How I built my own dev machine

28 June 2014

In this post I'll provide details of how I recently built my own PC.

Now, I realize that for some hardware-savvy individuals, this may well be a bit of a non-story. However, until a few weeks ago it won't have occurred to me that this was something I was capable of doing. If you'd asked me last month, I would have said that you'd need a reasonable grasp of electronics, a detailed knowledge of what components were likely to be compatible at a low-level, and a fair degree of experience with things like multi-meters, oscilloscopes, etc.

Actually, once the seed of the idea of building my own PC had firmly taken root as something that wasn't totally stupid, I became really excited at the prospect! I guess in retrospect I shouldn't have been surprised, but as I started to research the subject I was amazed at the wealth of practical information available on the web. In particular, YouTube is filled with really detailed component reviews and how-to videos on everything from selecting a case to fitting CPU water-cooling!

The Components

I gave myself a budget of around £1,000, and after weeks of deliberation, I decided on the following list of components:

  • Case
    NZXT H440 Full Tower (white)

    I selected the H440 white case for its minimalist design, and because it has plenty of room for water cooling radiators. The front of the case is solid white, with no slots for optical drives. This is great, because I've not used a CD or DVD in years! There's also a nice big window on one side, allowing you to see what's going on inside.

    The H440 comes with 3x120mm intake fans on the front of the case, and 1x140mm exhaust fan on the rear. All the case air intakes have built-in dust filters. Another nice feature is that the PSU baffle (which has an illuminated NZXT logo) hides the PSU and all the power cables

  • Motherboard
    Gigabyte Z97X-SOC Force Intel Z97 (LGA 1150; ATX)

    The new Intel 9-series chipset motherboards were released at just the right time for me. I went for the Gigabyte Z97X-SOC Force because it offers plenty of scope for messing around with overclocking. This is something I've never done, but it seems like a fun way of destroying expensive components! Also, to be honest, I like the orange colour theme...

  • CPU
    Intel Core i7-4770K 3.50GHz (Haswell, LGA 1150)

    The i7-4770K seemed to me to offer the best performance (and the K-series are unlocked for overclocking purposes) for a reasonable price (I paid £250).

    At £400+, the 4930K doesn't represent enough of an improvement to warrant the much higher price. Note that at the time I purchased the 4770K the slightly improved 4790K, "Devil's Canyon" CPU wasn't available

  • PSU
    Corsair AX1200i Digital ATX '80 Plus Platinum' Modular Power Supply

    The selection of power supply gave me more cause for concern than anything else. Mostly, I was unsure about exactly what my selection of components would need power-wise (doing some rough calculations I reckoned I'd need around 600 Watts). In the end, I decided to go with the best option I could afford.

    Although the 1200 Watt-rated Corsair AX1200i is definitely over-engineering for my current requirements, it does leave plenty of room for adding a second graphics card, more cooling, etc., in the future. I also paid that bit extra (£240) for a Corsair "i"-series PSU, as it allows you to monitor the PSU's performance using the Corsair Link software (more on this later)

  • SSD
    Crucial MX100 256GB SATA

    At £80, the 256GB MX100 was an easy choice to make. I purchased an SSD for my Lenovo laptop previously and the performance improvements over a mechanical HDD are truly impressive

  • HDD
    Western Digital 1TB SATA

    I got the HDD simply for backups

  • RAM
    Crucial 16GB (8GBx2), DDR3-1600, PC3-12800, 1.35V

    I was quite unsure about the profile of memory I should get. I was worried that memory with large, fancy heatsinks might make it hard to fit other components. So, in the end I got 2x8GB low-profile "Ballistix" (1600 MT/S) RAM sticks from Crucial. Actually, I needn't have worried as the NZXT case has plenty of room

  • GPU
    Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750Ti WindForce OC 2048MB GDDR5 PCI-Express GPU

    This is an area where I could economise a bit. I'm not a game-player at all, so I wasn't worried about getting a top-of-range graphics card.

