard and Memory

In the past I have selected the memory for the system next. But since the Intel Sixth Generation Core CPUs support two different specifications of memory the final selection between the two is made by the motherboard. Then once you get to the motherboard the speed of the memory supported will be different depending on the motherboard.

In the CPU post I settled on the Intel 6700k CPU but then Intel announced their 14nm Broadwell-E CPUs the option for 4-way memory interleave became something to consider so I will revisit the CPU selection slightly.

When selecting a motherboard you really need to decide what you will be using the computer for. I tend to lump home computer uses into the following four groups:

  1. Light Use - Web browsing, Youtube, Netflix/Amazon, light gaming, text editing
  2. Performance Use - Everything in 1 but with a fair amount of text or spreadsheet use and moderate home video editing
  3. Moderate Heavy Gaming - Everything in 2 with playing games with heavy graphics. Also lots of home video editing and some special effects creation
  4. 3D and Video Production - Everything in 3 with light 3D animation rendering
As you move up from type 1 to 4 the performance, graphics and disk support demands increase.

People who are interested in a type 1 system are best off going to purchase an inexpensive system since they will probably spend more doing a custom build. Type 2 and 3 systems can also be purchased pre-built and going pre-built or building your own really depends on your interest on having a system that reflects who you are. Type 4 are always custom built but there are companies that do custom builds of these systems for small businesses and personal use.

Since this is about those with an interest in custom builds I will focus on types 2, 3, and 4. I will also assume that most who will be reading this are fairly new to custom builds. So those of you who have done custom builds please understand when I go over things that you feel is basic knowledge.

Type 2 - Performance Use

This starts out as being for the people that use their computer fairly regularly to support their hobby, support a club, do moderate work at home with this computer, play games that are not RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations. These people will be happy with a decent CPU and a reasonable amount of memory and using the graphics built into the motherboard/CPU combination. A Motherboard with a PCIe 3.0x16 slot will allow you to be happy playing RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations with an added Graphics card. Another characteristic of this type of system owner is one that does not want to make adjustments to the system after it is built and wants it to run for a long time.

Type 3 - Moderate Heavy Gaming

These are the systems for 99% of heavy gamers. Very few games are able to use more than 4 cores. Most are also not limited by memory but are limited by graphics card so more than 16Gb of memory or 4-way instead of 2-way memory gains them very little. This also includes 3D games and playing on Ultra 4k monitors. Both of these are limited by the graphics card than they are on memory access or number of cores. Generally in these systems gain more by a faster CPU speed than more cores. Something to consider is that the more cores in the CPU the lower the clock speed that can be supported. So more cores may actually slow things down. These systems are also more than capable of decent work when editing home video for friends and family.

Type 4 - 3D and Video Editing

First off I will point out that there are a very few games that can use six or more cores or access memory enough that 4-way interleave provides and actual improvement in game performance. Most people that build gaming systems with more than 4 cores or with 4-way interleave are getting more out of bragging about their game system than actual performance gains.

Where more than four cores and 4-way interleave provides significant performance gains is when you are multitasking or memory intensive work. Since for most serious gamers the only thing running when they play the game is the game, multitasking is not a consideration for them. If you have your web browser open to several pages, along with a document editor, a spreadsheet and something like PowerPoint, then you are multitasking and having all of this be very responsive to you a Type 4 system may be what you need. This is also a system that will excel at compressing files into archives, transcoding video from one format to another and photo-realistic 3D rendering and animation. It would also be an excellent system for software development and running virtual machines on.

Choosing the right motherboard for your type

Personally my computer use falls into type 4 but I build type 3 systems due to the cost. But I will talk about how to select a motherboard for type 2 and up.

The first thing to understand about motherboards today is that all are based off of support chips made by the CPU manufacturer. So boards will all have a similar performance in benchmarks. The differences between boards are mostly in the configuration of peripherals and features of the motherboards. Some will also hate me for saying this, but in most situations there is also no real quality differences between Asus, MSI, Supermicro and so forth. I know that people, myself included, have a preferred board manufacturer. So if you do then everything I will talk about are things to look for in a board by that manufacturer. If you do not have a preference, there is no need to absolutely buy the board that I would. If I recommend an Asus and you find one from MSI that you conclude meets your needs and costs less than the Asus, then buy the MSI board. I seriously doubt that you will be disappointed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that reviews, Certified Parts Lists and manufacturers' web pages go out of date. Also the parts lists are based on what has been provided to be tested with and has been tested. You may find that a memory manufacturer has tested components with certain motherboards and have the combination on their list but a motherboard manufacturer does not list the same combination. This does not mean that either is wrong. This happens because the lists are tested and maintained independently. The only list that is every maintained as 100% accurate is the motherboard manufacturer's compatible CPU list. Today the motherboard bios asks the CPU what type it is and configures things based on that information. If the CPU is not in that list there is a good chance that it will not work. For everything else you can use the component makers websites and forums. The reason is that very often the web sites reflect that the product is rushed out. So for example the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 motherboard lists only support for 2133 and 2400 speed memory. A query on the G.Skill forum has G.Skill confirming that their 3000 speed memory works fine. Now does this mean that you can risk 3600 speed memory. Not really. DDR4 memory is extremely sensitive to trace lengths and this really manifests itself the more you overclock it past 2133. Since the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 is designed for ruggedness and longevity they may not have focused on memory overclocking and instead laid things out to support better cooling or the attachment of the motherboard reinforcement. There is a silver lining though. A 3600 speed memory will work fine at 2133 or 2400 speed all that would have happened is that you spent too much for that memory.

While I said that there is very little difference between motherboard manufacturers, I will only look at Asus. The reason for this is that one of the assumptions that I have been making is that there will be some attempt to overclock the CPU. For a long time the Asus motherboards have had the reputation as being the easiest to overclock. Other boards may overclock faster but the Asus are the easiest and reviews of the Intel Z-170 chipset motherboards indicate that this is still true. For that reason I will restrict my investigation to the Asus product line. So onto motherboards for each of the three types.

A quick comment on DDR4 Memory

The standard speed for DDR4 memory is 2133. No matter what the published speed for the memory is this is the speed that you will get without turning on XMP or manually adjusting the memory speed. XMP is a mechanism to store on the memory card information on how to overclock the memory in a way that is supported by the memory manufacturer. XMP is capable of storing more than one configuration. So if you purchase 3000 speed DDR4 the memory will run at 2133 and has the information on how to overclock at 3000 as tested by the manufacturer.

With the benchmarks that test for extreme performance the faster the memory the better the score. However, when you use practical gaming or home computer benchmarks 2666 to 3000 speed is the sweet spot for price and performance. So for all but a Type 4 use there is very little to be gained by paying a premium for the motherboard or memory to get higher speeds.

The best choice for Home Performance

For a Type 2 build the emphasis is on cost and durability. I know how disappointed I was when I had a motherboard give out after a little over a year and I needed to get a replacement. Fortunately I was able to get the same exact motherboard as a replacement and everything worked when I moved it to the new motherboard. But you also want a motherboard with plenty of performance. 

The Asus H110M boards are worth considering but they do not include support for M.2 M-keyed SSDs. This gives up a certain amount of performance since SATA SSDs will only operate at 1/5th the speed of a good M.2 drive. If you do not plan on using a SSD this is a great board though. The Asus H110M-K sells for around $60 and would allow you to attach four SATA drives so you could have an optical disk drive and three hard disks. These also only support two memory modules, but two 8Gb modules will give you 16Gb of RAM which would cover pretty much all uses without needing to swap heavily to disk. DDR4 memory at a speed of 2666 is supported with 16Gb so that is good.

If you want to run SSDs and have the best performance then it is worth looking at the Asus Z170-E motherboard. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 the M.2 SSD in PCIe mode and eight SATA drives. Check the prices for qualified memory you may get a better price with 3000 speed DDR4. At $106 this is a nice mid-range board to build this type of system around.

In this category you want to look at the Asus Sabertooth Z170 Mark I for the gold standard system. It has plenty of 16Gb DDR4 configurations that are supported up to 3400 speed along with support for M.2 SSDs. At $190 it is a little pricey, but it comes with a 5 year warranty so Asus not only built it to last but also stands behind it. It also has a built in cooling system to keep motherboard components and the M.2 drive cool. This is important when it comes to the M.2 drive since if they get too hot they tend to slow down to keep the drive operating within the design specifications. I recommend also using dust covers with all unused slots on the motherboard and IO panel. This motherboard includes a full set of dust covers. So while you are paying a premium, this is a motherboard that is well worth the money if you want a system that will run for years.

The Best Choice for a Gaming System

This is a situation where I would look for motherboards that are in a company's gaming line. In general these motherboards are the most stable for extreme overclocking of the CPU and memory. They also often have Network interfaces that offload as much of the work from the CPU as possible and often options for up to four graphics cards working together.

As an entry level system the Asus Z170 Pro Gaming is a good choice. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 memory and an M.2 SSD in PCIE mode. Overclocking with stability on this board is nearly as good as with Asus' more expensive Republic of Gamers line of boards. With a price of $155 it is a nice system.

The Asus Republic of Gamers line of boards is their premium line of gaming computers. They have both 2-way and 4-way boards in the product line. As I stated earlier most games will not take advantage of the additional cores and are not restricted enough by memory to justify the cost of 4-way memory. So I will look at the LGA1151 boards only for a game system.

As a mid-level gaming system the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Hero is a good system at $200. It has 16Gb of memory supported up to a 3733 speed, 32Gb of memory up to a 3600 speed and 64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. So if you get a good deal on fast DDR4 memory it is nice to know that the system will work stably at higher speeds. The larger memory configurations are worth considering since the Asus ROG boards include a utility to create and automatically load up a ramdisk with your game files. After loading them into the ramdisk this will be even faster than the M.2 SSD.

The gold standard motherboard would be the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly. This $610 board has nearly everything you could want. It supports 16Gb of memory up to a 3866 speed and 32Gb/64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. Just like with the Hero board the extra memory would be for a ramdisk for the game. This board also includes a 10000Base-T network card to upgrade the 1000Base-T that is standard on all of the boards that I have been talking about. It also includes a USB based DAC module for headphones and a corresponding ADC for the mic for the best sounding gaming audio. Other differences include both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built into the motherboard. You certainly are getting your money's worth with this motherboard, but the question is will you actually use the additional items?

3D and Video Editing System

This certainly is the system that has the best bragging rights. But I am not really going to recommend a system. Right now the only offering for consumer boards use the Intel X99 chipset. 

Intel has announced that they plan to deliver a replacement for the X99 chipset to be used with the new processors at the end of this year. I am going to wait till then to look at what offerings come out them.

If you really want to build a system like this, take a look at the Asus X99-A/USB 3.1 and the Asus ROG Strix X99 Gaming boards. Both support 64Gb of memory up to 3400 speed and 128Gb up to 3333. The chipset does not seem to support any memory speed faster than 3400.

I will say that using an intel i7-6850K in one of these boards is a nice sweet spot for 3D rendering that supports using the Graphics card for accelerated rendering since you can use three GPUs at nearly full x16 mode on all of the cards. My fantasy system would be one of the ROG Strix X99 Gaming board with three Nvidia GTX-1080 video cards.

Memory

I would suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory. These companies have long supported the performance enthusiast. Both appear near the top of every board manufacturers certified memory lists and both have active forums where system builders discuss that they have and have not been able to get to work with the various motherboards.

Both of these manufacturers also offer different styles and colors of heat spreaders on their memory so that they can fit into a color scheme for your build if you have one. Both manufacturers also offer fans for your memory to cool them and often have kits that include the fans.

Conclusion: Look primarily for motherboards based on the Intel Z170 chipset. Since the performance for most of the features on the motherboard are in the chipset that the board is based on boards with the same chipset will primarily differ in features not performance. Read up about each type of system use and in each you will find a low, mid and high end recommendation.

