Since 2008 I’ve been using the same pre-built Packard Bell box for essentially everything. It’s a Core 2 Quad box and it’s held up quite well - the processor didn’t seem sluggish even though it’s significantly out of date by now. However, the GeForce 9500 GT graphics card was already sub-par when I got it, and was practically off the bottom end of every possible benchmark that exists, so if I wanted to upgrade the graphics card, it was worth starting fresh.
For about 2 or 3 years, I’ve been drawing up plans to finally build myself a new computer. Since I initially planned to do so, Sandy Bridge has came and gone, as has Ivy Bridge. So much so, in fact, that had I built a computer when I initially planned to do, it would’ve been quite dated now too. I’m off to University in September so this was my last chance to finally get round to doing so, so I bit the bullet and visited r/BuildAPC to see where to start - this would be the cause of the biggest issue I faced later on, but it got me going at least.
I initially settled on a GTX 960 and a Haswell Refresh Xeon processor. Both quite good hardware and would work well. I had initially planned to spend about £650 or thereabouts to make a computer that would last me about 2 or 3 years to be able to do some programming and medium gaming before things start getting slow. However I’ve been playing on Ultra Low settings in 720p for 5 years now and I wanted a change. I decided to up my budget to £750 and get a GTX 970.
I used a set of parts recommended by someone on IRC and, not wanting to be put off from building it any further, purchased half the parts on that night. I went for a non-modular XFX 550 watt power supply, a MicroATX motherboard and a 1 TB hard drive. However, after ordering the processor, the shop I ordered from (scan.co.uk) told me that processor wasn’t in stock. I was a bit ticked off at this, as they didn’t indicate this when I was purchasing it like essentially every other website in existence. I had three options - pay for a more expensive Xeon that was in stock, switch to a locked Core i5 processor with poorer performance, or go for the backup plan - the standard i5 4690K. I went for the latter and, as that shop had already caused me some issues, decided to buy it from Aria instead.
The remainder of the parts arrived without issue. I went for a Fractal Design Core 1500 case. This was the part that caused me another issue; it was the first thing I ordered and it’s a MicroATX case. It’s a good sturdy case, if a little spartan, but getting a mATX case immediately constrained me in what I could physically fit inside the case. The equivalent Core 2500 case offers space for a full ATX motherboard, giving me more room for fitting gubbins in, but being limited to a MicroATX form factor, I would end up paying more for a motherboard which can physically fit less on. I had initially ordered the Gigabyte H81M-S2H motherboard, but after the palaver with the processor I needed to return it, or I wouldn’t be able to overclock on the H81 chipset.
I swapped the motherboard for the Z97M-DS3H, also from Gigabyte, but unfortunately it onlysupports one PCI-e slot, meaning SLI or Crossfire was out of the question down the line. The PCI slots are also below the PCI-e slot, meaning that one of them is blocked by the graphics card, and the other would cause a PCI peripheral to be thoroughly cooked by the heat output from the GPU, which is a tad unfortunate, meaning I can’t really use PCI wireless cards. The motherboard in all other respects is fine, featuring a good keyboard-and-mouse high resolution BIOS with more bells and whistles than you can shake a RAM stick at.
Of course, for overclocking, you’d set something on fire if you tried to use the stock Intel cooler. My only option was the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO - anything bigger would not fit in my case (such as the current Noctua line-up) and anything smaller would lead to high temperatures. Luckily it sports a lot of cooling power, meaning I can achieve some decent overclocked frequencies.
Next, the graphics card arrived. I went with the Gigabyte edition of the GTX 970; they offer a G1 edition (with a backplate, fancy light, and supposedly higher overclocking capabilities). However the backplate would annoyingly mean I wouldn’t be able to fit it on the motherboard due to the RAM socket being placed too far down the board. Therefore I went with the next model down, which is only a marginally worse overclocker - and about a pound lighter, due to the plastic shroud.
The case and SSD also arrived. I went with a Crucial BX100 solid-state drive with 250 GB of space, giving me more than enough room for the operating system, some crucial (har har) applications, and the games with the most loading screens. I got it quite cheap, too; £63 for a good performing drive. 3 years ago I would’ve paid about four times this amount for a similar SSD so in hindsight I’m glad I purchased this later on. The case itself finally arrived in a huge box. The air-flow is surprisingly good in the case after you remove one of the drive bays. It comes with two variable-speed fans with a surprisingly large amount of room for more, or even a 240mm water cooling radiator, which impressed me significantly - making my life easier, should I ever invest in a closed loop water cooler.