    The GeForce GTX 750 seemed plenty good-enough for my purposes, and it only cost £100

  • CPU Cooling
    Corsair Hydro H100i High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler

    This was definitely a fun component to research! In the end, I opted for the Corsair H100i because it seemed to have a reasonable reputation, the product's web site provides lots of how-to articles, manuals, software updates, etc., and (not least) because there were some excellent YouTube videos showing how to install the H100i into the H440 case!

    Also, like the i-series PSU, you can monitor the H100i's pump and fans using the Corsair Link software. Actually, the H100i acts as a Corsair Link hub, allowing the AX1200i PSU's link cable to be plugged directly into it, rather than a USB header on the motherboard

Purchasing Components from Overclockers.co.uk

I was really undecided which UK-based web retailer to purchase the components from. In the end, I went with overclockers.co.uk. I'm so glad I did: their web site's fast, unfussy, and it's easy to quickly find exactly the right components you're looking for. I placed my order on Thursday the 19th of June at midday. At 4pm the same day I got an email saying my entire order had shipped and would be with me the next morning!

The following day (Friday) at 9am I got email from the delivery service DPD saying that my package would be delivered between 10:30 and 11:30. And sure enough, just after 11am it was delivered!

All the components were nicely packaged, and everything arrived in perfect condition. So, less than 24-hours after placing my order I had it safely in my hands. I must say I was very impressed with overclockers.co.uk.

Assembly

Here are the steps I followed to assemble my system (I used an anti-static wrist-strap at all times):

  1. Check for damage
    Visually inspect all components for transit damage, etc. (everything looked fine)
  2. Remove all the panels from the H440 case
    The side panels are held on by thumbscrews, and the top and front panels simply snap on/off:

  3. Fit the PSU
    This is simply a matter of undoing four thumbscrews that hold the PSU plate onto the back of the case. The plate is then screwed onto the PSU using four small screws. The PSU is then inserted (with the fan facing down towards the bottom of the case) into the case and the thumbscrews re-tightened.

    Note that the AX1200i is a fully-modular power supply, so the power cables required can be attached as required later in the build (there's just about enough room to reach inside the case and insert cables with the PSU in-place):

  4. Install the CPU
    This looks quite tricky in how-to videos, but I actually found it quite straightforward. The CPU mount on the motherboard has a cover plate that is lifted using the associated locking lever mechanism. Thanks to a pair of notches on the CPU and matching locating points on the board, it's impossible to fit the CPU wrongly. Simply place the CPU on the mount, give it a gentle wiggle to ensure it's properly located, then lower the locking lever and push its end into the retaining position on the mount:

  5. Install RAM
    This was a simple matter of installing the two sticks of 8GB RAM into the (orange) sockets marked DDR3_1 and DDR3_2, as recommended by the manual:

  6. Attach the CPU cooler backplate
    Before fitting the motherboard to the case I decided to fit the H100i's custom CPU cooler backplate. Having looked at the installation videos on YouTube, this operation was the main thing I was worried about in the entire build! Essentially, the weight of the water cooler pump assembly requires a special mounting back-plate bracket. This is fitted to the back of the motherboard using four stand-off screws:

    From the front of the motherboard, screw the stand-offs into the protruding back-plate mounting holes:

  7. Attach the motherboard to the case
    First, fit the back panel connectors plate to the case, then slide the motherboard into the case, ensuring that the back panel connectors are correctly seated. Then screw the motherboard into the small brass stand-offs that raise the board clear of the case. The stands-offs were already fitted to my case:

    I must admit I felt rather nervous about handling the motherboard, however, everything went smoothly - I felt quite a sense of relief once it was safely installed in the case!

  8. Fit the CPU cooler radiator and fans
    One of the key things I had to decide on was where to locate the CPU cooler's radiator and fans. Most people seem to fit them either to the top or rear of the case. I decided to install them in the top of the case. I also made the decision to arrange the fans such that they are blowing hot air out of the case through the radiator. My thinking was simple: there's already three fans pulling cool air into the case (from the front), and only one (at the rear) pushing air out.

