How to build a badass, silent Haswell gaming PC into an ATX chassis with a GeForce GTX 780 GPU
This month, Intel's "Haswell" generation of desktop CPUs landed in the Lab, so like most builders, we were itching to see how she runs. For the uninitiated, Haswell is an upgrade from Ivy Bridge in terms of power efficiency and performance, but it also comes with a whole new motherboard socket—Socket 1150. We were curious to see if our building regimen would require any adjustments. As luck would have it, Nvidia also launched its 700-series cards this month to much fanfare, and since both of these components are going to be popular parts for upgraders and system builders, we decided to jump into the deep end of the pool with both of them and see how the combo performs in gaming benchmarks.
On the CPU front, we went with Intel's Core i7-4770K, a quad-core chip with Hyper-Threading. The video card we used is the Nvidia reference GTX 780, basically a slightly watered-down GTX Titan. We also threw in a new SSD from SanDisk, a low-noise case in the form of the Thermaltake Soprano, an alternate drive installation method, and an oversized air cooler. Our goal was to build a quiet, Haswell-based gaming rig that would give our zero-point a run for its money.
Assembling the Super Friends
You may have noticed we've been using a lot of cases with sound-absorbing panels lately, and you may think we're crazy, especially since we plan to overclock, but once you've experienced a powerful PC emitting nothing more than a gentle hum, it's hard to go back. This month we tapped the Thermaltake New Soprano (which received a 9/Kick Ass verdict in our February 2013 issue). Its massive 20cm front fan should drag in a lot of cool air, and the 12cm rear fan is no slouch either. We ended up making some modifications to the case’s interior layout in order to improve airflow, which we'll talk about later.
To cool our new Haswell chip we went with a Phanteks TC14PE, which is arguably one of the best air coolers around. That should give us some extra headroom to perform overclocking duties, though the cooler’s massive size makes low-profile RAM necessary. SanDisk also has a new SSD, the Extreme II, which should give quite a boost to general desktop performance. Though the previous model, simply named Extreme SSD, was a bit of a me-too drive with its SandForce controller, this new drive has an all-new Marvell “Monet” controller and 19nm toggle NAND, so it’s primed for high performance. It even uses a tiny bit of super-expensive SLC NAND in addition to traditional MLC in a setup called two-tiered caching, which is supposed to speed up small writes from the OS.
The Intel Core i7-4770K uses Intel's new LGA1150 socket, so we grabbed a brand-new Gigabyte Z87X-UD3H; it's basically the Haswell version of the company’s Z77X-UD3H, which has a reputation for allowing high CPU overclocks and being extremely stable.
Thermaltake New Soprano
Intel Core i7-4770K
Nvidia GeForce GTX 780
Corsair Vengeance 2x 4GB
SanDisk Extreme II 240GB
Seagate Barracuda 3TB
Windows 8 64-bit OEM
1. It's About Time
Intel has had a "tick-tock" development cycle for its last few generations of desktop CPUs, where each "tock" is a new microarchitecture. Haswell is the latest tock. Each iteration has bumped up performance 5–15 percent, depending on the task. Physically, Haswell is pretty much identical to previous comparable Intel chips, despite changing from an LGA1155 socket to LGA1150. So, we were able to just drop it in like an 1155 chip, dab some thermal paste on top, and use the CPU cooler's installation instructions for LGA1155. We could have gone with the Core i5-4570K, which costs about $100 less than the Core i7-4770K, but none were available as of press time. And the i7 has Hyper-Threading, which is nice for multithread tasks like encoding video.
2. Taking a Byte
We chose the Gigabyte Z87X-UD3H because the Z77 version has a good rep for performance and build quality, and this board improves on it. For example, the SATA 6Gb/s port count has gone from two to eight, which is much appreciated. It also has beefier heatsinks around the CPU socket, but we were able to fit the husky Phanteks TC14PE without any obstructions (albeit with low-profile RAM).
Gigabyte has also finally upgraded its unattractive EasyTune performance-tweaking software. Before, you could only plot two points on a graph to tell the board how to manage your fan speeds. Now you have five, for much finer-grained control. You also finally have several speed presets to choose from. You won't get as much overall tweaking as with Asus's AI Suite II, but the BIOS should have nearly everything you need, though it's still not as easy to navigate as we would like.
3. Going to Extremes
Storage duties are handled by Seagate's 3TB Barracuda, which offers a lot of room for the money and is a snappy performer. It’s joined by the SanDisk Extreme 2 SSD, the sequel to a respectable SSD, with the intriguing addition of some internal SLC cache.
We removed the lower drive trays to maximize airflow for the CPU and GPU, and installed the drives in the upper section, which has a 3.5-inch drive bay with storage space for both 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch drives. We had to remove the front fan to extract the slide-out tray through the front of the case. Removing the fan requires removing the front bezel, but it snaps on and off fairly easily.
