This is my rig: 3D designer Rich Ackermann
The winter of 2013 was a busy one, pushing my aging socket 775 workstation to the breaking point. Both of us were showing the symptoms of working long hours, and after five years of heavy use, the Nvidia chipset-based system was plagued with failing components and BSODs. Unlike other unexpected expenditures, the idea of replacing my workstation was exciting. Building a new system may have been a necessity to keep my projects on schedule but I was going to indulge.
I’ve been building my own PCs for over a decade and as my attempts to personalize them evolved it became apparent that my machines were as much about artistic expression as about performance. The dying 2008 build had been my introduction to liquid cooling and resulted in a functional but novice effort. Now I had the maturity to create a first-class loop that looked as good as it cooled, and what better to pair it with than a X79 hexa-core processor?
This article will walk you through the components I chose, why I chose them and how I feel about them now that the system is running. My goal was simple: an attractive, clean-looking liquid-cooled system that would function as a workstation and gaming PC. I wanted to address the little details that would put this system a cut above anything I’ve designed in the past. Finally, I wanted it to be something I would be excited to turn on and work with.
There were no budgetary constraints when building this system other than paying sensible prices and not complicating the build with unnecessary options. A decent liquid cooling setup such as this allows for some extreme overclocking, though my goal was to run a moderate, stable overclock.
CPU: 6-core Intel Core i7-3930K Sandy Bridge-E
The very first decision was to use Intel’s X79 Platform. With six cores and support for 64GB of RAM my multi-threaded, 64-bit programs will take advantage of some serious power. The 3930K is an “unlocked” processor allowing total freedom in overclocking and is the most cost effective solution in the X79 lineup. (The Intel Core i7-3960X runs at 3.3GHZ, instead of 3.2GHz, and costs $500 more.)
One other thing I considered was that the Sandy Bridge-E processors are the last to use real thermal material between the die and lid. There are those who claim the cheaper material Intel uses on the later processors can reduce cooling efficiency.
Motherboard: MSI Big Bang XPower II, LGA 2011, Intel X79 chipset
It took me awhile to commit to this MSI board. I mulled it over for days, with the ASUS P9X79 series being the other top contender. Originally I had wanted to liquid-cool the motherboard chipset and topmost MOSFETs and these water blocks are only manufactured for select boards. (I abandoned this idea later for fear of crowding the motherboard).
More importantly, this was one of the few X79 boards with manufacturer-tested 64GB RAM kits (see the memory section for more info) available. With a vast array of features including USB 3.0, SATA 6.0Gb/sec, RAID, 4-way SLI, Firewire, military-grade MOSFET capacitors, PWM fan compatibility, UEFI, and overclocking utilities, the Xpower II is a flagship board that fills the large motherboard compartment of my Cosmos II case.
With so many computer being built with Asus motherboards I wanted to do something a little different. Time will tell if this was the right decision.
Graphics card: Gigabyte Geforce GTX 780
I had pretty much decided to put two GTX 680 cards in SLI when I discovered the release date for the GTX 780 was only a week away. Advertised as the “Titan Light” with impressive benchmarks, I decided to wait out the week. Sure enough it appeared in stores and I placed the order. I didn’t want to wait weeks for a third party manufacturer to produce compatible waterblocks so it was great news to find out it was compatible with blocks made for the Titan card.
Disassembling a brand new $700 video card is nerve-wracking but the results are amazing. I firmly believe it is more important to liquid cool the GPU than the CPU. I have had many graphics cards and their fans fail from prolonged heat exposure which will not happen on a card that rarely goes over 40 degrees Celsius. Enabling CUDA with this card and compatible software allows me almost real-time video encoding.
Next page: Storage, RAM, and PSU…
Storage: Samsung 512GB 840 Series SSD and two Toshiba 3TB hard drives
Building a high end system today pretty much requires running an SSD, especially for the boot drive. With a read/write speed of over 500Mbps these drives are remarkably fast. Being able to copy large video files in a matter seconds never grows old. I opted for a 512GB Samsung 840 Series due to its capacity and frequently occurring sales. In addition to the OS, I am installing games to the SSD and the extra space is welcome.
SSD owners seem to be a nervous bunch, with entire websites dedicated to lists of supposed OS tweaks to increase SSD performance and lifespan. I’m taking a more casual approach, giving the Samsung wizard software management of my SSD-related options. One thing to note is that many X79 boards cannot enable TRIM for SSDs that are part of a RAID.
