Build It: How to Build a Kick-Ass Ivy Bridge Gaming PC, Step by Step

Maximum PC Staff

Note: This build-it originally ran in the July issue of Maximum PC--some pricing info may have changed.

THE MISSION Intel’s Ivy Bridge CPUs (and the corresponding Z77 Panther Point chipset) finally dropped in late April, and Ivy Bridge brings more than just the expected thermal and power improvements over Sandy Bridge. You can read an in-depth report on Ivy Bridge if you're interested , but for our purposes, it’s enough to know that the Ivy Bridge Core i7-3770K is the successor to the Sandy Bridge Core i7-2600K. It has a slightly faster clock speed than the 2600K, but it requires less power and delivers more performance per clock than its predecessor.

It doesn’t make sense to upgrade from a Sandy Bridge to an Ivy Bridge processor or motherboard, but if you’re building a new PC, Ivy Bridge is the way to go.

This month’s project, then, is simple: Build a new gaming PC with an Ivy Bridge motherboard and CPU. I’ll also be using Nvidia’s GTX 680 GPU and Western Digital’s new 1TB VelociRaptor, just for kicks.

CHOOSING THE HARDWARE

THIS IS A MACHINE built from the CPU out. The CPU, of course, is Intel’s new Core i7-3770K, the successor to the 2600K. The 3770K is a quad-core 3.5GHz CPU with Hyper-Threading and 8MB of L3 cache, not to mention Intel’s new HD 4000 integrated graphics (which we won’t be using). And with a TDP of just 77W, it’s a power sipper.

The 3770K gets a brand-new motherboard to go with it. Asus’s P8Z77-V Pro gives the perfect mix of price and performance—it supports up to 32GB of RAM and it has two x16 PCIe 3.0 slots, two native Intel USB 3.0 ports as well as some Asmedia ones, and both native Intel and Asmedia 6Gb/s SATA ports. It also includes a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth dongle, which is cute and potentially useful.

Because of the CPU’s low TDP, Xigmatek’s Gaia cooler will be sufficient even with a moderate overclock. It can cool an overclocked Core-i7 3960X; it can handle this.

The PSU is a bit overkill, but it gives me breathing room if I want to add a second GPU later.

Nvidia’s GTX 680 is the new 900-pound gorilla; it’s faster than AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 in most benchmarks and it’s just $500. It also consumes less power than the 7970 during use.
With RAM so cheap, it’s tempting to get 16GB, but 8GB is plenty for a gaming machine, so I’ll stick with that for now.

Western Digital’s latest VelociRaptor is 1TB of 10,000rpm mechanical storage. It’s not as speedy as an SSD, but it averages 160MB/s read and writes with random-access times that are twice as fast as a standard mechanical drive. I normally prefer an SSD/HDD combo, but this is my chance to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and see what the VelociRaptor can do.

I’m also stepping out of my comfort zone with the case. Enermax’s Fulmo is a mid‑tower with plenty of stock air cooling, striking blue LED fans, and a look that’s reminiscent of Cooler Master’s 690 II Advanced, but with a far more interesting interior.

INGREDIANTS
PART
URL
PRICE
Case
Enermax Fulmo Advance www.enermaxusa.com $99
PSU
Thermaltake Toughpower Grand 850W www.thermaltakeusa.com $190
Mobo
Asus P8Z77-V Pro www.asus.com $225
CPU
Intel Core i7-3770K www.intel.com $315
Cooler Xigmatek Gaia www.xigmatek.com $30
GPU Nvidia GTX 680 www.nvidia.com $500
RAM 8GB Corsair Vengeance www.corsair.com $50
Optical Drive Samsung SH-222AB CD/DVD burner www.samsung.com $20
Hard Drive 1TB WD VelociRaptor www.wdc.com $320
OS Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (OEM) www.microsoft.com $139
Total $1,888

We tested both boards with a 3.3GHz Core i7-3960X, 16GB of DDR3/1600, a 150GB Western Digital Raptor, a GeForce GTX 580, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional SP1. Performance scores for the SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0 were attained using CrystalDiskMark 3 run against an OCZ Enyo USB 3.0 drive and an OWC Mercury Extreme Pro SSD .

1.COOL IT, MAN

INSTALL the CPU, RAM, and cooler onto the motherboard before installing the mobo into the case, because the Xigmatek Gaia’s rubber fan mounts are friggin’ annoying. The i7-3770K is a standard LGA1155 CPU, so you’ll just need to open the lift arm, align the CPU into the socket, place it down gently, and re-secure it by closing the socket gate and lift arm. The Gaia uses a backplate with four tall mounting posts that poke through the motherboard to surround the socket; secure it to the motherboard with the knurled nuts.

Apply a smallish dot of thermal paste to the center of the CPU heat spreader, then slide the Gaia heatsink down the posts to rest on the CPU and secure with the mounting nuts. Secure the fan to the RAM side of the heatsink using the rubber mounting posts and plug the fan into the CPU_FAN header. Install the RAM into the two blue RAM slots.