Click the next page for the final steps along with our conclusion on how well it performs.
4. Music to Our Ears
The Thermaltake New Soprano is a sleek-looking, low-noise case. The thick front door blocks noise coming from the front fan, which has intakes on the sides. The top and sides of the case do not have fan mounts, but that serves to keep the noise down. Both side panels have sound-dampening foam, with the right side's material being thinner to accommodate cables behind the motherboard. The bottom of the case has a 12cm fan mount if you need more airflow, or if you want to put a water cooler on the CPU or GPU.
The motherboard standoffs are pre-installed, so installation went much quicker. The case has a few rubber grommets to the left of the board, and we had no trouble threading cables behind the board's tray. Our choice of drive installation had the drive connectors facing the rear of the case, so we didn't end up with as clean a look as we would have liked.
5.An Olympic GPU
Right now, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 is the second-fastest single-GPU card on the market (*Note: This article was written before the recently revealed GeForce GTX 780 Ti), behind Nvidia's GTX Titan. It's identical in size, and very close in gaming performance, with the main difference between the two being that the 780 has two disabled SMX units, for a total of 12, and lacks double-precision compute capability. Though we already knew the card was fast from our benchmarks, we were also eager to test the card's heat output and noise levels in a PC that we built from scratch. Subjective tests showed it to be noticeably quieter than the Titan (and like that card, you can select a target temperature or power target according to preference). The back of the case has a bracket that helps hold down the PCI slot covers, so we had to remove that before installing the card.
The GTX 780 is 10.5 inches long, so space was a little tight with the storage drives right next to it, but it was manageable. A card that’s 11 inches or longer, such as the GTX 690 or HD 7990, would not have fit unless we installed the drives below the card.
6. Go Big or Go Home
An LGA1155 or 1150 system with a single GPU should run fine on 500 watts of power, so our Corsair HX750 was arguably overkill, but we like having some power in reserve for hot days. It's also a modular PSU, which is better for cable management. It should also produce highly regulated power for overclocking stability, and it's backed by a 7-year warranty. It felt like a unit worthy of a $325 CPU and $650 video card.
The Phanteks TC14PE CPU cooler is a good value for a dual-fan, dual-radiator unit, allowing us a 4.4GHz overclock without excessive noise levels. A water-cooler might have been better, but the case's limited fan mounts would have left us with too few options to add fans for improved airflow through the system. Also, with an untested CPU, GPU, SSD, and motherboard, we wanted to avoid the unpredictability of a new cooler. The RAM also didn't have to be anything exotic, since games don't tend to benefit from high memory speeds, so two sticks of low-profile 1,600MHz Corsair Vengeance DDR3 RAM did the trick.
Haswell That Ends Well
Turning on a new PC for the first time is always a tense moment. With a case as quiet as the New Soprano, we had to double-check that we were actually up and running. Once you get a few feet away, this build is basically silent.
Performance was excellent, too. By default, the Core i7-4770K runs at 3.5GHz and can Turbo Boost one or two of its cores to 3.8GHz when it doesn’t need all four to be running at full speed. We were able to overclock the CPU Turbo Boost on all four cores to 4.4GHz, which is a pretty good result for a CPU not using liquid cooling. The air cooler's dual 12cm fans helped keep the Haswell CPU stable while also delivering a noise level that wasn’t distracting. We tried bumping it to 4.5GHz, but with Prime95 running its gnarliest test, the overclock crossed the 80 degrees C threshold, which is a bit too hot for our tastes, so we settled at 4.4GHz.
Combine that with a GPU core overclock of 150MHz and a GPU memory overclock of 100MHz (effective), and our reference card was benchmarking about 10 percent faster than stock speeds. The GTX 780 put out a lot of heat, but most of it was being blown directly out of the case thanks to the card's blower cooling design. It accomplished this feat despite its fan operating so quietly that it was effectively silent once the case was closed.
The positioning of our storage devices didn't end up being as helpful as we would have liked, since the video card hogged most of the air coming through the intake fan. But the airflow is at least getting to the GTX 780 more quickly, if not the CPU. We had enough airflow to our storage devices, though, as they were both lukewarm, and the SanDisk Extreme II SSD booted quickly and seemed very peppy.
In retrospect, it probably would have been better to go with a more conventional case, or at least one with more fan mounts. For example, if we had two mounts in the top, as with the Fractal Design Define R4 (which is also low-noise), we could have easily put in a 240mm radiator and even set up a custom liquid-cooling loop. Removable drive cages also would have been preferable.
Other than that, the system has a good feel to it. It's rock-solid (after we figured out the right settings for the CPU overclock), runs cool and quiet, and produces blistering performance.
3DMark Fire Strike
3DMark Fire Strike Extreme
Batman: Arkham City (fps)
The zero-point machine compared here consists of a 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K, 16GB of Corsair DDR3/1600 on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard. It has a GeForce GTX 690, a Corsair Neutron GTX SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.