Lastly I picked up the Toshiba 1 TB hard drive as a cleaned-up salvage from Aria. I got it for £28 which was a steal - and I also took the 640 GB drive from my old computer which is still going strong, giving my more than enough hard drive space. Finally, the power supply arrived. I underestimated the sheer volume of wires, and cramming it all into the case in such a way to not make it look horrible was a challenge unto itself, but I managed it eventually.
The building process was fairly non-stressful. The hardest part was applying the thermal paste and the cooler without stuffing anything up, but it seems to have worked fine, and the cooler doesn’t block any of the RAM slots, so I won’t have to disassemble everything in the future to add more RAM. The computer booted first time, which was a pleasant surprise, and I immediately set to overclocking it.
I got the processor up to 4.5 GHz at 1.215 volts on the core, which (from what I hear) is quite a low voltage - I got lucky with this, as it means I can have quite a high overclock speed on a fairly small cooler, as lower voltage corresponds to cooler temperatures under load. Combined with a 1.53 GHz core speed and 8 GHz memory speed on the graphics card (which is on par with the G1 edition of Gigabyte’s GTX 970 graphics card anyway), I can essentially achieve performance on par with the reference GTX 980, with a 3DMark Firestrike score of over 11000.
Overall it’s a much nicer experience than my old computer - Windows now boots up in around 10 seconds from pressing the switch to entering my password, which is around 6 times faster than my old computer, thanks mainly to the SSD. I can run (most!) games with every setting maxed out at 1080p, including Crysis 2, Elite: Dangerous, Skyrim and Titanfall, without dropping below 80 frames per second. The heat from the combined power of the processor and graphics card will heat my legs in winter. It’s essentially what I’ve been looking to do for three years, and I’m pleased with it, especially having never built a computer from scratch before.
In the end I paid around £785 for it, going somewhat over-budget. This is mainly due to shipping costs and the fact that I missed a few deals: I could’ve saved about £25 on the processor and £15 if I had purchased the processor or graphics card the next day - I missed two sales, which is a bit annoying.
There’s also a few things I would do differently next time, and might be good advice for you too.
- Don’t get a MicroATX motherboard unless you’re specifically looking for a small form factor computer. You can get equivalent ATX motherboards for about 25% to 40% cheaper, with more space to work with - and the cases themselves aren’t oversized. I got the MicroATX case due to the recommendation of the folks on the BuildAPC IRC channel. No fault to them, as it’s still a good case. I just didn’t realise the extent to which this would limit the cooling and expansion capacity of the setup.
- Make sure your motherboard supports overclocking. The chipset only supports this if the codename begins with Z, rather than H or B (eg. Z97 or Z170 supports overclocking, but not B85 or H81).
- Buy a modular power supply - the extra £10 or £15 is worth it. Also, buy a bigger power supply than you need. The PSU is the one part that won’t become out-of-date over time; 550 W now is still 550 W in 5 years’ time. If I had paid an extra £20 for a modular 750 watt power supply I would’ve saved it in effort down the line, by not having to ram loads of unused Molex cables down the back of the case.
- Get an R9 390 instead of a GTX 970. If you follow the advice about the power supply and case/motherboard supply, this would’ve been a no-brainer. It’s an objectively superior card with twice the video RAM. It runs hotter and eats more power, though, so it probably would’ve caused trouble inside my small case by blasting loads of hot air over the power supply and around the case in general.
- Overall I used three suppliers - Aria, Scan, and Amazon. Amazon has probably been the best, due to the one-day shipping. Aria has been convenient as I haven’t needed to wait or pay for shipping, but I paid a small premium for the parts, adding to the cost. Scan hasn’t been bad, but the out-of-stock experience with the processor ideally wouldn’t have happened.
However, I’ve paid the extra cost for experience down the line. I won’t be repeating any of these mistakes again in my next computer build, and for what it’s worth, the price difference is negligible enough for me not to care too much. I still have an awesome computer and it’s still going to be powerful three years down the line, unlike my previous set-up, so overall I’d say the mission was successful.