For memory I suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory and look to the motherboard manufacturer's qualification and the memory manufacturer's forums on what will work at what speed on the motherboards.

Next in the series: Disk Storage Options

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Building a New Computer: Appendix A - Audio

I have to admit to being guilty of giving in to the Audiophile Placebo effect. What makes me feel bad about this was that in the 1970's the audio industry decided to make the less expensive analog VU meters sound better than the digital versions started calling them by the name of one of the three people who designed it. Which one that was used varied but all made them sound better than the digital version. In reality they were the same inexpensive meters that the more accurate digital meters were replacing.

When I was looking at Motherboards initially the audio circuits were not something that I was using in the evaluation. However, if two boards were comparably priced I often selected the one where the audio description made it sound better. This is where I was falling victim of the Audiophile Placebo effect. If the advertising made it sound like it had better sound, I would hear better sound even if it was not there.

For the same digital sound file there are a few factors that determine how well the computer will do: DAC bits, DAC frequency, interference and the output electrical resistance. Since all on board sound systems use only a few different audio chip sets the first two elements will not be a problem since the bits and frequency associated with the DAC's in these chips far exceed the range of sound that humans can hear.

This leaves us with interference and output electrical resistance.

Interference if present can be readily heard. While the potential for interference is strong inside a computer case, the chance that it can be heard is low. The greatest chance for hearing interference is when using the front panel jacks. Depending on how you run the cable from the motherboard and how other parts are oriented it may pickup and inject noise into what you are hearing. If you suffer from this the best solution is to use the connections on the back of the computer.

This leaves the output electrical resistance. This is harder to quantify since the resistance rating of the headphones that you are using will define how much of the low frequency range you loose. A large number of sites that measure and review this has indicated that low end and high end computer systems generally have the same resistance for motherboard and sound card audio. Any difference is measurable with sensitive equipment but is generally not perceptible by people.

Ok so what differences are real?

Headsets and Speakers

Let's start with headsets of the two.

The quality of the headsets have more of an impact on the quality of what you hear more than your computer sound system. A reasonable guide is the more expensive the better. That is up to a point and with a few exceptions.

I have been told by Audiophiles that headphones that cost more than $500 cost far more than the added benefits. Personally I have never used ones that cost more $100 and rarely spend anything close to that much. So this is the first caveat about the more expensive the better. Try headphones and when you can not tell the difference between them and the less expensive ones, then they are too expensive for you. Over the year we have all done things to damage our hearing and as we get older our hearing changes. So while someone else may be able to tell a difference between a $100 headphone and a $500 one, if you can not then save your money.

Another example of where spending more does not mean better are the quadraphonic or even the 7.1 headphones. In a room where you can set up lots of speakers in the location guided by the channel that they are tied to then the additional speakers make sense. In headphones they add cost and not any better sound. Your computer can properly merge all eight channels of 7.1 sound into stereo. When using headphones all of the sound is right there at your ears just like from the real world when it comes together. The additional speakers in the headset are simply doing the mixing that your computer can do for a much lower cost.

Another situation is wireless. A $70 wireless headset does not have the same sound as a $70 headset. The wireless system adds a cost. Also there is a big difference in the quality of the sound sent to the headset between infrared and blue-tooth types of wireless headsets. My recommendation is to try them out and compare them to wired headsets and use the same guidance that if you can not tell the difference between them and a less expensive version then it probably costs too much.

Now on to speakers.

Unless you simply do not want to wear a headphone, using speakers will give you lower quality sound. To actually get as good of sound as you can get with headphones you will need to have a theater setup with properly located speakers and use the digital optical connection from your computer to the amplifier.

Connecting four sets of speakers to the ports on the back of the computer generally will give you a lower quality sound than you would get with headphones.

However, a decent desktop speaker will be better than the speakers in your monitor.

USB Sound

This is one of two situations where using something other than your built in sound card can result in better sound.

Generally external digital converter boxes have lower impenitence and as such do not lose base like the sound cards and sound on motherboards. So they reproduce a broader range of sound. Digital data is also much more resistant to the electronic noise inside a computer case.

If you want better sound getting a USB driven DAC is an option to consider. Personally I would only look at investing in this if you can actually hear noise.

One interesting thing about this is that the premium Asus ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly includes a SupremeFX Hi-Fi Audio module. This is a USB driven external DAC that is also shielded so that it can be mounted in an empty external drive bay if you so choose.

I have also not found any USB driven sound system that do not include speakers, like the Jensen SMPS-200A that I have, a headphone-microphone jack pair or are built into a headphone/mic unit. They are not designed to support 7.1 audio.

Optical Sound

Most motherboard and add-in sound cards come with TosLink optical or Coax-Digital ports. These bypass the sound chips and like USB send the raw digital sound signal out to a device for interpretation.

If you really want the best sound from speakers then using one of these ports to connect to a surround sound amplifier and speaker set is the way to go.

HDMI Sound

If you are using HDMI to connect to a monitor or 1080P TV set you may have the option to use HDMI sound. Today most high end graphics cards that have a HDMI port have the ability to send the digital sound information to the monitor/TV.

One problem with this will be the quality of the speakers in the monitor/TV. They certainly will not be as good as an expensive set of speakers and since they are two speakers, in front of you it will be harder to get a proper surround effect like you can get with headphones.

I mention themsince they are an option.

Conclusion

Since the primary use of the computer being discussed is for gaming my advise is to invest in a good quality headset and mic combo. You can try connecting it to a front panel set of jacks. If you here interference then plug it into the back of the computer.

Investing in a separate sound card will not improve your sound. If you are not satisfied with the sound you get out of the back of the computer then investing in a good USB DAC or connecting it to a surround sound system are ways to actually improve the sound. However, most gamers who do a blind test generally do not have problems with the sound cards that are integrated into motherboards.

