I built this as my home machine to replace a problematic HP laptop.
[Side note and worth metioning as it was the reason for this build. I had some long-term issues with the laptop. I was stuck using original, buggy graphics driver on it because HP wouldn't update their driver. Attempts to use the standard AMD driver simply would not work. "Autodetect" wouldn't, nor did manually selecting the version for that graphics chipset. Crap HP proprietary tweaks are my bugbear. The BluRay drive on it died just after warrenty expired (hm...) despite very little use. It was a positional motor issue, wouldn't seek past halfway mark, and wasn't worth paying for a replacement (again HP proprietary designs meant an OEM version would require physical adjustment). The keyboard began to suffer intermittent failures, particularly when the laptop got warm, which required me to use an external keyboard. In short, I did get a reasonable few years out of it but desperately needed something better.]
On to the build.
Had a pile of gift cards for Amazon which meant I would need to purchase most of the parts from there. Coupled with a University-discounted Plus account (read: free shipping!), it made sense to keep them as my single supplier.
Needed to keep cost down as much as possible. Budget was originally ~$1000, but I later amended it to <$1500 with tax/shipping.
I decided to prefer lower power components (at the expense of OC-capability). This would mitigate heavier cooling needs and hopefully will mean the system will last longer.
Had a hardly-used 500GB HDD sitting around which meant I could skip storage purchase(s) for now.
Prices paid as listed are guesses and may not be accurate.
This is the first machine I've personally built in more than a decade (that wasn't comprised from old, scrapped machines), so I felt like I had to do a lot of catchup with the tech. I did a lot of comparisons between parts, read reviews, etc., but it's very possible this isn't the most ideal build for the price range. Nevertheless, I feel pretty good about my decisions.
I was uncertain if I wanted to go with an i7 or i5 -- build was mostly for games, but I do dual-boot into Linux and do a fair amount of work there. Eight logical CPUs is nice. Old laptop was an i7 as well, and I honestly couldn't bring myself to "downgrade" to an i5.
The i7-4790S is a low-wattage (and underclocked) version of the 4790 class. It cannot be overclocked (see 4790K). It was notably cheaper than the K, and slightly cheaper than the base.
Originally, I didn't bother with an additional cooler until I discovered the stock version had pathetic clips to hold it in place (really, Intel?). The cooler I got is very popular and has very good reviews. The only issue is that the placement of the fan makes access to the RAM difficult (install RAM first, then fan attachment). I worry that if I install two more DIMMs the far left will be touching the fan. There was no way I could move the fan to the opposite side of the heatsink, although they do offer clips to install a second. The provided fan is riveted onto the attachment clips, and I didn't want to do something silly like blowing air in the opposite direction.
I considered a closed water-cooled system, but as my CPU is low-wattage and non-OC'able I don't see the need nor could justify the cost.
Motherboard choice was based on model reviews and price niche rather than any strong brand loyalty. I wanted/needed a Z97 chipset. My decision to get the model with the HD audio amplifier was only because it was a negligible amount more. I will confess I have a bit of a preference quirk: I don't care for motherboards with "messy" rear ports. This one is decent and has plenty of both USB 2.0 and 3.0. It does have ps/2 ports, which was a surprise (and pointless, but negligible).
Originally had DDR3-2133 RAM in build design; decided to save a little money and go with the 1600, as I didn't think the performance increase would warrant the difference in cost. I did opt for the 9ms CAS. I did have to set a BIOS option to switch the RAM to 1600 (BIOS is intentionally set conservative by default which initially made me concerned it was a mistake with my order).
The graphics card was the "splurg" for this build.
I looked at the gtx970 quite a bit and would have gotten one of those ($150 cheaper than the 980? yeah...), but I was very concerned about the whole gtx970 VRAM issue. In brief, there's a problem with the bus to the RAM in the 970-class, where 3.5GB is accessible at full speed, but the remaining 500MB is stuck at a much lower speed (this is a gross summary; refer to online articles for better details). The result is (potential) performance problems such as stuttering when the graphics card tries to use the slower VRAM. Much of my hesitation was from incomplete information. Is it possible to have the driver ignore the slower VRAM and treat it as 3.5GB? Were there tweaks to mitigate this? If so, wouldn't they be vendor-specific? Finally, the reported experience regarding the flaw was inconsistent. Some people described it as a seriously detriment, but the popularity of the gtx970 cards didn't appear to result in greater numbers of complaints (which begged the idea that the vendors have driver-based workarounds). In short, I decided to bypass the entire controversy, and opt for the higher-class card. It hurt the wallet a lot more, but I am very pleased with the purchase and the performance of the gtx980.
I should note that I did not look at the competing AMD cards. The price/performance/power-use of the gtx970 and gtx980 is far better due to the smaller fabrication scale of the graphics chip. The result is half the wattage needed, which results in lower heat and lower cooling requirements. The smaller fabrication also means higher chip yield and therefore lower price.
PSU choice was by reviews and selected to be a nice range of cost/performance. If funds were more abundant, I would've gotten a 1000W model. Keep in mind PSUs will degrade a little over their lifetime. My estimated peak wattage is about half of the max output of this PSU, so I should be good.
The case was picked by reviews, and was circumstantial that it was the same brand as the PSU (not a bad thing, either). I wanted something that was more budget-class and I feel this model is reasonable for the cost. Layout isn't bad.
I don't like the fact that I need to remove the back panel to fuss with the cable-side of the drive cage; only an issue because my cable management makes it a little tricky to secure the panel. I made good use of the provided zip-ties and did a reasonable job of the cabling, but there still is quite a few to have to route back there. Securing the back panel requires two hands and careful pressure. Really, the issue is that I don't like the design of the single, forward catch on the panels. Repeated insertion makes me worry that it might bend/break, which would be a major pain in the posterior. Once the panel is slid into place, it's secure.
On the up side, the tool-less catches for the 5.25 and 3.5 drive bays were a benefit, and gone are the days where the interior of cases would result in major lacerations [Side note: I used to own a MicroVAX II and that thing would literally shred your hands anytime you tried to do maintenance work in it].
There are two USB 3.0 plugs on the front top of the case, along with the standard audio, a reset button and the power. I was very pleased to see them there.
The connection for the USB header on the board, however, is a pathetic array of small, easily bendable pins (but this is the fault of the specification rather than the cable/board design).
The return of a functional reboot button was a nice inclusion as well (see OS install notes below).
The case came with three fans. Front pair have red LEDs which give it a bit of a space-heater appearance; notably ironic, given the fact the the reduced power requirements means the system doesn't belch out an excess of heat.
I wish the case had better clearance on the bottom, as that is where the PSU draws its air. I keep the machine on a board to insure there is decent airflow (rather than on the carpet). The bottom inlet has a filter, which I expect I will have to clean often. The PSU has an on-demand fan, which should also help limit the dust ingestion.
There's plenty of room for the graphics card in the case, however it is just above the SATA plugs. If I wanted to remove the bottom-most cables, I will probably have to pull the card out to reach the releases. Mildly annoying.
I wish the case had better header placements (perhaps adjustable ones) that would hold the right hand side of the motherboard, as oppose to an inch and a half in. I don't enjoy testing the flexibility of the motherboard when inserting RAM.
BlueRay drive was "just because" although I nearly didn't buy an optical drive at all. I haven't investigated software needs to actually play BlueRay disks, and suspect I will be disappointed/annoyed. Still, it wasn't much more than a DVD drive and OS/driver installation is easier with an optical drive. I installed Windows 7 (64bit) and needed the motherboard driver disk to get the LAN chipset to work, so I was glad I had it.
The 500GB HDD was one I had lying around from an older machine. To be honest, I would have liked to have gotten an SSD drive but couldn't justify the additional cost (yet). Performance on the HDD isn't fantastic, though not terrible. Unfortunately, I have quite a bit of personal rubbish collected over the years, not to mention a disturbingly large amount of mods for Skyrim (haha), so I've got a large portion of this drive filled.
It's split approximately 280/220 between Windows and Linux. Primary partitions are (hidden) Windows boot, large NTFS, 16GB ext4 (root), 2GB swap (couldn't justify reserving 16GB that I won't use), and the rest as ext4 (home). 16GB Linux root was overkill, but I wanted a bit of extra room for growth. In years past, I used to be meticulous about my Linux partitioning schemes, separating boot, root, var, usr, etc. Nowadays, I just keep root and home separated and leave it at that.
The UEFI partitioning system was a new and very welcome surprise. Both Windows and Linux did not have any issues with it. The future is now and it is lovely.