My main storage is a dual hard drive RAID0. I bought two 7200 RPM, 3TB Toshiba drives for massive 6TB of storage. In addition to 3D scene files and high resolution images I deal with a lot of video files. The RAID is not as fast as the SSD but it’s plenty quick for most applications.
As it turns out the Intel RST was the source of my only technical issues after completing the build. Every few days, the system would suffer a BSOD. By analyzing mini-dumps I was able to isolate it to the RAID chipset fairly quickly but fixing the situation would prove time consuming. As part of intel’s X79 specifications, Intel provides the RAID hardware built into the motherboards. You have the option of running the RAID as RST or RSTe (enterprise). The array needs to be enabled in The BIOS before the OS installation for proper setup but even after doing everything right I was experiencing crashes every few days. I sought out some advice online and eventually I updated the BIOS on the RAID chip itself. After installing the corresponding driver version I had finally achieved stability. Because of the trial and error nature of testing each driver version it took over a month to fix.
Memory: G.SKILL 64GB Ripjaws Z series 1600MHz
When throwing around system ideas I kept coming back to the idea of having 64GB of RAM. At the time it seemed like an obscene amount considering my previous machine had 8GB. It is also important to mention that filling all the ram slots, was aesthetically for me , the only option. After doing a little research I found out that using eight sticks of RAM was prone to instabilities that using one or two sticks might not be. I thought about how much it would stink to have to RMA memory back and forth while my brand new workstation sat around unusable. But people were doing it and most of them agreed on a few things. For instance, buying all eight sticks together in a matched set seem paramount. Buying a matched set that was certified by the motherboard manufacturer would also help. Finally, others recommended keeping the speed close to the Intel platform standard of 1333MHZ.
In the end my options were Corsair or the G.SKILL Ripjaws Z Series set that I purchased. Using the XMP profile for 1600MHZ resulted in 100% memory stability. And I can attest, it is nice to have that much RAM.
Power supply: Corsair AX860i
This is an 860 watt power supply featuring Platinum (80%) efficiency. The “i” at the end of the model number indicated the digital (DSP) control and Corsair Link features, allowing real time monitoring (and in some cases control) of aspects of the power supply. It has a “test” feature which works without having to hook up the 24 pin power cable.
This is a nice power supply, but my real reason for choosing it over other units of equal quality are the sleeved cables sets that Corsair offers. They offer the cables in six colors, and everything from the main 24-pin power cable to the SATA and molex cables, are professionally sleeved.
If your not familiar with sleeving, it is the process of individually covering the cables that make up the overall cable with a rounded textile like paracord, usually in a multi-colored theme. It is a personal preference and purely aesthetic. I happen to love the look and the way it make cables easier to organize allowing for a tidier case interior. Most hardcore modders sleeve their own cables . I have done so in the past and it is time consuming. I chose to purchase pre-sleeved cables as a time saving measure.
Next page: The case and cooling…
Case: Coolermaster Cosmos II
Before I think about the CPU or motherboard I think about the case and the cooling. For me, this is the blank canvas where form will meet function. In the past I’ve done elaborate things with cases such as refinishing and custom fabrication. For this project however, I wanted to keep the exterior mostly stock.
The Coolermaster Cosmos II is unique in it quality and possibilities (and should be as it is by far the most expensive case I have ever purchased). It is a combination of brushed aluminum, steel and plastic (mostly to keep the weight down) and supports up to 10 fans and 13 hard drives. Three of the four hard drive cages are removable giving the owner complete freedom over what goes where. The side panels function like “suicide doors” on high-end automobiles and can be removed without any tools, on the fly.
The case is divided into two compartments, a large one for the motherboard and a smaller bottom compartment for hard drive cages and liquid cooling equipment. Sectioning off of the interior in this way gives it a very clean, organized appearance. The interior of the case is built with cable management in mind featuring plenty of space behind the motherboard as well as strategic notches around the case where cables can be zip-tied together.
Some of the more unique features of the Cosmos II include two SATA hot swappable drive bays, a magnetic drive bay door that moves up and down, a built in fan/LED light controller built in USB hub. The built-in fan/LED controller only works well with proprietary Coolermaster fans that feature both fan power and LED power leads and has been source of contention for many owners. I agree that a case this expensive should have invested in a real rheobus fan controller instead of the proprietary system they went with.