    The two fans supplied with the H100i simply screw into the radiator. You just need to look at the side of the fans to see the direction of air flow, then fit them appropriately:

    After fitting the fans below the radiator, screw the radiator onto the top of the case. The correct order for securing the radiator is Screw > Washer > Case > Radiator:

  9. Fit the water cooler pump to the motherboard
    This stage involves fitting a clamp over the pump assembly, placing the pump's brass cooling surface (which is covered in heat-conducting thermal interface paste) on the top of the CPU, then screwing the clamp down onto the motherboard using the previously-fitted cooler back-plate stand-off screws.

    First, place the pump mounting bracket over the pump assembly:

    Remove the protective film (that covers the thermal paste) from the base of the pump, then place the pump and mounting bracket onto the back-plate stand-off screws. Screw on the four thumb screws to hold it in place:

  10. Connect cooler cables
    You can now connect the cooler's various cables:

    • the pump's power cable connects to the PSU via the SATA connector on the combined SATA power + CPU fan header cable
    • the 3-pin cable part of the combined combined SATA power + CPU fan header cable connects to the CPU fan header on the motherboard
    • the Y-cable from the radiator fans connects to the port on the side of the pump assembly
    • the H100i's Corsair Link cable plugs into the port on the side of the pump assembly. The other end connects to a spare USB header on the motherboard
    • plug one end of the Corsair Link cable from the AX1200i into the COMM port on the PSU, the other end plugs into the spare Corsair Link port on the H100i (i.e. you don't need to use the USB dongle supplied with the AX1200i)

  11. Fit the GPU
    The GPU occupies two PCI Express slots, so fitting it is a simple matter of removing the two metal covers from the back of the case and seating the graphics card in the first PCIEX16 slot.

    You then need to connect a PCI Express power cable from the PSU to the card:

  12. Fit the SSD/HDD
    The H440 case makes it really easy to fit drives. You can fit SSD's either at the bottom of the case, or in drive bays. I chose (for ease of cabling) to fit the SSD and HDD in the drive bays:

    I ran one SATA power cable from the PSU and used it to power both drives. I then connected SATA data cables to each drive and then plugged them into SATA headers on the CPU:

  13. Fit remaining cables
    Now the remaining cables are connected:

    • The H440's fans and case lights are wired to a hub, so you don't need to attach them to individual fan headers on the motherboard. All that's required is to provide power via a Molex cable

    • The case's buttons (power and reset) and drive activity lights are connected to the motherboard. These connectors are small and very fiddly to connect!

    • Connect the case's USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports to the appropriate USB header on the motherboard
    • Connect the H440's audio ports to the audio header on the motherboard

    • Fit the motherboard's power supply using the 24-pin ATX and 8-pin ATX 12v cables supplied with the PSU

  14. All that's left to do now is try booting it up, tidy up the cables (when we know everything works!) and install Windows...

First Boot

I must admit that I was pretty much expecting something bad to happen when I pressed the power button for the first time. Would there be a crackling and fizzing sound, accompanied by blue smoke...?! Actually, I expected that nothing would happen at all, I was bound to have forgotten some vital cable.

What I wasn't prepared for was that the case lights came on, the fans powered up, and the machine booted to the BIOS. Yes, it worked!! I was both amazed and delighted!

So, I powered down, did a spot of cable tidying and then installed Windows 8.1, along with all the necessary drivers and utilities. Using the Corsair Link software I was able to see that everything appeared to be running perfectly:

You can see from the above that when the system is essentially idle, the CPU is running very cool (28 degrees). Also, the AX1200i's fan isn't even running - this isn't a fault, it's designed to run at zero RPM until a sufficient load requires the PSU to be cooled.

Conclusion

I've been really pleased with the performance of my new custom-built PC. It was actually a lot of fun spec'ing and building it, and much easier than I expected. My only regret is that, it was so much fun, I want to do it all over again now...!!

Update (2 July 2014)

As you may have noticed in the above images, for some reason I attached the H100i CPU cooler pump at an angle of 45 degrees. (actually, it was because I was worried about straining the coolant pipes). This doesn't in any way impact on its performance, but everything time I looked at it afterwards it bugged me! So, today I took off the pump, cleaned off the old thermal interface paste, put on some fresh paste and re-attached the pump the "right way" up. I also took the opportunity to re-route and tidy-up a few more cables: