August 8, 2013
Sebastian Anthony

This is my rig: Sebastian Anthony

With each successive microarchitecture release from Intel since I built my Nehalem-based PC at the beginning of 2010, I kept asking myself, “is it time to upgrade?” Sandy Bridge was nice, but it wasn’t worth upgrading for a paltry 15% performance boost. Likewise, another 10% from Ivy Bridge just wasn’t enough. I had already decided ahead of time that Haswell would finally be it, that I would finally bite the bullet and upgrade — but then, when benchmarks started to arrive and it was yet another small step up, I started to have second thoughts. Was this really going to be the first time in history that I’ve used the same rig for more than four years?

Eventually, though, I sat down and thought about it rationally: Once you add up all of the small, incremental upgrades, Haswell would be around 50% faster than Nehalem — and for someone who does a lot of work with photos and videos, and a fair bit of gaming, that’s a pretty serious upgrade. I had some misgivings about Haswell’s lack of overclockability, but my Core i7-930 was never very comfortable over 4GHz on air, while early Haswell overclocks seemed to have no problem hitting 4.2GHz or more. The i7-930 had some monstrous memory bandwidth thanks to its triple-channel memory controller — but with a bit of overclocking, I was fairly certain that a new Haswell system would be capable of matching that bandwidth (plus, the real-world difference between 21GB/sec and 26GB/sec is really rather minimal).

With the upgrade path fully rationalized — with the mental verification that my new rig could be significantly faster than the last — I then set out to pick the parts.

Seb's rig: Core i7-4770K in Asus Z87-Pro motherboard, close

CPU: Intel Core i7-4770K

My previous computer was powered by the Core i7-930, one of the finest CPUs Intel has ever made. In its time, the 930 was by far the fastest chip on the consumer market, and capable of some truly astonishing overclocks — from 2.9GHz to 4GHz without batting a perfectly made-up eyelid. To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t upgrade to Ivy Bridge was because I didn’t want a CPU with an integrated GPU. I thought about waiting for the “enthusiast” Ivy Bridge-E parts (4820, 4930K), but I wasn’t sure if I would really make use of the quad-channel memory — and anyway, it isn’t clear if the 4820 will actually be faster than the 4770K for my usage patterns. Plus, the overclockable 4930K is almost twice the price of the 4770K.

So, I opted for the Haswell-based Core i7-4770K — and boy am I happy that I did. It wasn’t cheap ($425), but that’s pretty much the case with all components in the UK.

Seb's rig: Noctua NH-U14S cooler

Cooler: Noctua NH-U14S

Back in the olden days, when I was a hardcore hardware guy, I would choose a cooler by poring through forums and reviews. In this case, I simply took the advice of ExtremeTech’s hardware analyst, Joel Hruska. Basically, he loves the fact that Noctua provides free upgrade kits for new sockets, so that you can keep using the same cooler for years to come. My only other requirement was that the cooler must be silent — and it turns out that the Noctua NH-U14S is silent and very highly reviewed. So, that’s what I went for. It cost $85.

Next page: Motherboard, graphics card, and storage

Motherboard: Asus Z87-Pro

What happened to the good old days when you could buy a good motherboard for around $150? The Asus Z87-Pro set me back almost $260. We should probably blame inflation, or something. Anyway, for that rather exorbitant price, you do get one of the fastest, most overclockable, and feature-rich LGA 1150 motherboards on the market — and gold-plated heatsinks. (Just kidding.) You get six SATA 6Gbps ports (with Intel RAID support), Gigabit Ethernet, six USB 3.0 ports, a bunch of USB 2.0 ports, and even on-board WiFi and Bluetooth (which I’ve always wanted).

Seb's rig: Motherboard and CPU

There is also an inordinate number of on-board buttons and switches for automatically testing the RAM (MemOK), or automatically overclocking your CPU (Asus TPU). The BIOS (a swanky EFI-based thing) lets you change just about anything (it almost has too many options; it’s daunting), and AI Suite is an impressive tool for managing your overclocks and fan speeds in Windows. There’s also a feature called EPU, which promises to reduce your system’s power consumption, but I haven’t played with that much yet.

Performance-wise, I haven’t done any extensive benchmarking yet, but the reviews suggest that the Z87-Pro is one of the best Haswell boards out there — and so far, I believe it.

Asus GTX 760

Graphics card: Asus GeForce GTX 760 DirectCU II

Ever since I made the mistake of saving up my allowance for a year to buy the GeForce 2 Ultra, I’ve always opted for mid-range enthusiast cards. In recent memory, I’ve had the Nvidia 6600 GT, 8800 GT, GTX 460, and now the GTX 760 (the last ATI/AMD card I had was the ATI Rage Pro, in case you’re wondering). All of these cards have been pretty close to the $200 sweet spot (though the Asus GTX 760 did cost me nearly $300, to be fair).

There wasn’t any particularly deep and meaningful thinking behind my acquisition of the GTX 760. I looked at some benchmarks and it was the best card for the money. It plays everything at 1920×1200 with all detail sliders set to “max,” and should be more than capable of playing next-gen console ports. Apparently the stock GTX 760 is pretty noisy, too, but the Asus model has a very fancy (and beautiful) cooling solution that keeps the card quiet. Total system noise is a big factor for me, which is why I opted for the Asus model, rather than a GTX 760 based on Nvidia’s stock cooler design.

Seb's rig: The other, messy side

The other, messy side. Note the tool-less SSD cage on the right.