The Cosmos II case is a good liquid cooling case if you go into it comfortable with its’ few limitations. Most glaring is the lack of space between the top of the motherboard and top of the case. This basically limits you to a “slim” radiator in the top. Depending on the motherboard, you may be able to squeeze a push/pull fan configuration up there. For me this wasn’t really a concern because of my “Monsta” 80mm radiator in the lower chamber, But it just feels odd that such a large case would come up short on space.
For those who have never seen this case in person, it is huge. It supports XL-ATX motherboards and 4-way SLI with plenty of space to spare. Seeing it for the first time, one cannot get over just how big it is. Fully loaded, I estimate it to weigh over 75 pounds.
- Supports 4 Way SLI/CF
- Supports XL-ATX / SSI CEB / SSI EEB boards
- Advanced Control Panel includes 4 channel fan speed control
- Rich I/O support: USB 3.0 x 2, USB 2.0 x 4, e-SATA x 1, Audio In and Out
Optical: LG BH14 Blu-ray/Mdisc writer
I was excited to finally be able to burn my own Blu-ray discs. I still use optical media as an archival backup and it is not uncommon to burn multiple DVD’s to backup individual projects. The extra space bluray discs feature will speed up the process and take up less space. This LG drive is also compatible with their proprietary disc media, Mdisc. Mdisc are the ultimate backup format in that they are designed to last 1000 years.
The discs are still a little pricey, but the possibility that my descendants will be able to look at my digital photos justifies the additional cost.
I spent a few weeks designing this loop which features CPU/GPU blocks, two radiators and a pump/reservoir combo unit.
I wanted this loop to look as well as it performs so I spent some time experimenting with compression fittings at different angles (0, 45, 90 degrees). The Bitspower triple rotary has the advantage of adjusting to tubing length (instead of twisting) and allowing you to attach the tubing before installing the fitting. In my case, they also seem to fit the 3/4-inch tubing I am using better than the monsoons, which required heating of the tubing to fit over the barb. The monsoon fittings are very cool looking and are available in many color combinations but the rotary capabilities of the Bitspower fittings were necessary in the majority of positions in my loop.
The CPU waterblock I chose is the Mips Iceforce HF. Mips are known for their high quality, stylized liquid cooling blocks. The Iceforce has the highest flowrate of any 2011 blocks available and is a nice alternative to the mainstream blocks such as EK And Koolance.
Note: As of Sept 2013 Mips has “stopped making waterblocks due to economic reasons.” They had some of the best looking (and performing) gear in the business.
My GPU Waterblock is the XSPC Razor GTX/Titan with backplate. It features an Acrylic top with a thin stainless steel plate between a copper base and acrylic. This allows the use of LED lighting, while keeping the strength all metal waterblock.The multiport connector gives you many choices for neatly routing your tubing (seven ports) and was a lifesaver on my build when my initial plans didn’t work out.
The heart of the loop is the Swiftech PWM MCP655EK D5 Pump. By using a PWM pump and fans I am able to automate the cooling system without adding bulky PWM controllers or expensive sensor based automation PCIe cards. The pump was fitted with an EK X-Res pump top and integrated reservoir. By fabricating my own pump mounts (and not using a drive bay pump/res combo) I am able to eliminate vibrations and unwanted noise.
Cooling everything down are two Alphacool radiators (a 3x120mm slim and and a 2x120mm “Monsta” radiator which is 80mm thick) Both rads are fitted with Noiseblocker BlackSilentPRO PLPS 120mm PWM fans that connect to a Swiftech PWM fan hub.
Connecting everything is 3/4-inch XSPC FLX PVC black tubing. Tubing this large looks great but is hard to work with and I wanted the tubing to look its best. To achieve this required I boil it, form the bends and then cool it in icewater. In some cases I repeated this two or three times. The rotary fittings are slightly forgiving in regards to length but the non-angled compression fittings required the tubing to be exactly the right length in order to avoid the tubing exerting pressure on the components.
