So, the other day, my mom’s office computer began to fail – unable to start sometimes and sudden shutdowns. Upon inspection, it turned out, that a lot of the capacitors on the motherboard were swollen. This ancient 10 year old machine has seen a lot and it was time for it to go. Since my mom is a doctor and is quite dependent on her PC to work, I knew that when her computer inevitably dies, she would just go out and buy some shitty prebuilt machine, so I decided that I will build one for her.
The specs of the new build that I chose were complete overkill for an “budget, office build”, but I felt that this particular part list hits the sweet spot on the price / performance ratio. Going cheaper, would mean to sacrifice a lot in terms of functionality. I also choose miniITX format, since I always wanted to build such system, but I always value performance and efficiency over ergonomics and looks, so I had always done only very large case builds.
Cooler Master Elite 110
I picked this case for two reasons – first it was small and cubical (PSU over mainboard), second – it was looking good. I mean – I am a man of practical decisions, but sometimes you pay very little for some very good looks as in the case of this case. 🙂
It has room for holding an ITX format mainboard + full size PCI Express GPU, which makes it pretty solid choice for even gaming builds. And while I didn’t really needed that GPU space, the case was compact and priced reasonably – so I decided that it would be a good choice for this build.
My personal build’s case is Cooler Master’s XAF XB EVO, and even though its very different in size, I had pretty good idea what to expect from Cooler Master in terms of build quality and attention to detail. There are just some minor good decisions, that doesn’t seem like much, but make a very good impression – for example the screws, that hold the case cover are made to be turned by hand, so its very easy to open the case and make some modifications or inspect something. Also the spacing inside is very carefully thought out, so you are able to fit everything just right. Any limitations regarding radiator height or GPU size are clearly stated in the specifications, so you can be sure, that you can plan the build layout and have no last minute surprises.
What I also like about Cooler Master is that their cases have very good, unconstricted airflow, which really helps with temperatures, especially when you overclock, but also when you don’t and just like to have more silent operation – when the temps are low, the fans don’t need to spin as fast.
The iX series of Intels’ CPU lines have been presented as somewhat enthusiast/professional grade of performance, but in reality names are mainly decided for marketing reasons and while generally its true that Core 2 Duo < Pentium < i3 < i5 < i7, the complete picture is not so simple – the CPU architecture is mostly the same per generation – what differs is basically the number of cores, hyperthreading, L1/L2 cache size, number of PCI Express lanes and in the high-end part of the spectrum – unlocked multipliers and overclocking capability.
This being said the i3-6100 processor is very strong performer, with its 2 cores and hyperthreading. Surely you can save some money, by getting Pentium G4400 (2 cores, no HT), which is not that much worse in single-core performance and is almost half the price of the i3-6100. Its refined 14nm process offers very good TDP and efficiency.
In the past I have associated Asrock mainly as a very cheap brand that compromises on quality, but in the last 5 or so years, they have definitely upped their game and while they often save on stuff like paper documentation* or cable connectors or nuts and bolts ffs… at the same time they put very good components in their PCBs and I have very feature rich UEFIs. This particular motherboard is priced very well and offers LGA 1151 socket, 2 slots of DDR4 RAM + 4 SATA3 connectors. It also offers PCI Express 3.0 x16 slot, for which I have no need, but whatever….
* I am all for saving the trees and the bees, but they have almost no instructions on how to install anything on the mainboard, with the exception of some very summarized diagram of the onboard connectors. Personally I have some experience building PCs, so I managed to figure it out, but I wonder how many have been stuck in bewilderment, looking at the 2 pages of documentation, coming with this motherboard.
Kingston HyperX FURY 8GB – 2x4GB kit
There is nothing remarkable about this memory – it has good timings and supports XMP profiles up to 2666 MHz, which I could not use with my other components, but still there is nothing special about it otherwsie – it has heatsinks and looks rad, and you could not get much cheaper DDR4 sticks anyway.
Samsung 850 Evo Basic 250GB
In terms of storage, HDD is not a real option in 2016, except for some enterprise use cases. For personal desktops installing an SSD is the single best thing you could do to increase performance. So in the SSD market currently, Samsung is the undisputed leader and the 850 EVO series offer, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck.
Zalman ZM400-LE 400W
I would have really liked using a modular power supply with platinum rating, but since I have to save money from somewhere I decided to go with Zalman’s budget series 400W unit, which does the job for this build. 400W is waaay over what would be needed by the system, but its nice to have some headroom, I guess.
Well here I admit, that I made a mistake, by choosing the Noctua NH-L9i. Not that there is anything bad with it, but I was under the impression that the i3-6100 comes with a big cube-style stock radiator+ fan, which would obviously not work with my compact cubic case layout. So I got the 37 mm low-profile Noctua cooler ordered. Then when unpacking the CPU, I was surprised to find in the i3-6100 box, very similar (albeit cheaper looking) stock cooler with identical dimensions. Surely, the NH-L9i provides better cooling performance at lower noise levels, but spending €38 on the cooler alone didn’t feel justified.
Total price of build: €465
Putting it all together
So I started by opening the case and planning my first steps. The PSU is supposed to be mounted just over the motherboard and the CPU (along with the cooler), so its all tightly packed, but to my surprise, works pretty well in reality.
So starting out, I put the holed screws on the case and the motherboard on them.
At time I did not know I will have to redo this part later…
This particular socket’s heatsink design has very strange mounting, to say the least. Until now, even like 10 years ago, I was used to some bracket mounting solution, where you just can’t get things wrong – you release a lever, you put a heatsink, you press a lever.
When I found out that the LGA 1151 socket heatsinks are mounted with 4 screws directly to the mainboard… my first thought was – “How barbaric!…”.
So I had some worries about spreading the thermal paste unevenly, when pressing the mainboard to the heatsink (yes you read that right), but eventually I think, I was able to do a good job of it.
After that I placed the 4 holed high screws on the case (again), I mounted the motherboard along with the IO backplate.
Mounting the PSU was straightforward, and after some cabling work, I was able to finish up the build and proceed to install the OS and SW.
So yeah – not particularly “budget” but not an expensive one at least. I liked the compact ITX format a lot, as it surely looks cool and all, but felt a bit constrained with the space, especially the cabling.