If you are looking for a quick sound setup and do not plan on using a mic. Using HDMI to connect to your display and the speakers built into it is one option.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Building A New Computer: Selecting the CPU

Selecting a CPU can be a very emotional decision. I know people that swear by AMD processors and those that swear by Intel. At one point there was a clear advantage to AMD in the pre-Pentium days when the AMD x86 chips could perform many operations in fewer clock cycles than the original Intel chips. Since then the line has become very blurred. Each new generation of chip is faster and the chipset to support each new generation offers more and more for the board manufacturer.

Both AMD with their Black product line and Intel with their K stock numbers have surrendered to the overclockers since both of these have the overclocking inhibitors disabled and are marketed specifically to the hobbyist overclocking community. So no differentiation there.

Right now there is a year between when Intel releases their new generation of CPU and when AMD also does so and we are in the time between when Intel has released and before AMD will release. Generally for computer building hobbyists this has been an uninteresting time. For the last several releases Intel released chips for laptop use with each new generation and then for desktop use about the same time that AMD was releasing theirs.

This time Intel decided to shake things up. First they announced that with the sixth generation core chips that they would move from a two year development cycle to a three year cycle. If you want to know more about this you should be able to find many articles on this using your favorite search engine. The reason for the change though does not have any impact on my CPU decision. Second Intel announced that they would be shipping desktop CPUs first and that the laptop versions would come later. This is a big impact though since there will be nearly a year before AMD's chips become available for the computer hobbyist.

So if you want the latest and greatest the only choice today is the Intel CPU. Fortunately there are other reasons to go with Intel instead of waiting.

The product development name for the sixth generation core CPUs from Intel is Skylake. The Skylake CPUs use less power than the early marketing materials claim for the next generation from AMD. For example the third generation i5-3470 that I am using is rated at 77w normal power consumption. The sixth generation i7-6700 is rated at 65w for the more powerful processor that is 0.2 GHz faster.

Power has a direct relation to heat and heat impacts overclocking and chip life. The Skylake CPUs even use less power than previous generations of Intel's core line of CPUs. Also since Intel has deliberately kept the mounting specifications for the LGA-115x line of CPU sockets the same. So existing cooling solutions will continue to work and will have an easier time keeping the CPUs cool than they have in the past.

So the question now is i3, i5 or i7 and which model withing those lines.

the i3, i5 and i7 denote how many parallel cores and how many threads each core can process independently. i3 has the fewest and i7 the most. Since the plan is to overclock there is no need to look at anything but the 'K' models. This limits the decision to i5-6600K and i7-6700K. Currently there is a $105 average difference in the price between the two.

For my use the decision has to be the i7-6700K. Last night I did a test render of a single frame for a potential 3D animation project. It took 15 minutes with the third generation i5 processor. Simply moving to a third generation i7 would have cut this down to 10 minutes given benchmarks that I have seen. Intel advertises that the sixth generation CPUs are 2.5x the processors of five years ago. I prefer the more conservative estimate of 40-50% faster. So that test render would have taken 6-7 minutes. In practical terms this would mean that a minute of animation would take 6-7 hours instead of 15 hours. This is very important to me.

For gamers most of the difference between the i5 and i7 can not be measured. For those that play certain extreme games there is a big difference. Take that into consideration when you choose.

Conclusion: Use the Intel i7-6700K. If you want to save money you can use the i5-6600K and still benefit from the rest of this series.

Next in the series: Selecting a Motherboard and Memory

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Building A New Computer: Choosing the Case

As I had said in the overview I like to start with the case. To be honest after making the decision to move from simple overclocking to extreme overclocking it is easier to start thinking about the case.

Case Requirements

My current case is an Antec Titan 550 from 2005. At the time the fact that this had the largest power supply shipped with cases and room for 10 drives were the driving factors for me at the time. I wanted to have room for over 1 Tb of storage and possibly have it in a Raid 5 configuration. I also wanted a case that would last and Antec had a good reputation for durable cases.

Today only the case durability is important to me of these factors. Cases generally do not come with power supplies and while the TruePower 550w was a power supply that I would have purchased at the time, the cases that do still come with a power supply have power supplies that I would not use. They are either too small for the type of system that I want to build or have questionable quality. The 10 drive bays was nice at the time. For $1500 I could do a 1.5 Tb system in a 6 drive RAID 5 configuration. Today I can do a 6 Tb RAID 1 storage solution for less than $600. So to have lots of storage no longer requires a large full tower case.

So this leaves durability as the only remaining factor and it is still important to me. I still want to use this case to build several computers in the future just like I did with my old Titan case. But what of the other requirements that I have now.

  • Durability - I want to be comfortable that I will get 10+ years of use out of the case
  • Cooling - The case must have not only good airflow but room for not only a large CPU air cooler but also for a 240 mm or larger water cooling system.
  • Weight - I plan to move the computer semi-regularly and I would like the empty case to weigh less than the 13.5 Kg that the current case weighs.
  • Full ATX Motherboard - I still want the flexibility of all the potential features that can be placed on this size board. These cases can handle the smaller size motherboards but I want the flexibility.
  • USB 3.0 and gaming headphone jacks on the front panel - Given that there is a short in the gaming headphone cable in the current case I have my doubts about this as a requirement still, but it is convenient. The USB is very helpful when using USB memory sticks or plugging in the tablet that I use to read eBooks to transfer new books to it.
  • 1 or more external 5.25" drive bay(s) - I will continue to need to write DVDs and Blue-ray disks. If I was building a completely new system I would probably use an external drive. But I have a perfectly good drive so I want to be able to continue to use it. Also there are still some very useful accessories being made that make use of 5.25" drive bays so I wanted to keep the options open.
  • Side Window - I want this case to look good and this is part of the aesthetics that I find appealing.
  • Look Good - The Titan case looked good for a full tower case back then. Today though it is a little clunky looking and I would like something that looks a little more futuristic. Looking good also requires that the case have room to hide the cables.
I did not mention price, but that is a factor for what I would actually buy. However, since I will also be fantasizing about a sky's the limit system I will be looking for what I consider the best case regardless of the cost.

While I was looking at cases I noticed that handles have started to come into fashion for computer cases. So while a case with handles is not a must have requirement it is a feature that I find preferential.

The Search

Since I no longer need the space of a Full Tower and want a lighter case I can look at smaller cases. But since I still want something that can handle a full ATX motherboards this rules out the mini-tower and smaller cases. With this my search was narrowed down to mid-tower cases.

The first thing that I noticed was that there are far more quality case manufacturers today than there were when I last looked. This was good since many were somewhat boxy or used a considerable amount of plastic so they were not as durable as I wanted.

When looking for mid-tower cases you will find them listed under both mid-tower and gaming cases. I found that gaming cases can include some mini-tower cases but are mostly mid-towers and generally are designed to look better and to allow for better cooling options and airflow. I of course learned this after going through nearly all the mid-tower listings. So this piece of advice will help you in your search.

So here are some of my observations.

In Win

They make some of the prettiest cases that I have seen. Their H-Frame 2.0, S-Frame and H-Tower cases are a beautiful blending of glass and metal. The H-Tower is also motorized which opens up under the command of a smart phone app and tilts the motherboard tray after it is exposed so that you can see it. To me the only failing in these cases was the weight and the lack of 5.25" bay.

Their GT1 and Mana 136 cases are nice to look at but did not have the cooling options that I wanted.

Conclusion: A very good case manufacturer but did not have exactly what I was looking for. You may find exactly what you want in a case.

Corsair

They expanded their product line years ago and is one of the most respected case manufacturers.

I immediately fell in love with their Graphite 780T cases. They are good to look at and have great cooling options. However, since it is a full tower it weighs a little more than I like. But as a second choice then it is a good solution.

The Carbide 500R case is nearly a perfect match to what I want. The side panel is mesh instead of a window. The good thing is that the Obsidian 450D does have a window and matches everything on the list. The looks are a little questionable but since that is subjective it is a great case.

The Carbide Spec-Alpha is a very futuristic case but it is lacking a 5.25" bay.

The Graphite 230T is another option but is limited to 140 mm liquid cooling.

The Corsair Vengeance series is designed to look like utilitarian military equipment. They even sell one in olive drab green.

Conclusion: Definitely a case manufacturer worth looking at. They had six cases that are great solutions. The Vengeance series meets all of the needs and has handles too.

Thermaltake

I was familiar with their cooling solutions and like Corsair they broadened then offerings to be a more stable company.

Their line of Thermaltake Versa computer cases is both functional and good looking. I really liked the N21 case. Most of the Versa cases have their looks improved by having a door to cover the external drives. They also have legs that keep them above the carpet far enough that the bottom mount power supply can get plenty of air. The only question that I have is that they are based around 120 mm fans and may be a narrower case that makes cable management a little harder.

Conclusion: Another case manufacturer that is worth looking at. Their entire Versa line looks like a winner with enough style, window and color options that anyone should be able to find a case that they love.

Deep Cool

This was a case manufacturer that I had not heard much about. As I started looking I discovered that this was mostly because I was not looking for cases in the last ten years. If you are looking for a very exotic case the Deep Cool Tristellar is really hot. But since it is limited to mini-ITX motherboards it is out of the running. But if I was planning a mini-ITX build it would be my case of choice.

Their Kendomen case is a great case for flexibility and it has good looks. The Genome case though is definitely worth considering. It comes with an integrated 360 mm liquid cooling system for the CPU. The system also includes an extended liquid reservoir that is integrated into the front of the case in a double helix design. The Genome case has another good feature that I like. It has a cover over the bottom of the main compartment to hide the area behind the power supply to make the case look better. To me the only drawbacks to this case is the lack of a 5.25" bay and the short feet.

Conclusion: A very good manufacturer with some great offerings. Definitely worth looking at when you buy a new computer case.

Fractal Design

This is one of the most innovative companies when it come to functional case designs. Their Define R5 case had all of the required features that I was looking for. While it is a square design the full front door really makes up for this with an added style.

Conclusion: Nearly every case offered by this company is great. They even have one that is designed for use with custom water cooling with little to no case modification needed. For the needs that I specified their Define R5 Windowed case matches every must have requirement on my list.

DIY PC

This is the first of what I would consider a manufacturer of all consumer class cases. While the other manufacturers have both consumer and hobbyist cases this was the first that did not have anything in the more expensive hobbyist category. They had many nice cases that really looked good but none that were suitable for anything other than a stock build.

Conclusion: If you are wanting to build a stock system these are great cases with enough different looks that anyone should be able to find one that they like.

Rosewill

This is a company that focuses their business on the lower end consumer market just like DIY PC. I do have some experience with them since I purchased Rosewill fans and other parts to replace items that had worn out in my Titan case.

Having said that I only expected them to offer consumer cases I discovered that they did expand their product line into the hobbyist area by enabling external radiator mounting in some of their consumer cases and offering hobbyist cases with room for internal AIO water cooling. Their Gungnir, B-2 Spirit and Nighthawk 117 cases all three support 280 mm AIO water cooling. To me the only problem with the B-2 Spirit and Nighthawk 117 cases are that they are full tower. The Gungnir is a mid-tower and also has the nice feature of a smaller window and lower compartment cover to make it easy to have the main compartment look neat and clean.

Conclusion: I expected this to be another DIY PC with no offerings that meet the needs that I set out. I was surprised though in that their new offerings include a good looking case that also allowed installing two 280 mm AIO cooling systems. This would allow for one to cool the CPU and one to cool the GPU, which would be a nice option. The Gungnir case is clearly one that is worth considering.

Phanteks

This is an interesting company. They are clearly offering hobbyist cases but their market is not the to the extreme gamers. Their market is for those that want very quiet cases. So they use sound absorbing materials and baffles to allow for good airflow with little noise escaping the case. Other companies offer quiet cases like these but they also have offerings for the extreme gamer. Phanteks though has gone in a different direction. They are the one of the few manufacturers that I found that offers cases where you can build two complete and independent computers in them. I certainly would come back to them if I wanted to build a dual server system.