Finally, I filled the loop with 250ml of Mayhems Pastel Red Concentrate (combined with 750ml of Pure Distilled Water). Distilled water is the best performing coolant hands down but I wanted something colorful. Coolant dyes often result in clogs, stained hardware and sometimes worse. The Mayhem Pastel coolants don’t have these problems and they look amazing. I’ve been using it for almost 5 months now with no issues, and the performance has been stellar. To fill the loop I use a large syringe connected to 6-inch of tubing removed from a butterfly syringe. This allows easy access to the reservoir opening with virtually no risk of spilling or splashing. If I have a problem I can have the loop emptied in a few minutes, thanks to a Bitspower mini-valve fitting connected to one of the unused ports on the bottom radiator.
Here is full list of all hardware used in the liquid cooling loop:
- Temp Monitor: XSPC LCD Dual Temp Sensor
- CPU Waterblock: MIPS Iceforce X79
- GPU Waterblock: XSPC Razor GTX/Titan with backplate
- Radiators: Alphacool NexXxoS ST30 Slim Profile Triple 120mm
- Alphacool NexXxoS Monsta Dual 120mm
- Coolant Pump: Swiftech PWM MCP655
- Tubing: XSPC FLX PVC tubing – 1/2-inch ID (3/4-inch OD)
- Reservoir: EK D5 X-Res Pump Top
- 204mm X3-Res
- EK Multi-top
- Fittings: Bitspower Triple Rotary compression (45° and 90°)
- Coolant: Mayhem Pastel coolant
- Fans: One Phobya Nano G14 PWM 220mm
- Fan hub: Swiftech 8-Way PWM splitter
- Five NB BlackSilentPRO120mm
- Thermal Paste: XSPC and Prolimatech
Next page: Wrapping up the build…
Odds and ends
I ignored the temptation to install a plethora of monitoring devices, settling for dual temperature sensors placed within the loop and mounted in the front bay. Combined with the motherboard GPU’s build in temperature sensors I have all the information I need to monitor the loop.
I’m using XSPC thermal paste on the GPU block and Prolimatech thermal paste on the CPU block. I test my thermal paste beforehand with an old CPU cooler and a CD jewel cover to get an idea of how it spreads using the “pea” method.
For peripherals I’m using the Corsair Vengeance K70 Mechanical Keyboard and the Mionix Naos 8200 laser mouse. The Mionix is nice but lacks a weighting system. The Corsair K70 is the best keyboard I have ever used, and the red backlight goes well with my theme.
Radiator gaskets from XSPC keep the fan vibrations down and optimize air flow to/from the radiator. The system is lit with an 80-inch NZXT white Led strip and two white cold cathode lights in the top of the case. I fabricated a custom mounting bar to secure the pump and reservoir in its position behind the main hard drive cage.
I get all my cable management supplies from moddiy.com — their selection is unsurpassed. My cable management behind the motherboard is not as orderly as I envisioned but it is important to remember how many devices I am running. Many of the build photos with “perfect” cable organization are running a single SSD SATA and power cable, whereas I have three drives, two hot swap bays and an optical drive.
Finally, I didn’t want to hide all my hard work behind the original case panel and my original plan was to install a window into the panel. But before I contemplated size or placement I discovered mnpctech.com was manufacturing their own replacement acrylic panels. After being sold out for nearly a month I was able to order one and when it arrived it was chipped. After a few phone calls a replacement was sent out that arrived safely. The acrylic panel uses the original hinge and once installed can be removed in the same fashion without tools. It was the perfect way to finish the build.
I spend a lot of time at the computer — it’s my main source of income — so it is only natural I would want to build something I am excited to use. In the five years since my last build my tastes have matured and I feel this machine reflects that. Too often “custom” equals “tacky” in the pc world and I wanted to avoid that. By planning everything out beforehand I was able to limit things going wrong and ensure everything fit the theme of the build.
I still have a ways to go configuring and optimizing the system, especially in regards to overclocking. Since working out the RAID driver issues I have had zero stability issues. It has met and surpassed all of my performance expectations while remaining cool and quiet. Gaming looks better than ever and I am looking to forward to future software that really takes advantage of the graphical power.
If you are thinking about building a custom system I encourage you to do so. Its a great feeling of accomplishment and you just might discover your inner artist.
I started building custom PCs in the late ’90s as an affordable alternative to silicon graphics machines. Since then I’ve worked as a 3D artist and animator for games and broadcast as well as visual effects for video and film.
If you want to see more pictures check out the build site. Feel free to contact me about my build (or your build) at email@example.com.
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