Storage: Lots of SSDs, lots of HDDs

I didn’t buy any new storage devices for my new rig. Instead, I simply plugged in my old drives — and rather impressively, the system drive booted Windows 8.1 without issue. I had to re-activate Windows, but that was it. I currently have a Samsung 840 Pro (system drive), an OCZ Vertex 3 (an RMA replacement for my old Vertex 2), and a bunch of 1TB Samsung Spinpoint hard drives. As you can probably guess, I used to use a Spinpoint as my primary drive, then I moved to the Vertex 2 a couple of years ago, and then a few months ago I switched to the 840 Pro.

In every case, these drives were bought due to a mix of good reviews, and a good performance/price ratio. Ever since I foolishly bought that GF2 Ultra, I have generally shied away from spending stupid amounts of money to get a little more performance. Buying components from the upper-mid range, especially with a little overclocking, is a lot more sensible in my opinion.

Next page: Memory, case and power supply, and overclocking

Memory: Kingston HyperX Beast 16GB (2x8GB) PC3-19200 C11

After sticking with 6GB of RAM in my previous computer (damn you, triple-channel memory!), I decided to get a lot of very good RAM in my new rig — 16GB of fancy Kingston RAM to be exact. Truth be told, at $215, this is probably more than I wanted to spend on RAM — but I’ll just have to make sure I overclock it properly, to get my money’s worth. Currently, using the built-in XMP profile, the RAM is sitting at 2400MHz, but there should be a little more room for overclocking.

Seb's rig: Corsair Carbide 540, under table

Case and power supply: Corsair Carbide 540 and Antec High Current Gamer M 620W

For almost as long as I’ve been building PCs, I’ve used Lian-Li cases. They’re simple, but beautiful, and I love the machined edges, thumbscrews, and other attention to detail. (I have cut my fingers so many times on PCI slots, it’s depressing). With this new rig, though, my cousin (who I attend LAN parties with) told me I should stop being boring and get something that isn’t a Lian-Li.

After reading a lot of reviews and flicking through the pages of my favorite component stores, I decided on the Corsair Carbide 540. I have always loved the wider, server-style cases, and I love cube cases, and so the Carbide 540 ($170) was really love at first sight. The extra width isn’t for everyone, but I have a lot of space under my desk, and I love how imposing it is — my LAN e-peen will be massive. The dual-zone design (GPU/CPU/RAM/HDDs on one side, PSU/ODs/SSDs on the other) means that the cabling is a lot tidier, and air flow should be better as well.

Installation was a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you have a lot more space to work with, but on the other you have to keep switching sides. You have to put the cooler mounting bracket on the right side, then switch to the left to install the cooler itself. You plug the SATA cables in on the left, but then have to flip the case over to plug them into the SSDs. You have to feed all of the power cables from the right to the left, flipping the case each time. The end result is beautiful, though, and it makes me regret not getting a fancy cooling solution. System temperatures are pretty low, and it’s fairly quiet (a lot quieter than my last rig, at any rate).

For the PSU, I simply chose a modular unit from a reliable and highly rated PSU maker that I’ve used extensively in the past. 620 watts is more than enough for this rig as I’m not intending to slot in a second graphics card. The Antec High Current Gamer M 620W wasn’t cheap, though ($120) — but it seems good PSUs rarely are nowadays.

Seb's battle station

Other bits and pieces, and overclocking

That concludes all of the new bits that I bought for this system. In addition, there are three Dell U2412m monitors, an M-Audio USB audio breakout box, a Zoom H2 microphone, and a couple of KRK VXT4 speakers. I have no optical drives in the case, but I do keep an external Samsung USB CD/DVD drive for when I need it. I’m using a Logitech G500 mouse (which I will probably replace soon), and a Filco Ninja Majestouch 2 mechanical keyboard (Cherry Brown switches). The photo above was taken with my old Lian Li rig, and before I got the Filco, but other than that the setup is pretty similar.

Overclocking-wise, I’ve done very little so far except for flip the motherboard’s TPU button, which automatically overclocks the CPU (BCLK and ratio). Right now, the CPU is sitting at 4.3GHz, the RAM is at 2.4GHz, and the GPU core is at stock (1GHz). A core clock of 1.1GHz should be easily possible, though, when I get a chance to do some overclocking.

Conclusion

So far, I’ve only been using my new rig for a few days, and I’m already impressed at the performance gains in Adobe Photoshop and Premiere, and overall system responsiveness. The rig isn’t quite as silent as I’d hoped, so I may need to rejig the fan locations, or replace the three Corsair fans that came bundled with the case.

The system has a lot of overclocking potential, though to be honest I don’t really need the extra performance — especially not at the expense of added noise or power consumption (electricity is expensive in England!) At 4.3GHz on the CPU and 2.4GHz on the RAM, this is already one of the fastest rigs on the planet, and the real-world gains from further overclocking are likely to be minimal. With all of the spare space in the case, though, I have to admit I’m tempted to try out an exotic cooling solution…

Compared to my previous Core i7-930 rig, this new system should have more than enough power to last me another three or four years — plus, with Haswell’s support for FMA3 and AVX2, my rig will probably gain performance as developers update their programs to use the new instructions. Overall, I am very pleased with my choice of components, and look forward to many happy years with my massive (and some would say compensatory) rig.

Now read: This is my rig: ExtremeTech’s Sal Cangeloso