Conclusion: A great company that has great offerings for very specific markets. But for extreme gaming they have no offerings.

Raidmax

This company makes what I feel are the best looking cases in the industry. Their Viper, Vortex and Horus are very stylish. Most of their cases though only offer support for air cooling or 120 mm water cooling. These cases fall short of what I am looking for. However, their Viper GX and Viper GX II both are great looking and have support for 240 mm AIO liquid cooling. They also include dust plugs for any unused front panel IO ports. This is a feature that I really like.

Conclusion: The Viper GX and Viper GX II meet all of the needs and are worth considering. If a large AIO water cooler is not part of your plans, they have many other cases worth looking at.

Antec

So lets look at the company that made the Titan case that has served me well over the years.

Well they still make great cases. But only two really support internal 240 mm radiators. One is the super massive Nineteen Hundred case that has great looks but is actually designed to be used with motherboards that are larger than full ATX motherboards. It is also designed for use with duel power supplies. It certainly looks good and will do everything, but it is a big heavy case. Bigger and heavier than the Titan that I am replacing. The other case is the GX1000. But it is not very stylish.

It does look like from their web site that they are possibly in the process of getting ready to release new cases.

Conclusion: While still a maker of quality cases they are a little behind the times and may be in the process of revamping their offerings. This is a company work watching.

NZXT

This was another company that I had not heard of before but took a look at since they kept popping up every time I was researching something case related.

I really like their case styles. The problem for me is that the only case that supports both 240 mm AIO cooling and 5.25" drive bays is a full tower case. This means that it is heavier than I want. They do offer a number of mid-tower cases with the cooling option but no 5.25" bays. Since they are trying to be a cost effective line, they would have to either compromise on their good looks or use a door and thus increase costs. Given that less and less software actually need an optical disk to install and the low cost of external USB DVD-ROM drives I can understand why many companies are going down this path.

Conclusion: While making a wide variety of good cases, none met the requirements that I set out. However, if you are willing to use an external ODD, one of their cases may be what you are after.

AZZA

Founded in 2004 as a case manufacturer this is another name brand that I was not aware of. It seems that the focus of their current product line is either full towers or mini-ITX motherboard cases. They have some interesting products including a briefcase size mini-ITX case with build in handle and cases designed to build two systems in.

Unlike Phanteks they do have three mid towers that supports 5.25" drive bays and 240 mm and larger AIO water coolers. The only negative thing that I found about their mid-tower cases is that they do not support USB 3.0 on the front panel. To be fair though they do have enough external drive bays that you can easily add a USB 3.0 port module to one of them.

Conclusion: A very good case manufacturer that has offerings that are worth looking at. The only drawback that I could find was that they have not yet upgraded to USB 3.0 on the front panel considering how long boards have had USB 3.0 headers for this purpose.

Cooler Master

This was a pleasant find. I was aware of their products including their computer cases. Their current product line has five suitable mid-tower cases that meet all of the requirements that have been set forth. Four of them even have handles.

The five cases are the CM 690 III, Cosmos SE, Master Case 5, Master Case Pro 5 and Master Case Maker 5. The three versions of the Master Case 5 have the best flexibility of all the cases that they make. Also of the cases these are the ones that I like the looks of the best.

Conclusion: Another manufacturer that meets all of the requirements that I have placed for a case. Like Corsair they also offer cases with handles that meet all of the requirements.

Recommendation

There are several cases that match the very strict requirements that I laid out. I feel that supporting full ATX motherboards and at least room for a 240 mm AIO liquid cooling system or a 160 mm air cooler for the CPU is the very minimum for the case to be useful for the rest of this series. There are several cases from these vendors that match this much smaller set of requirements.

I will have two cases that I recommend but take that with a grain of salt. There are most likely other cases that you will like better or have a lower price while still meeting the needs for the series.

Having said that here are my recommendations.

Case that I am likely to use

The case that I am likely to use is the Cooler Master Master Case Pro 5 and here is why.

First, I really like the looks of the case. The gunmetal gray and silver color scheme is very neutral and will go with any motherboard and lighting scheme that you choose. The angular top and front panels keep it from looking boxy. The interior is split into main and power supply compartments. The power supply compartment can be totally hidden from the window which allows for the case interior to look even better since the cables and two 3.5" disk drives can be hidden there.

Second, the case is very modular and Cooler Master has started to and is planning on releasing more customization options for this case. Currently the Pro 5 comes with a few items that I currently do not feel that I will use, like the 3x3.5" disk drive cage. But I have the option to add one more if I really feel that I need six more drives in the system. I can add independent of these 3.5" drive bays, which can also hold 2.5" drives, up to two more 2.5" drive holders. I can also replace the windowed side panel with either a full acrylic or full tempered glass panel. They are also taking pre-orders on custom colored top, front and lower compartment covers.

Third, it has tall legs. These complement the handles on the top of the case and in doing so are taller than most other computer case legs. This extra height insures that there will be plenty of clearance between a carpet and the air inlet for the power supply fan. This helps to insure that the power supply will run as cool as possible.

Fourth, it has handles. Over the years one of the most frustrating aspects of moving around my current case has been that there is no place to grab hold. This case has metal handles that are firmly connected to the case. Unlike all cases other than the Master Case Master 5, these handles are hidden by the top cover. The cover though does not interfere with using these handles. The fact that the handles are there but not seen is something that I really like.

Fifth, cooling. In the planned configuration with the 5.25" drive bays being retained, I can use 5 fans. I have the option to mount two 240 mm AIO liquid coolers at the same time. If I do not plan on using liquid cooling it has 190 mm of room for an air cooler in the case.

Sixth, the large window. As I said at the start, I really want a case with a window to show off the inside. This does raise some problems since you really want to keep the inside looking neat once you add the window. The case is designed to run cables not only behind the motherboard tray but also in a dedicated cable guide. The interior is split into a main compartment and a lower compartment. The side includes a panel covering the lower part of the window so that when the side window is in place the lower compartment is hidden. This allows me to hide the power supply, the cables coming out of the power supply and a 2x3.5" drive cage. My intention is to use that drive cage for one standard 3.5" HDD. This means that I can remove the drive cage from the main compartment and maximize airflow in the main chamber.

