Thursday 27 March 2014

My shiny (well, matt black actually) new Windows 8.1 system!

If you are thinking of buying or building a new PC in the near future, here is a breakdown of my system that I built last week to replace my old 2007 Dell Inspiron 530. These components were bought from eBuyer, though other retailers are available...  ;-)

Click on the QuickFind numbers to view them on the eBuyer website (I don't get commission - honest!)

QtyProduct DescriptionQuickFind
Cost (ex VAT)Line Cost
1 xAsus Z87-A C2 Socket 1150 VGA DVI HDMI DisplayPort 7.1 Channel Audio ATX Motherboard569395£85.80£85.80
1 xIntel Core i5 4670K 3.40GHz Socket 1150 6MB Cache Retail Boxed Processor467647

1 xCooler Master N-Series N600 - USB 3.0 ATX Case512240
1 xG-Skill 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1600Mhz RipjawsX Memory Kit CL9 (9-9-9-24) 1.5V264750

1 xCorsair 500W CX Builder 80 Plus Bronze PSU 3 Year Warranty278634£39.15£39.15
1 xSeagate Desktop SSHD 2TB 64MB Cache SATA 6 Gb/s 8GB SSD Cache hybrid HDD544878


P.S. Due to the 12V minimum load power requirements of the CX 500, it seems this is not a compatible PSU for Haswell boards. I had power-on issues when just powering a few SSD hard disks in this PC (i.e with no graphics card). Corsair recommend the CX750 and CX750M or any of the GS, TX, TX-M, HX, AX Gold, AX Platinum or AXi Series.

Including VAT this came to  £546 + another £73 for Windows 8.1 OEM.
An equivalent ready-made system would have been well over £700 and I would not have got the front 2xUSB 2.0 + 2xUSB 3.0 ports which was a major requirement for me (and possibly would not have got such a good UEFI BIOS and decent mainboard either).
Note: It turns out, the Z87 BIOS will boot from both FAT and NTFS partitions! The firmware will look for a \EFI\BOOT\bootx64.efi boot file on the first 'readable' partition of a USB disk, where 'first' means it has a starting LBA address lower than the other partitions (i.e. it is not determined by the partition table entry order, but by where each partition starts on the disk).

I added to this a 120GB SSD drive and a DVD-RW drive which I already had. The 120GB SSD drive is for quickly installing and removing OS's and general experimentation. I intend to add more drives later.

The Asus Z87-A has a versatile UEFI firmware interface (UEFI BIOS) which was one of my main requirements as well as being a reliable mainboard with decent (Japanese) low-ESD capacitors and VRMs that would last a few years! Less expensive Asus Z87 boards are available if you want to save a few £££s with less PCIe slots, no overclocking and without Display Port. You have to pay for quality.

The Cooler Master N600 case is pretty quiet and doesn't look like the 'General Lee' whilst sitting on my desk! It does have a 'go-faster stripes' blue LED inside the front fan, but it also has a front-panel button to turn the LED off! Pretty much the whole case is made of nicely perforated metal sheeting (it is rather like it is dressed in a filmy black negligee.. OK, I must wake up now and carry on writing this blog, uhhh... where was I? Oh, yes...). The case has two front USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports situated half-way down the front panel on the right. This means I can conveniently use both types of USB ports. Many systems with USB 3.0 ports had the ports situated at the top of the case or did not have both front USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. With the ports on the top of the case, I would have to stand up every time I needed to view the ports and insert a USB drive - not exactly convenient!

The more observant amongst you may notice that I have not added an extra graphics card to the system. The integrated Intel 4600 is pretty good for non-gamer, 2D work, and unless I fork out another £100 or so, I won't see much improvement. So, for now at least, I am not going to add an expensive graphics card as I am not currently into gaming (though I may regress one day - do they still sell Duke Nukem 3D?).

The only thing I might change, in hindsight, would be the power supply due to the cables that came with it. The Corsair 500W CX had 5 SATA hard drive power connectors, but they were configured on two power leads, one with 2 connectors and one with 3 connectors. The spacing between each connector however was far too short. As the Cooler Master had a 5.25" bay, a 3.5" bay and a 3.5/2.5" bay and I had one drive in each bay, I had trouble reaching all three drives using just the two cables! A 4-pin-Molex-to-SATA power converter cable proved handy at this point!
Note that if you want to add two high-performance SLI graphics cards (which I won't be doing), you may need a slightly higher-rated PSU to cope with the increased Amperage!

The CPU is overclocked (though I have just used the BIOS 'default' overclock 'Auto' settings for now) and the stock Intel cooler seems both adequate and quiet. It boots from the SSD or the Seagate hybrid drive to the Desktop in under 10 seconds and is very responsive. The overall PassMark PC Benchmark score running from the Seagate HDD was 2133. If I had run from the SSD it would have been even higher, only let down by the 3D graphics scores. Performance is equivalent to many i7 systems with CPU-Z showing it runs at 4.2GHz on occasion during some of the benchmarks. The memory benchmark score was particularly impressive.
Click the screenshot to enlarge it

I still have plenty of room for expansion (2 free PCIe graphics slots, 2 free DIMM slots and loads of drive bays) so this system should last me for years.

The Dell Inspiron 530 has performed well over the years and never let me down (though I had upgraded it's CPU, graphics, hard drives and memory over time). It now looks rather sad sitting in the corner, all by itself...

Follow up: Read this blog post on how I tracked down and fixed a problem with my wireless mouse on this system.

P.P.S. The stock CPU heatsink+fan assembly turned out to be inadequate when overclocking the CPU and stressing it (it reached 100 deg C and started thermal throttling). If you intend thrash the system or use it for gaming, I would suggest getting a better CPU heatsink solution.
Also the CX500 PSU seemed to have problems with my low-power Haswell CPU (especially after going into CPU Standby low-power mode - it wouldn't power up again!).  I had to connect an old IDE HDD in order to get more power drain on both the 5V and 12V rails before it would power up but even this proved unreliable unless I added some resistors to draw even more power. The Corsair CX750 or CXM750 is a single-rail PSU and does not have these issues with modern low-power CPUs. I eventually replaced my CX500 with a CX750 and had no more power-on issues.

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