We (Alex Baldwin and William Garcia) are here today with a different spin on the usual weekly PC build. As Ben was unable to put together a build this week due to his busy festive calendar, its down to us slightly less social hardware nerds to put together something.
As we are less imaginative than Ben, the inspiration for these builds came from a guy we’ll call Matt, who wanted a $1500 gaming PC that will also be used for streaming. He doesn’t care much for overclocking, but emphasized that he wanted LEDs, a GTX 970, and great cooling.
With this in mind, I created…
Will’s Build: Red Alert
(Note: Prices in this build guide are from the time of writing and are subject to change.)
I always start gaming builds with the GPU and then focus on building around that. Games are almost always GPU-intensive, and while new/upcoming technologies like Mantle and DirectX 12 may improve the utilization of other components, in the DX11-present, the GPU is king.
Matt already made an excellent choice in targeting NVidia’s GTX 970 GPU (the R9 290 and 290X would have also worked great as Team Red equivalents), so it was up to me to wade through the dozens of 970s and pick the right card for Matt’s rig.
With Matt’s emphasis on quality case cooling, I knew that I wanted an open-air cooler as opposed to a “reference” blower design, as there would be more than enough airflow in the case to accommodate the excess case heat that open-air coolers bring. This would make the benefits of open-air cooling, namely a quieter system and a cooler GPU, come at less of a cost, especially considering the high energy efficiency and low heat output of the 970.
With this in mind, I chose MSI’s Gaming series 970 graphics card with the revamped Twin Frozr V cooler for several reasons. For one, as Ryan Shrout from PC Perspective notes, the card runs exceptionally cool and quiet. Additionally, at a mere 269mm (10.6 inches), it will be able to fit in most mid-tower cases (including the Fractal Arc Midi R2 used in this build) without removing any drive cages, something that cannot be said about similarly performing competitors.
Plus, for $350 with your choice of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, or The Crew, it’s needless to say that this card is an absolute steal for what it provides, and is more than suitable as the heart and soul of a beefed-up gaming rig.
Intel Xeon E3-1231 V3 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($243 at SuperBiiz)
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and an i7 by any other name would dominate benchmarks and games just as…uh…dominantly.
The Xeon E3-1231 V3 is a locked quad-core, hyperthreaded processor based on Intel’s Haswell Refresh architecture. It clocks in at 3.4 GHz with a 3.8 GHz Turbo frequency and comes equipped with 8MB of cache.
If this sounds like a slightly underclocked i7 4790, that’s because it is a slightly underclocked i7 4790, but with two caveats: a lack of an integrated GPU and being $50 cheaper.
For the purposes of this build, the 970 should have things covered in the GPU department, so the 1231 V3 fits the bill just fine.
MSI Z97-G45 Gaming ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($141 at B&H Photo and Video)
When the budget is well above $1,000, building a PC becomes largely about getting the little things right. Diminishing returns on performance will have started to set in a few hundred bones ago, so doing something ridiculous like getting a gaming motherboard for a CPU that literally cannot overclock actually begins to make a twisted bit of sense.
There are some legitimate reasons to look into the Z97-G45 for this build. For one, it has a dragon on the heatsink!
All joking aside, the board packs a serious punch feature-wise, sporting a Killer NIC with network prioritization for games, AMD Crossfire and NVidia SLI multi-GPU support (something that a lot of low-end Z97 boards lack), and an actually-black PCB (nothing makes a build look tackier than a dark-brown motherboard).
Plus, the motherboard will mesh well visually with its MSI Gaming 970 GPU sibling, creating a black/red color scheme that will be re-used throughout the build.
Again, it’s about the little things.
8GB of DDR3 1600 MHz memory is the de facto standard for gaming builds these days, and for good reason: an overwhelming majority of games still do not take advantage of higher capacities or speeds.
Fortunately, this makes purchasing RAM pretty simple. The Team Zeus Red memory is affordable, fits the color scheme, comes from a reliable manufacturer with a lifetime warranty, and hits the 1600 MHz/CL9/1.5V numbers that I like seeing.
With the Team kit being low-profile, it will be easy to install and remove while building/upgrading; memory with a higher heatsink tends to be either difficult or impossible to swap out with tall CPU coolers getting in the way.
Sandisk stepped up their game in a major way with the release of their TLC-based Ultra II SSDs. nCache 2.0, an SLC caching technology, increases both the lifespan and performance of the drive, and Sandisk’s “SSD Dashboard” software is one of the easier software toolkits to navigate.
In the Ultra II, Sandisk released a solid SSD that is highly affordable for its capacity, making it a great choice for a gaming build.
Other solid choices would include the Crucial MX100, the Samsung 840 EVO, the Kingston HyperX, and the Intel 730.
The typical approach to buying mechanical storage for a gaming build has been to look at the WD Blue drives, but look at the Seagate Barracuda drives, and see what’s cheaper.
Right now, it’s the ‘Cuda.
The fact that a 650 watt power supply can power a $1500 gaming rig with almost 300 watts to spare (if PCPartPicker is to be believed) says a lot about the incredible work that Intel and NVidia have done on the energy-efficiency front.