2.STAND BY, FAN CONTROL

THE FULMO includes front-panel fan speed and LED control, but in order for it to work the three controllable fans (two 12cm front panel fans and one 18cm side intake fan) have to be wired to specific controller boards inside the case, and I learned from experience that it’s easier to do this before any of the parts are in the case.

There are two 2-pin leads from the top of the case: The shorter one goes to the first connector in the LED control panel at the center-right of the motherboard tray, and the other goes to the fan‑speed control at the lower right of the mobo tray. Plug the 2-pin leads from the front fans into the LED control panel and the 3-pin leads to the lower two 3-pin connectors on the speed‑control panel. Each panel will have an extra connector; those are for the 18cm fan on the side panel.

3.THE MOTHER OF ALL BOARDS

NOW THAT THE FANS are configured and the CPU, RAM, and cooler are mounted to the motherboard, it’s time to place the motherboard into the case. Make sure all nine ATX motherboard standoffs are installed, and then place the I/O shield into its opening. Mount the motherboard into the case, making sure all nine mounting holes are used. Connect the HD_Audio, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and front-panel connectors to the motherboard.

4.GIMME POWER

CABLE ROUTING IS my least favorite part of the Enermax Fulmo case, so it’s best to be scientific about it. Install the PSU into the bottom of the case (with the fan pointing down), then connect only the cables you’ll need: two 6-pin PCIe cables, one 4-pin Molex strand, and one strand of SATA power connectors. Route all but the 24-pin motherboard power cable through the grommeted hole right next to the PSU, and run the 24-pin through the non-grommeted hole on the far side of the fan controller. Bring the 8-pin ATX power cable through the hole at the top left of the mobo tray and connect it to the mobo; then bring the 24-pin cable through the mobo tray next to its connector and plug that in, too.

5.GETTING GRAPHIC

ANOTHER JOY of the Fulmo: It uses plastic PCIe slot retention brackets that are absolutely useless if you have a dual-slot card like the GTX 680—or indeed most modern videocards. Install the GPU into the top 16x PCIe slot and secure it using two screws, then shake your fists at the gods of plastic PCIe retention clips. Bring the two 6-pin PCIe power cables through a hole in the mobo tray and connect them to the GPU.

6.DRIVE IN

THE FULMO has two standard 3.5-inch hard drive mounts and several odd ones. I mounted the VelociRaptor into one of the standards using the screws provided for that purpose, but if you have more than two drives (or you want to use a 2.5-inch drive), you get to mount them vertically on flip-down mounting panels. You can see one flipped down in the foreground, and one in the upright position in the background. Connect SATA power and data to the drive, then install the optical drive in the topmost 5.25-inch slot and connect power and data to that drive, as well (not pictured).

7.BEHIND THE SCENES

BEFORE YOU TURN on the machine, don’t forget to connect a 4-pin Molex power connector to the fan‑speed controller and to the 4-pin connector coming from the case’s front panel. If you’ve been careful, you’ll now have a fine, somewhat cleanly wired gaming machine, but don’t be surprised if the area behind the motherboard tray looks a little chaotic. The Fulmo isn’t the best case for cable management, but it’s workable. Now replace the left side panel.

Plug the right-side panel fan into the LED and fan‑speed control panels, then put the right-side panel on, connect the PSU’s power cable, and turn on your new Ivy Bridge machine!

1. These fold-down panels can accommodate several 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch hard drives mounted vertically.

2. Both 12cm front intake fans and the 18cm side-panel fan (not shown) have speed and light controls in the case’s top panel.

3. This PSU-securing strap seems more decorative than functional, but why take chances?

THE IVY BRIDGE DIFFERENCE

IVY BRIDGE dOESN’T overclock as easily as Sandy Bridge or Sandy Bridge-E, but I was still able to get to an easy 4.2GHz by boosting the CPU’s Turbo ratio in the BIOS, and I could have pushed it further if I had more time. Regardless, Intel’s not joking about Ivy Bridge’s prowess: This machine, with an Ivy Bridge i7-3770K at 4.2GHz, performed slightly better than our June 2012 Build It, which featured a Sandy Bridge-E i7-3820 at 4.4GHz. Clock for clock, Ivy Bridge wins.
We used the exact same GPU in both the Ivy Bridge box and the Sandy Bridge-E machine, and they performed the same in gaming benchmarks. No shock there.

BENCHMARKS
ZERO POINT
Ivy Bridge
Vegas Pro (sec)
3049 2,418
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356 258
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112 887
MainConcept 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,698
stalker: CoP (fps) 42.0 62.6
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 151.3

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1,750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.

To my surprise, the lack of an SSD didn’t hurt me in the benchmarks, except perhaps in Sony Vegas Pro 9, where my machine lagged slightly behind last month’s build. Windows doesn’t load quite as fast, nor do game levels, but despite its lack of an SSD, this month’s rig feels very fast. Granted, the VelociRaptor is a $300 mechanical 1TB drive, and the fastest we’ve ever experienced.

If you’re building a gaming PC from scratch today, Ivy Bridge—specifically the Core i7-3770K—is the way to go, unless you think you’ll want to upgrade to a six-core CPU down the line. But for $1,888 with a top-of-the-line graphics card, this Ivy Bridge machine is tough to beat on either price or performance.

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