SPCR's Quiet ATX Gaming Build Guide

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SPCR's Holiday ATX Gaming Build Guide

November 19, 2014 by Lawrence Lee with Mike Chin

November marks the onset of winter and the holidays for much of the northern hemisphere, but it's a special time for PC enthusiasts as well. With Black Friday fast approaching it's the perfect time to shop for components, whether for an upgrade or a complete system. PC gamers in particular have it the best of all because Autumn is also traditionally the season for major game releases. So far we've seen the launch of the heavily anticipated Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Far Cry 4, and Dragon Age: Inquisition, among many others. To play these titles smoothly and with all the eye candy enabled, you'll need some serious hardware, especially if you plan on using a >1080p display, like a QHD or 4K model.

To help you do just that, we walk you go through the process of planning and building a mid/high-end gaming PC. You can find build guides on countless review sites, but being SPCR, we approach it with a heavy emphasis on noise-reduction. We explain in detail why we selected components (and suggest alternatives), then actually assemble the system (which most sites rarely do, creating just a shopping list instead) and conduct a full battery of thermal and acoustic tests. And if there are any tweaks or tricks to make the experience quieter, we share those, too. We have several different builds in the works, but we start off with the most common, popular one, the mid-ATX tower.

COMPONENT SELECTION

GPU: ASUS STRIX GTX980 $580

Alternatives:

The graphics card is the heart and soul of any gaming PC but it's also the biggest challenge from an acoustic perspective. The dies of modern high-end GPUs are larger, denser, and more complex than their CPU counterparts, which translates into substantially higher power consumption. Making things worse, video cards are usually oriented horizontally with the cooler underneath blowing upwards so the card's PCB itself gets in the way of natural convection. Some models use a blower style fan to push the hot air out, which is great for keeping system temperatures lower but it's often a noisier method that is not as efficient for cooling the GPU itself. It would be great if you could mount a giant tower heatsink like one for a CPU, but the VGA card isn't designed to take that much weight and such a solution would block off all the expansion slots underneath. Having an inherently energy efficient card would be a huge advantage for a quiet PC.

Cue NVIDIA with their new Maxwell 2 GPU architecture, which happens to be miraculously energy efficient compared to the previous generations. The GeForce GTX 970 has a TDP of just 145W, half that of its AMD equivalent, the Radeon R9 290X. The higher-tier GTX 980, arguably the fastest single GPU video card on the market today, uses only 20W more. The GTX 980 is a rather expensive card, starting at US$550 while only offering a 10~20% performance advantage over the much cheaper GTX 970. Clearly, the GTX 970 offers better value, but if you're driving a UHD/4K display it might be worthwhile to go with the 980. To duplicate or improve on the 980's performance you'd need a pair of cards in SLI/CrossFire which would create substantially more heat and noise. We also prefer the challenge of the hotter card.


ASUS Strix GeForce GTX 980.

For this system we chose the well-regarded ASUS Strix GTX 980. At a glance, the stock cooler doesn't seem that formidable (some GTX 980 models have three fans) but it's a DirectCU heatsink with five nickel-plated copper heatpipes of varied thickness (the largest being 10 mm) that contact the GPU directly rather than utilizing a baseplate to act as a go-between. According to ASUS, the fans don't even spin unless the GPU is heavily taxed and even some lighter games can be played with zero noise emitted. Furthermore, the card employs a 10 phase power delivery system, making it overclocking-friendly.


Backside.

The ASUS Strix GTX 980 is long enough to extend further than the width of a typical ATX motherboard. The Strix version's PCB measures 26.7 cm across, with the cooler hanging over a bit for a total length 28.8 cm or 11.3 inches. Most enthusiast cases are designed to accommodate cards this long but tighter fitting towers with non-removable hard drive bays may be incompatible. A ventilated metal backplate covers the entire back side of the card, lending it some much needed rigidity. Heavy coolers tend to cause the graphics card PCB to bow.


Back panel.

The back panel is stocked with three DisplayPort, one HDMI, and one DVI-I connectors, and can drive up to four displays simultaneously. The GTX 980 supports HDMI 2.0 as well, which supports 4K resolution at 60 Hz. There's only a small ventilation port at the back and as the cooler employs top-down blowing fans most of the heat produced by the card will remain in the case. You can also see from this angle that the card is wider than normal, extending past the edge of the expansion slot by 3.4 cm; This will interfere with some narrower cases.

CPU: Intel Core i5-4670K Quad-Core 3.4 GHZ 6 MB Cache - US$220

Alternatives:

Currently AMD's strength is based on the number of cores they pack into lower priced processors. The best example of this is the six-core AMD FX-6300 Black Edition which can be had for a mere US$100. Many applications, especially games, can't take advantage of that many threads, however; Single-threaded performance is more important, an area where Intel holds a notable advantage. That being said, CPU bottlenecking shouldn't be an issue with a single GTX 980 for any mid-range or higher processor. The real back-breaker in the Intel-AMD debate however is the superior energy efficiency of Intel's lineup. This makes their chips much easier to cool, a key advantage when attempting to silence a PC.


Intel Core i7-4770K.

An ideal choice is the Core i5-4670K, a quad core chip running at 3.4 GHz (up to 3.8 GHz with Turbo Boost) with an unlocked multiplier for easy overclocking to improve overall performance further. Honestly, any of the 4xxx series would perform similarly in terms of gaming, so which particular model isn't overly important.

Unfortunately we didn't have an i5-4670K on hand so an i7-4770K became our stand-in. With a TDP of 84W, it should have similar thermal properties which is all that's needed from a CPU for the type of testing we'll be conducting. The i7-4770K is a standout performer but it's actually not a great buy currently as it has been superseded by the higher-clocked i7-4790K which occupies a similar price-point. Rather than lowering the price on older models, for whatever reason, Intel tends to just let them wither on the vine.

CPU Cooler: Scythe Kotetsu - US$40

Alternatives:


Scythe Kotetsu.

Haswell processors don't run particularly hot but the Intel stock cooler is woefully insufficient for a silent PC. We're going with one of our current favorite value cooling solutions, the Scythe Kotetsu, which delivers excellent performance at a low price. This modest tower cooler is equipped with a single 120 mm fan with an overall pleasant/smooth sound.

Many gamers regard an AIO water cooling unit as a defacto choice for a high-end build but we have to disagree as they are neither cost or noise efficient. They also usually ship with acoustically poor fans, and the squealing and gurgling sounds from the pump raises the noise floor, making it difficult to get the noise level down when the system is idle.



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