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