The Ultimate Build Case

Surprisingly it is not the over $1000 case from In Win. That case is need and nifty but it does not appeal to me. For the ultimate build case I would use the Cooler Master Master Case Master 5.

It has all the nice features that I listed for the likely build case. Enough that it may even have enough to justify the $55 additional cost. But it does have some drawbacks for me that boost the price difference to where I bumped it from what I would use into the cost is no matter situation.

The additional advantages are the following:

First, it has a large solid front panel that is held on with magnets that make it easy to remove to get access to the 5.25" dive bays. Originally I felt this would be a hindrance but I got to thinking about how I use the ODD. I will go months without needed to use it and when I do use it I will use it for hours. So there really is no inconvenience associated with how the front works. The front panel stands out so that the front mounted 140 mm fans can get plenty of air. The interior of the panel is also lined with sound absorbing material to make the case quieter. It also is a much nicer area to put the internal component medallions.

Second, it has a build in fan controller. This is a really nice feature for the main case fans. The speed can be set from the front control panel depending on cooling needs and how quiet you want the case.

Third, it has two USB 2.0 ports in addition to the USB 3.0 ports. This is a nice feature and I expect that all motherboards that I will use will have the ports available to connect these to.

The following is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

The case has a built in LED strip and control built in that is controlled from the front panel. If this were an RGB led control I would see this a huge feature. But this is designed for monochromatic LED strips. This is where the negative is for me. It only comes with red LEDs and I am planning a blue color scheme for the case. So it will cost me to mod the case and replace the red LEDs with blue ones.

Case Modifications

No case is perfect. In reading up on various components I came across a motherboard maker that used a special IO plate with their top of the line motherboard. It included LEDs to light it up that were built into the panel and this made it easier to see what you were doing. I really liked the idea, but I hated the motherboard.

I may be modifying the case to add 3mm LEDs to the inset between the IO plate and the actual back of the case. There is plenty of room to do this and the parts are not that expensive. I will be providing more information on this modification in a later article on this topic.

If I do not do this I may make a different modification to allow me to add a 120 mm LED strip across the top of this well. I still have time to decide.

Next in the series: Selecting the CPU

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Building A New Computer: Overclocking

Normally I would start a discussion about a new computer by talking about the case. But there is one topic that needs to be discussed first since the decision there has an impact on which case to choose. That topic is overclocking and as I explain it will become obvious why a decision to overclock or not has an impact on what case you choose.

So what is overclocking? It is simply running your device at a clock rate that is greater than the part is certified for by the manufacturer.

To put it another way. An Intel i7-6700K has a clock speed of 4.0GHz and costs $350 while an intel i7-6700 has a clock speed of 3.4 GHz and costs $315. If you could change the CPU clock to run the i7-6700 at 4.0 GHz you would have saved yourself $35.

Now most people that overclock start with the fastest device that you can get and then push it past that to get performance that you simply could not find stock anywhere. If you want to infer that there is a certain prestige that goes along with overclocking, you would not be wrong.

So since you are pushing the capabilities of the part are there any drawbacks? From personal experience, technical guides and even the chip manufacturers the best answer is no. But there are caveats that go with it.

Is It Safe?

If done right the short answer is yes.

I have overclocked systems regularly in the past and they have had long lives. (It is sort of funny that the system that I am currently having problems with is the first that I have not overclocked in years.) I can point you to anecdotal evidence of where parts of the motherboard that are not impacted by overclocking died before the overclocked memory and CPU.

The greatest impact to the life of CPUs and memory is the average temperature that they run at. In extreme overclocking you can increase the temperature that they run at. But if you plan for and do a good job of cooling you may have a 10% reduction in the life of the part. But put it in more understandable terms. Instead of the parts lasting 8 to 10 years they now last 7 to 9 years. Ask yourself this, will you still be using the computer in 5 years let alone 6 or 7? The answer was that you probably will replace it long before 7 years so the reduction in life will never be an issue.

Now I did say if you did it right. There are two sure fire ways to kill CPUs and memory. 

The first way to kill them is running them too hot for too long. With memory this is less of a problem these days. Memory that is designed to be overclocked will come from the factory with excellent heat spreaders/heat sinks. If you have any question about cooling, both of the major overclocking vendors also have fan hits to help those heat spreaders keep your memory from overheating. For CPUs you actually have to investigate cooling and which ones can handle the the extra heat. The stock cooler will not be adequate. The good thing is that now that Intel is selling versions of their CPUs that are intended to be overclocked they do not ship CPU coolers with them. They know that the stock one will not be enough and that overclockers will be planning on a third party cooling system. But if you choose an adequate cooling solution and make sure that it is installed and running properly overheating should not be an issue.

The second way to kill them is applying too much voltage. Since different types of memory and generations of CPUs have different voltage requirements and limits it is difficult for motherboard manufactures to prevent applying too much voltage while maintaining flexibility. The best thing to do is adjust first memory or CPU and then the other. Most guides for overclocking list a suggested maximum safe voltage for your components. As long as you are aware of those voltages and do not exceed them you will not apply too much voltage.

GPUs are very hard to break. Since Graphics Cards do not allow you to change out GPUs the BIOS on the card and the voltage regulators are tuned to the GPU spec and will not allow you to put in enough voltage to break them.

What Can I Expect?

The best answer is that you can expect the clock rate listed on the packaging.

For memory this is not a bad thing. Memory has been supporting overclocking longer than the CPU and GPU makers. For example a memory manufacturer will sell you 3333 speed DDR4 memory. This is the manufacturers guaranteed overclock minimum if the CPU and motherboard will support that speed. The DDR4 specification is that upper specification speed is 2133, so anything above that is overclocking. But even if the manufacture has listed the memory as 3333 speed there is a possibility that you will be able to push it to 3400. So with memory you may be able to get more than what is on the box.