I will note that the Linux installation had a few minor issues. I'm using Xubuntu 15.04, and the auto-detect of the graphics/monitor did NOT work properly on install disk boot, leaving me with a blank screen and happily-humming-but-useless machine. The VTs were inaccessible as well (really? What happened to fallback text mode? The graphics hork-up disabled those as well). However, it was possible to get around this using the following tweak to the grub boot: "nomodeset vga=791". Edit the boot string and toss this at the end of the kernel line, then F10 to boot. I removed "quiet" and "splash" from the string because I like to see what it's doing. Please note that this was ONLY necessary with the install; once the OS was installed, I had no trouble with the graphics. I opted to use the NVIDIA proprietary driver despite issues with them in the past. I've been pleasantly suprised about the stability of this version. We've come a long way! Note that I did need to use that driver in order to set my monitor to its native resolution.
System runs very quiet even with heavy graphics usage, and as mentioned above doesn't double as a space-heater (unlike my old MVII which required open windows in December to run; also ear-plugs and blood transfusion).
I've not monitored actual wall-wattage yet, though I do have a tool to do so.
Primary game I run that exercises the system is Skyrim with the aformentioned cornicopia of mods. Needless to say, I can run Ultra-High with an ENB (RealVision at the moment) and Tropical Skyrim (mad foliage) and still enjoy deliciously silky frame rates (obligatory "bwahahaha"). The game itself has been notably more stable as it isn't as resource starved (as my 1GB VRAM laptop), although the usual Skyrim and/or mod bugs aren't magically quashed (meaning I can still crash, just not as often). Diligent mod selection and ordering is still required.
I'm very happy with the result (despite the nit-picking -- but that's to your benefit, dear reader).
I believe I was able to manage a pretty reasonable cost/value ratio. If I wasn't constrained to Amazon, or if I was more diligent in looking for bundle deals I might have been able to save a little more money. Of course price fluctuations, product/bundle availability, etc, does add variables to purchasing parts for a system, so I feel that I didn't fail simply because I didn't squeeze out an extra $20 in savings here or there.
Amazon had the parts out to me in two days (ordered on a Sunday, got everything on Tuesday).
I would like to improve the storage situation with an SSD (or two), and possibly a larger HDD in the future.
Pros: Low-wattage, 4-core, HT, cheaper than base or K versions, excellent quality/performance. Cons: Underclocked and locked, which is the price for the low power usage.
I still rate 5/5 because it is intended for the low-power niche and meets those expectations. Consider the more expensive K version for overclocking.
Excellect performance/price. This is very popular for a good reason.
I prefer my BIOS interface to be minimalistic in design but powerful in options, so the GUI-based version on this feels a bit superfluous. However, it does have some lovely features such as realtime data on the fans and cooling, internal documentation on features, and does also offer a "just-give-me-mah-settings" mode, so I really can't complain. It did set my RAM to conservative (underclocked) speeds by default, but this was trivial to adjust. Had the right mix of features for the price.
It's RAM! It's a lovely red! It's a nice balance between cost/performance.
Disclaimer: This was left over from an old machine of mine that I decided to use in a new build. It gets the job done, but for a new purchase I would recommend a larger drive and/or go SSD.
Lovely card, runs very well. I did need to add "nomodeset vga=791" to the kernel string when booting a Linux install disk (would not get anything on-screen otherwise). This was not needed post-install, although I did opt for the NVIDIA proprietary driver later on for the additional features. In Windows, it performs like a champ. Definitely one of the best cards for price/performance on the market.
Not bad for a budget build. The forward catches on the side panels make me nervous as they appear to be somewhat fragile. Front-top with two USB 3.0 ports, audio, power and actual reset buttons are a BIG plus. I'm not crazy about the USB 3.0 connection to the header with its tiny, easy-to-bend pins, but that's more of a specification issue. Sufficient drive bays, tool-less design, thumb screws to secure panels, etc. Comes with three fans, has room for two more on the roof (or water-cooling there if you're feeling frisky).
Pros: Excellent, efficient, modular PSU. Cons: The only complaint (and I'm nit-picking, really) is that I felt like the connectors on the PSU itself didn't feel like they "clicked" enough on insert to my satisfaction. Anything power-related feels better when it has a nice big "ker-chunk" (or size-related equivalent) when it's locked in. Will these pop out? Certainly not, but I like the tactile guarantee.
Again, just picking nits. Still rate 5/5.
Came as OEM, no software or cables, but wasn't expensive at all. Reviews looked decent and wasn't much more than a DVD-RW. Note that as of this writing, I've not testing BD read/write yet, but it's fine for DVD stuff.