In fact, this middling-wattage power supply winds up being total overkill. PSUs are at their most efficient at around 50% load, and with this unit only hitting around 360 watts at full capacity, it’s entirely possible that this rig ends up on the eco-friendly side of 200 watts during gameplay, especially considering that it will not be overclocked.
Having said that, the XTR is a power supply worth going overboard for.
Based on the Seasonic G platform used in the Corsair HX series and some of Seasonic’s own units, the XTR features high energy efficiency (at least 90% efficiency at a 325 watt load), a fully modular interface for easier cable management, and a semi-passive mode that turns off the PSU’s fan during light loads for quieter operation. Coupling these selling points with XFX’s 5-year warranty, and the XTR shows why it’s worth its hefty price tag.
With the hyped release of the new Define R5 case, Fractal Design’s Arc series seems to have gone under the radar a bit. As an owner of the internally identical Define R4, however, I can say from first-hand experience that the airflow-optimized Arc Midi R2 is a joy to build in and an excellent case.
With a wide variety of cooling options (including support for 280mm radiators in the front and top), integrated 3-speed fan controller, robust cable management system (Fractal has some of the best rubber grommets in the business and always leaves plenty of space behind the motherboard tray), and arguably the best looking side panel window in any case ever, the Arc Midi has a bevy of compelling features that set it apart from its competitors and should put Matt’s cooling concerns at ease.
Speaking of cooling, that Intel stock CPU cooler isn’t going to cut the mustard.
The Cooler Master 212 and its successors are the most popular aftermarket CPU coolers on the market, and for good reason: they’re reasonably quiet, overclock reasonably well, and are (very) reasonably priced.
Having said that, and with no disrespect to Cooler Master, the 212 Plus is a bit boiler-plate in the looks department. Fortunately, this is where an aftermarket fan, like Corsair’s radiator/heatsink optimized SP120, can come and work magic. In addition to having sound-isolating rubber corners and performing like absolute champ on heatsinks like the 212 Plus, this SP120 has red LEDs that fit in perfectly with the rest of the parts in the rig.
Aftermarket Case Fans
Aftermarket fans often help with cooling and reducing noise, but my motivation for including the Spectre LED fans is simpler than that: they look great.
The LEDs are actually red (with sloppier fans, it can easily end up pink-ish or orange-red), and while the light emitted is clearly visible, Bitfenix bucked the trend of having your LEDs go as bright as possible, which will fit with the craftsmanship of the Arc Midi R2 without getting overly “blingy”.
Two of these fans can be put in the front and controlled by the R2’s internal fan controller (I would probably set them at the middle setting: 5 volts), leaving the remaining two Spectres up top and a stock rear fan to be controlled by the three internal motherboard headers.
Windows 8.1 is the standard for gaming builds in 2014 and into 2015, and unless Linux miraculously gets some much-needed port support, this trend is going to continue.
Matt is a student, so he qualifies for Microsoft’s student discount on Windows 8.1 Pro, which cuts the price down to $70. Additionally, I highly recommend that both college/university and high school students speak with their schools’ IT departments to see if they qualify for free Microsoft products, including Windows, through Microsoft’s DreamSpark program.
For non-students, the price hovers at around $90 for a standard 8.1 license.
Corsair Vengeance® K60 Performance FPS Mechanical Gaming Keyboard (Refurbished) ($39 at Corsair Shop)
This is a Cherry MX Red mechanical keyboard for $39.
If that wasn’t enough, the K60 comes with a brushed aluminum chassis, a rear USB passthrough, dedicated multimedia controls, and a soft-touch wrist rest.
Even as a refurbished unit, getting a well-built, reasonably-featured Cherry MX Red keyboard for less than the price of a new game is a phenomenal deal, especially considering that new keyboards with this feature set tend to be in the $80-$110 range.
Refurbished ACHIEVA SHIMIAN QH270 27″ LED 2560×1440 QHD S-IPS PC Monitor ($179 from GreenSum via eBay)
It’s New Years, so it’s only fitting that the monitor for this build is all about the resolution.
(Sorry. I’ll stop.)
South Korean brands like Achieva, Qnix, X-Star, and Wasabi Mango (Yes, you read that last one correctly) have been selling affordable 1440p monitors worldwide for several years now.
A rig like this one will be able to play most games on high or ultra settings at 1440p and at least 60fps, so limiting it to a 1080p/60 Hz monitor wasn’t going to fly.
At 1440p, the QH270 has the resolution necessary to deliver a sharp 27” image at close distances, something that can’t be said about similar-sized 1080p monitors. Additionally, its IPS panel translates to great color accuracy and viewing angles when compared to standard TN panel displays.
$180 for the QH270 is a complete bargain, even after considering that it’s refurbished. Additionally, the display can currently be purchased for $199 refurbished through Amazon.
All-in-all, this build came to roughly $1510 before rebates and shipping, and while it is slightly over budget, I think that it’s more than worth its cost.
Besides, it has a dragon on the heatsink, and we all know that dragons make things go super-fast!
Go to page 2 to check out Alex’s build!