The last time I built a PC was in late 2010. I was pretty sure it was going to be my last build ever. Apple products were slowly taking over my household, and the only reason for the build was to play Starcraft 2. I went with mid-range parts and ended up with a machine which served me well for 6 years, but had lots of little annoyances.
Fast forward to late 2015, several things had changed. I had a bit more space to work with, so I no longer needed to cram everything onto a laptop. As much as I love my 13 inch Macbook Pro, I was getting annoyed at it’s performance (mainly it’s lack of a quad core processor). While Lightroom is not the best at fully utilizing multiple cores, for the most common operations, it can at least decently scale up to 4 cores. As I was starting to shoot more at my son’s sports outings, I was getting very frustrated with the sluggish workflow.
The simplest solution would be pick up a 5k iMac or a Mac Pro. Initially that was the plan, but then Oculus announces the launch of the Rift. I’m in the camp of folks that believes VR is going to be one of the biggest shifts in computing experience we’ve seen in a long time. It’s an opportunity for anyone to jump in and do foundational work in defining the computing experience of the future. I had to get involved somehow. But that also means, for now, that I needed a PC.
After weeks of debating whether I actually could tolerate all the troubles of a PC, I decided to go for it. My goal was to build something that met the requirements for the Oculus Rift (both in terms of using the devince and developing experiences for it), as well as provided a good Lightroom/photo-editing workstation. A second, but also highly important requirement, was that this machine be as silent as possible. My last build had all kinds of fan / coil whine issues which annoyed me every time I used it. This time I would do all the research to make sure I would avoid all those problems.
Below is the build I ended up with along with some build notes and observations.
- Intel i7 5820K CPU (LGA2011-v3 socket)
- Asus X99-A / USB 3.1 motherboard
- Kingston DDR4 4x8GB 2133Mhz Value RAM (KVR21N15D8/8)
- EVGA GTX970 ACX 2.0+
- Noctua NH-U12S CPU heatsink + fan
- Samsung 950 Pro 512GB NVMe PCIe M.2 SSD
- EVGA Supernova P2 750W Power supply
- Fractal Define R5 White ATX case
- Broadwell-E based CPU
- More RAM
- NVidia Pascal-based GPU
- 4K or 5K monitor
- Hard drives
- CPU: If all you want to do is play Oculus games, then any of the LGA2011 CPU’s are overkill. You should either go Skylake (i.e. Core i7 6700K) or even a couple older generation which still meet the Oculus minimum spec. I went with the cheap 6 core because a) it supposedly overlocks pretty well, and b) the cores will become more useful as Lightroom improves on it’s multi-core support and also when I want to start developing software for Oculus. Also X99-based platforms have higher memory limits so I can easily go to 64GB, or move to a Xeon chip if I really feel the need.
- Memory: From everything I’ve read, overclockable RAM seems hardly worth the effort. So I just go for baseline Kingston stuff, which I’ve always had good experiences with.
- Graphics: The GTX 970 meets the minimum spec for oculus. This was intentional. I wanted basically the cheapest card that meets the spec, for 2 reasons: Nvidia was going to intro Pascal architecture-based GPUs in the next year (for which a large perf bump is expected) and I also really wanted support for DisplayPort 1.3 (which can properly drive 5K monitors w/o special hacks).
- Overall: Pretty smooth build. Things have gotten way better since my last build, and I really appreciated the case having built-in cable management and a power suppy which allowed me to remove all the cables that I was not using.
- Case Fans: One thing I was confused about was the fact that the included case fans only have 3 pin connectors, where as all the headers on my motherboard for driving/controlling those fans had 4 pins. After a bit of research, I realized that the 4 pin headers can accept the 3 pin connectors, and are in fact keyed in a way that forces you to align the pins correctly. In the BIOS these fans get correctly detected as voltage-driven rather than PWM-driven.
- Coil Whine: Though I had done a ton of research. I wasn’t able to completely avoid it. I noticed that I get some at very high load (running Prime95) or during lots of network activity. Thankfully the Define R5 case has enough sound dampening so that I don’t hear it.
- The fractal design-branded fans that came with a case have a slight rattle when they are running. You can only hear it with your ear right up against it, but the Noctua fan on the CPU cooler has no such rattle. I might invest in a couple Noctua case cans at some point to eliminate the rattle.
- I chose a white case because I was a sick of the standard gamer PC look. While the Define case is indeed white, it has plastic panels and other features that still make it a far cry from a cleanly designed Apple product.
- The EVGA power supply produces some noise from it’s fan, unless you turn on the “ECO mode” switch. My understanding is that in this mode it only turns on the fan when it gets to a certain temp, which it doesn’t reach most of the time.
Update (Jan 20, 2016)
- The EVGA GTX 970 card comes only with full display ports. The Dell P2415Q comes with only a mini-DP to full-DP cable. So I had to get another cable. Apparently the 2415Q can be a big temperamental depending ont he cable you pick, I went with the Accell UltraAV (B142C-007B-2) cable which purports to support the full DP 1.2 spec bandwidth.
- There’s something a little wonky with either the display or the graphics card. Once a week or so, the display gets into a rut where it seems to lose the sync on the signal once every few seconds. This manifests as the screen going black momentarily and then coming back, with random screen glitches in between. Whenever it happens, turning off the display and turning it back on seems to fix it. Par for the course for a $400 monitor? Maybe.
- The display has an ever so slightly green tint on the left side. But you have to really look with a test pattern to see it. It’s subtle enough that in practice I never notice. Also probably what you get for $400. I will just have to wait until there are high end SST 5k displays to be had for reasonable prices
- I installed the ASUS performance tweaking utility. It looked scary. When I had it up, Lightroom slowed down to a crawl. Not sure if it’s related, but I uninstalled most of the ASUS stuff immediately. Lightroom isn’t slow anymore. Again, I can’t prove cause and effect, but I’m not taking any chances. Seems like most of the software duplicates stuff in the BIOS anyways.