This year I set out to replace my aging i7-2600k-based Intel gaming machine. Virtual reality games are incredibly demanding on your computer’s hardware and must reach a very high framerate or you will puke if the framerate drops while playing around in VR. They require the latest generation of processors at a minimum, and although I probably won’t have a first-generation VR HMD, I had access to a deal for about half-off a new processor from Intel and wanted to be ready for the second or third generation.
If it were possible, I would have bought an off-the-shelf computer from Apple. At various points Apple has made hand-waving gestures in the direction of orienting towards computer gaming only to drop support later on. It must not be a business they’re interested in because they do not build a decent gaming computer. The closest option Apple has is the Mac Pro which was last refreshed in 2013 and it costs over $3000 to start with an ancient workstation graphics card. It’s a beautiful computer that would handle everything I want to do with it besides gaming.
I’ll keep using Apple laptops for managing free software projects, writing, photography, and a billion more non-gaming tasks, but for gaming there is no substitute to a desktop computer. I know many people buy gaming laptops, but they’re difficult to keep up-to-date when you can’t replace the video card. That might be changing with the latest iteration of Thunderbolt, but you still won’t be able to alter much else internally if you want to keep many other components of the system up-to-date without replacing the entire machine. Not the worst thing in the world, it works for some people, but working on computer guts for the past 20 years is a habit that it’s nice to keep going with until there is a better option.
There have been some changes since I last built a gaming computer in 2012.
The last time I built a computer PC Part Picker wasn’t around. It’s a fantastic site that has made it much easier to be sure that the components you pick out will fit together and aren’t the worst decisions in the world thanks to their user reviews from other people who have tried the same components and similar configurations. Using their compatibility checker helps you be sure that your CPU cooler fits in the case you’ve chosen, that the power supply has enough wattage for your other components, and that you don’t miss out on a required component that you’ll need. For example, unlocked processors from Intel no-longer include a CPU cooler and you might miss out on that if you hadn’t built a computer in the past four years.
Even with PC Part Picker there are still too many choices when selecting components. Motherboard manufacturer Gigabyte’s has over 20 different Z170 options that support the current line of CPUs. All almost completely identical to each other under two different categories of “Ultra Durable” and “Gaming.” I’d like to play games and not have my motherboard explode, thank you. There are hundreds of other options for power supplies, memory configurations, and every other component. Here’s what I picked.
Although the recommended specifications Oculus put out for their VR HMD included the lower-end i5-4590, I wanted to go with something that would last for a while longer. There are two processors that you might want to choose if you’re building a higher-end gaming computer, the Skylake i7-6600k and i7-6700k. I went with the 4GHz i7-6700k. It’s a step up from the four year old 2600k and gets a bunch of upgrades in jumping from Sandy Bridge‘s chipset features to Skylake. Skipping Ivy Bridge and the LGA 1150 socket’s Haswell family entirely makes it feel like a real transition to get to DDR 4 memory.
I chose the unlocked k model instead of the cheaper regular i7-6700 because the unlocked model is clocked significantly higher with a base clock of 4Ghz. The locked i7-6700 starts at a base clock of 3.4 GHz and has to hit a turbo boost (remeber that from your 486?) to get to 4 GHz.
Water cooling is almost the default now when building your own system. It used to be that if you wanted to use water cooling you would have select various components of a water cooling system and fill it yourself. Hoping all along that you put everything together correctly and that the system wouldn’t spew water all over your other expensive components once it was assembled and turned on.
You can now buy a closed-loop water cooler that is preassembled and filled. The downside to a closed-loop water cooler is that they only work with one component, CPU or GPU, and it isn’t as flexible in terms of configuration options as you could have configured one system to work for both with an open-loop. If you want to configure it for a GPU you would also generally need to purchase another bracket that matches your GPU to fit and most likely void your GPU’s warranty. Many cases look large enough these days that you could install two closed-loop water cooling systems, one for the CPU and one for the GPU, but that sounds like a ridiculous idea in practice.
The upside is that whichever you attach it to will run cooler and not expel heat directly into your case like traditional CPU heatsink/fan coolers do. Still, there isn’t much reason to choose a water-cooler over air cooling if you aren’t going to overclock. There’s at least some increase in upfront cost and a significant increase in risk that even a closed-loop system might leak and ruin components. That risk is why I still chose to go with air cooling this year and picked out the Phanteks PH-TC12DX CPU Cooler to match the case and its components.
The model name is completely goofy and not at all useful as a description of the product to a normal human. The cooler is so enormous that it has a special support structure that wraps around to the back of the motherboard with plates and connectors to help it remain attached since it’ll be constantly pulling that entire weight on the processor and motherboard if your case is at an angle. When I was first assembling the computer I missed one step in the incredibly poorly laid-out instructions and the cooler was not securely attached which cost another few minutes to re-attach it after it started to tip over like a shortsighted billionaire idiot’s rocket.
The cooler has good reviews, and despite the ridiculous support structure and poor manual it really isn’t that difficult to install. I’m not the kind of person who overclocks their computer and the current ambient temperatures in my workspace are too high to even think about it, that is why I am satisfied that this cooler is both efficient and quiet enough while playing games or just working at regular CPU clock speeds. It also includes thermal paste in a tiny syringe just like your typical Arctic Silver.
Although there are some Z170 motherboards that support DDR 3, why not get the most performance by using DDR 4 if you can?
DDR 4 memory might also be compatible with future processor chipsets, saving us a cost down the road when DDR 3 isn’t an option. There is some debate as to the performance improvements of overclocked memory, but I still went with what I thought was relatively safe 3200MHz memory choice from G.Skill. Their model name is, I hope you’re sitting down for this, F4-3200C16D-16GTZB.
Since practically every case is now another opportunity to measure the size of your e-penis through a window on the side, every component has to look ridiculous and memory is no exception. Red and brushed metal fins make these stand out as best they can if you care about that. I don’t, G.Skill is just a well-respected RAM manufacturer that reviews well and these modules honestly look less silly than some other choices like everything from Corsair.
Small form factor computers aren’t just from Shuttle anymore, there are a wide variety of micro ATX and mini ITX compatible cases, motherboards, and power supplies designed to have full-sized graphics boards installed alongside. I really wanted to use NZXT’s Manta case. It’s beautiful and different from every other boring black rectangle computer case, but in the end it doesn’t make sense when I will need to plug in expansion boards and the mini ITX format of the Manta only allows for one expansion, the graphics card.
What about Micro ATX? Similar problem. These motherboards generally have two slots for graphics cards and one pci-express expansion card slot for other types of cards. You can plug something beside a graphics card into a graphics card slot, but doing so slows down the graphics board connectivity.
In the end, I’m back to full-size ATX with the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ATX. A ridiculous product name from Phanteks but at least it is a proper name instead of a series of letters and numbers. Just like the CPU cooler, the Enthoo Evolv also had major issues with poor grammar choices in its manual, which didn’t help when I was trying to understand their design decisions while making my decisions in building this computer. The good news is that it is pre-configured so that you only have to connect one fan cable to your motherboard thanks to the modern convenience of a built-in fan controller. This is only a downside if you want your motherboard to be able to individually control each fan in your case and you can always go back to that though you’ll be able to have fewer overall cooling fans if you do so.
This isn’t really a fault of the manufacturer, but when I received the Enthoo Evolv ATX from Amazon it was delivered with the case’s exterior cardboard box as the only protection and that was completely soaking wet. Thanks to what I otherwise would have thought was excessive usage of plastic bags around the case itself, it was thankfully undamaged.
The case is the component that I think most people put the most aesthetic thought into, and I did the same. It was very difficult to pick something and there wasn’t anything as unique as the Manta in a full ATX option. While the Enthoo Evolv ATX is more understated than the Manta (what isn’t?) it fit in better next to my Macbook Pro by sharing a similar silver color option. Overall I am very happy with the aesthetic choice of the slightly tinted window being less e-penisy than a totally clear one and it is the sturdiest case I’ve ever owned.
The front panel of the case has no option for installing disc drives or anything else. It has a small door that hides two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack, a microphone jack, and a tiny reset button. Fewer cases sold today have the option to install a disc drive and I’m not going to miss it. I don’t watch movies on my computer via discs and it’s been a long time since I’ve had to use one for anything but older games that aren’t on Steam or gog yet. Windows ships on USB thumb drives by default. If you’re even slightly interested in using a disc drive you do have options, but I think I’ll be happy with running over to Best Buy to pick up an external drive if I need it. Welcome to 2016 fellow computer builders, my 2013 laptop doesn’t have a disc-drive either.
Perhaps the only real downside to the Enthoo Evolv ATX is that the windowed side-door has a tendency to come off when it is opened and the case is laying on its side. The side-door is only held on at the joints by two metal pins which don’t have any kind of cap on the top end, and it is nice to be able to remove it. Maybe this is just an issue with the one I received. It’s not a big deal and if you were to pick the same case I would just recommend that you take off the side-panel while working on it on the case’s back.
You’re probably already familiar with solid-state drives now, if not here’s what you need to know: They’re faster at everything, more reliable, and still more expensive per-gigabyte so you’ll probably want a secondary spinning-disk drive if you intend to store more than a few hundred gigabytes on your computer.
I picked the Samsung 850 Evo 1 Terabyte. It’s fast, reliable, and in hindsight I probably should have picked a more reasonably priced option from Sandisk which is almost $100 cheaper (Amazon link) though also slightly slower. Normal humans are not going to notice the performance difference between the two.
Samsung’s Magician software has an incredibly silly name but is absolutely required to install even though it attempts to override some of Microsoft’s settings for Windows. It has become essential if only as a firmware updates delivery mechanism for the SSD at some point. Their last major SSDs had a performance-loss issue that was solved with new firmware and other Samsung tools. I’m still not sure if I trust Samsung’s Magician software to adjust various Windows settings, but at least it can update SSD firmware without much of a hassle.
There is also the option of a newer SSD connection technology that skips SATA altogether and connects directly to the pci-express bus. While performance is important to gaming and especially virtual-reality gaming, this is absolutely not a requirement today and if it were somehow to become incredibly important you could use this SSD as the secondary drive and get the new technology as long as you pick a motherboard with m.2 connectors and enough pci-express slots if it ends up being something else. There are caveats to m.2 depending on the configuration of pci-express lanes supporting pci-express slots in addition to m.2, which cuts down on the speed of your graphics board’s connectivity. I wouldn’t worry about this for now, but it might become more important in the future.
It would be great if motherboard manufacturer’s had more options for people who do not care about SLI for video cards and instead focused on expansion options for other components.
For my secondary storage option I chose this 2TB Seagate SSHD. It’s a hybrid drive that has a small solid-state cache as well as the spinning discs we’re used to. The hybrid part is probably not strictly useful, but it should offer some small performance boost when I have a game installed to that drive.
This is one of the craziest things to pick. There are so many options that offer so many different choices of feature sets and aesthetic designs. I looked at options from MSI, ASUS, Gigabyte, and other smaller motherboard manufacturers. My last build had a Gigabyte motherboard, and in the end my current research indicated that Gigabyte is still a good choice.
Out of their 20+ Z170 options to match the Skylake processors, I chose the GA-Z170X-Gaming 7. It does claim to be “Ultra-Durable” as well as suitable for gaming. It also had a number of features that matched what I needed in a computer that should work for virtual reality headsets.
The Oculus Rift HMD currently requires 4 USB ports, and although the HTC Vive requires only 1 I wanted to be prepared for whichever headset would come down the line. This motherboard has plenty of regular USB 3.0 ports in addition to a reversible 3.1 USB Type-C port if it becomes more useful to have that down the line. Right now that port also supports Thunderbolt 3 which lets you daisy chain many devices so that’s why you might only need one of them.
This was also one of the few motherboards that has decent hardware for audio instead of some garbage realtek sound chip. If you’re planning to use an external or internal sound card it might not seem important to have good onboard audio, but I think it speaks to the overall quality of the board that it does have a higher quality option.
The downside to all motherboards with the 1151 socket for Skylake Intel chips is that the pins are in the socket. That might be good because it is generally cheaper to replace a motherboard than it is to replace the processor if the pins get bent or broken. This issue caused some headaches when my computer wouldn’t boot and I thought the problem was memory incompatibility due to the error the motherboard displayed on its handy two-digit hardware code display. My motherboard arrived with a few pins that were slightly out of position (you can see them in the bottom right of the picture up above) and putting them back into position was more difficult than doing it to the processor. As soon as the pins were back in place the computer booted right up with the 3200MHz memory at full-speed. Maybe we could move to a pin-less socket in the future with contact-pads on both the processor and motherboard.
Gigabyte’s software is frankly awful, but is still an improvement over my last motherboard. They have one utility to download that can download all of the other utilities. What is kind of crazy is that Gigabyte still ships the GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 with its software on a disc instead of a USB thumb drive. I ended up having to use one of my own thumb-drives to copy the networking driver over to the computer. This is probably an issue for all of the motherboards you buy today. I hope they can change this as every computer still has USB ports.