For the CPU getting only the rated speed can be emotionally devastating. Right now reviews are regularly stating that they have no problem getting the i7-6700K to 4.5 GHz for a 12.5% speed increase. On sites that try to track overclocking achievements they have listed systems that have been verified as hitting 5.0 GHz for a 25% speed increase. The difference between them are mostly the "Overclocking Lottery". The Overclocking Lottery refers to the fact that for any specific chip you do not know how far you can push it before it becomes unstable till you try. With this anecdotal evidence there is a good chance that you will be able to get more than the speed on the package.

Graphics card are very much like memory in that the manufacturer designs, builds and tests overclocked cards. So you will have a supported overclock speed on the packaging. But because of the Overclocking Lottery many of the graphics card manufacturers do allow for you to see if your specific card will go even faster.

How Do I Plan For Overclocking?

1 - Read up on how to overclock the item

This is your chance to look up and take notes on what limits you should not exceed. This is one of the most important things to do to prevent breaking things.

This is also the time to learn recommended techniques to make adjustments to get the most out of the system.

2 - Get good software to measure system stability

Being able to boot Microsoft Windows is a start, but is your system stable when under load. There are several recommended ways to stress the system and verify that even under load that it will work properly and not glitch what you are doing or save bad data to your drives. Read the recommendations and choose one that you are comfortable with.

3 - Get a motherboard that "likes" being overclocked

What I mean by this is that not only do you want a motherboard that allows for overclocking you also want one that makes the entire process easy. You want one that is easy to get back to a state where the system boots if you go too far and the system will not boot. You want one that makes it easy to try each configuration. If each step is easy you are less likely to be frustrated and make too big of steps and have to undo your settings.

4 - Cooling

First off you want a case configuration that allows for more than enough airflow through the system. It is a little hard to keep your overclocked components cool enough to last a long time if there is not enough airflow and the inside of the case heats up.

Second you want to decide what type of cooling that you want to use with each item that you are overclocking and then make sure that it will fit in your case.

5 - Power

To have a stable overclock you really need stable power. At factory speed settings the components will be stable with a fair amount of fluctuation in voltage and amperage. As you overclock the amount of fluctuation that the components can handle and still be stable will decrease.

First off read up on the motherboard and the quality of the voltage regulators. Most reputable boards will use high quality components and they will have been reviewed multiple times. This will give you a good idea about how good the components on the motherboard are.

Second get a good power supply and one that is large enough. There is a correlation between power supply efficiency and the stability of the voltage and amperage. The better the efficiency rating the more stable the power is. But you also want to get a power supply with excess power available. As power supplies reach their design limit the stability of the voltage and amperage decrease. The more stable the power you put into the motherboard voltage regulators the more stable the power going into your components. Generally I try to have the actual used power be 15 to 30 percent below the power supply rating. I may even go higher if I plan to add several disk drives and other peripherals so that I do not need to plan on a new power supply when I do that.

In Conclusion

If you are willing to plan and put some effort into it you can safely overclock systems and often you will get a measurable improvement in performance.

As I explore each component of the build I will include some discussion about overclocking considerations if they apply. I also plan on revisiting the actual work to overclock in a later post.

Next in the series: Choosing a Case

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Building A New Computer: A New Gaming Computer Overview

I had started this in my SWG blog but it really is off topic for there.

However, since this looks like it will be quite a while before I can do anything other than patch up my current system in the near future I will have a while to plan.

That time to plan is why I want to continue to write on this. Since I have time I am doing a little more research in the evenings before heading to bed. In doing so I have learned a lot that I did not know when I posted my initial ideas and fantasy gaming computer build.

So I want to start a series here that looks at each element and contains all the information that I have learned and updates as they happen.

During this series of posts I will be talking about two systems. The first is the system that I am likely to build. The second system is that one that I would love to build as long as someone else is paying for it. Of course not all posts in the series will need to distinguish between the two computers.

Next in the series: Overclocking

Thursday, November 27, 2014

GUS and PvP

The people launching this server seem to be in agreement in that a small set of PvPers tend to ruin games. A game would probably be dead is there was no PvP and for an MMORPG to have good PvP the game designers need to always think about it even if the goal for the server experience it PvE.

SWG is an older game and changes to the PvP experience also have an impact on the PvE experience and vice versa. Right now the agreement seems to be that the developers will listen to PvPer issues and balance complaints. These will be evaluated to see if there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. If the conclusion is that there is a real problem, then the developers would start looking at possible ways to deal with the problem. This means that there will probably be no quick fixes and very rarely will the fix be the change that the players ask for.

There are some other aspects of PvP that will be different between GUS and SWG Live and other Emu servers. For example, unless the development team decides to make Jedi as powerful as they were earlier in the CU there is no need to keep the Jedi perk of an additional character slot on the server or the Jedi control of visibility. There would also be no reason to add in the controls of Permadeath or no ownership of structures. There were appropriate disincentives to play Jedi at a time when they were super powered that do not fit with Publish 14.1 Jedi.

The removal of Jedi visibility does mean that the PBS will be delayed until the code can be added to allow players to place bounties on players that killed them.

There is one suggestion that may be added though. The suggestion was to add a character flag that players can toggle. The default would be off and would allow individual Jedi characters to turn on gaining visibility because they like the hunted aspect of the PBS. If this is easy to do there is a good chance to add that.

Right not there has been no discussion about changing Guild War or Factional PvP. Right now the thought is that the FRS was extremely broken and that it would not be enabled until it could be re-designed. What may happen is a series of quest chains to grant the FRS titles and robes as rewards. The top rank would of course not be available but the robe may be. One suggestion is that a Blue Glowie Obi-Wan would start these quest chains in the Light Enclave and a Darth Maul, which according to the Disney Canon is still alive, would start the quest chains in the Dark Enclave. One advantage of this is that the Light and Dark paths could be disconnected from the Rebel and Imperial factions and locked in Special Forces status.

Thoughts, ideas, comments?