There are many cheaper motherboard options, I don’t believe that there is a similar level of value in many of the cheaper options.
Both of the new Nvidia cards, the 1080 and 1070 are now available but almost only in the expensive “founders edition” until supply meets up with demand. You’re not a founder if you are paying for something and not receiving a share of the profit the company makes. For the first few weeks with this computer I was still using an older 970, 3.5 gigabytes of RAM and all. I just got a 1070 and don’t have much to say about it besides that it is faster than the 970. It might not be a big deal today, but it is the final component you need to be ready for virtual reality. HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift both require at least a 970. The 1070 should be good for a few years more than the 970.
The 1060 was just announced and will be cheaper than the 1070 and still faster than a 980 when it is released later this month. It sounds like a great deal for playing games today if you aren’t interested in virtual reality.
The one issue with this card is that the display port connector supposedly doesn’t work with the HTC Vive. Nvidia is investigating the issue. It is kind of ridiculous that it doesn’t work out of the box and that this wasn’t discovered and resolved by Nvidia earlier. VR support is a big deal for people buying these cards.
Brands of power supplies supposedly vary greatly in quality from model to model due to differences in which manufacturer actually built model x versus model y for brand z. I say “supposedly” because I have not personally run into an issue with a power supply in the past decade. These days I think you are fine as long as your power supply has some kind of brand attached to it that you have heard of previously.
There are, however, a few things you do want to be picky about when selecting a power supply.
I try to stick with around 650-750 watt power supplies for my computers because I never have more than one graphics card, which is generally going to be the one item that draws the most power. One graphics board and a good processor like the 6700k might not need 750 watts, but if somehow you were to get a not-so-great power supply what you would end up with is one that cannot meet the advertised wattage. By how much? A few hundred watts.
The other thing that I now care about that I did not before is the advertised efficiency of the power supply. That’s where you get your bronze or silver or gold rating. I’m not an electrician, so take what I say here with a few dump trucks of salt. My understanding of a power supply’s efficiency is how much of the wattage input into the supply is converted to waste heat, and how much is legitimately used for the output. So, if your 1000 watt power supply has a demand of 500 watts from the other computer components and the power supply actually uses 950 watts to supply those 500 watts to the components and the rest of those 450 watts are expelled as waste heat, well, then you’ve bought an incredibly shitty power supply and should have just gotten a more efficient 650 watt unit.
The final thing that you are going to want to look for in a good power supply is that it is modular. Modular power supplies let you choose what cables you need. So you could choose to hook up two hard drives, one video card, your motherboard, and you won’t have cables that aren’t connected to anything laying around your case.
All that to say, don’t cheap out on power supply. It’s a component that ages well and if you get a good one today you can easily take it on to your future computer builds.
I chose the EVGA SuperNOVA 750 G1. It’s the most boring component in the system, but it meets all of these criteria. This SuperNOVA is 750 watts, it’s got “gold rated efficiency” which equates to 90% efficiency “under typical load” according to EVGA, and it is modular.
Picking the right components for a do-it-yourself gaming computer takes more research and work than putting those components together. I actually tried to go to a Microsoft store and see what off-the-shelf options they had before buying this, they had no desktop computer towers. I tried Best Buy, they had nothing comparable in-store and every option they had online was way more expensive than building it myself and had lower-quality components. The same was true for all of the system builders available online.
After building your own computer there are many points of failure and many different warranties to keep track of. If one component fails and you do not have a backup you will be without your gaming computer for weeks. On the rare occasion when I have had Mac hardware fail I have been able to make an appointment and get the issue resolved or the computer replaced, by Apple, with a newer model at no cost to me. Sometimes on the same day.
All that said, this computer is great. It’s going to work well for virtual reality gaming whenever I’m able to get a headset in the next year or two, and I’ll be able to upgrade the components that need upgrading for the next 4-5 years without a complete rebuild.
The current recommended specification for VR is almost identical between the Oculus Rift and the SteamVR HTC Vive. It’s based on an i5-4590 and a GTX 970. Oculus even partnered with system builders to make systems that are VR-ready. That should be what developers are targeting as a recommended specification for their VR games for a few years. This build is based on the i7-6700k and GTX 1070, it should be good for a few more years after that.