Eric Pobirs, a Chaos Manor Advisor, details his build of a new computer system for Chaos Manor.
It’s been a while since we built a new PC at Chaos Manor. Along with the expected incremental improvements to the platform, two major items have now come to the consumer market. The first is PCIe-connected SSD storage that raises performance to levels that will take years to fully exploit. The second is USB 3.1, which brings double the bandwidth, a new simpler plug type, and a variety of new modes for delivering power.
I’d like to say I carefully selected each component in minute detail to assemble the best possible machine, but I really only had one item in mind when I started. The make and model of that was by default as it is the only one you can reliably buy at the moment. [The component list is at the end of this article – Editor]
The fact is, with a decent knowledge of PC tech trends it doesn’t take much discretion to produce a very nice machine if you don’t have anything terribly specific in mind. Also, it was the right time of year to assemble parts as this was leading into Black Friday and sales galore. I also picked up several portions of another build (an FM2+ HTPC) with just one vital component needed to proceed but as a bargain hunter I must exercise patience.
Eugene is Named
The name Eugene comes from Eugene ‘Flash’ Thompson, Peter ‘Spider-man’ Parker’s high school nemesis and later close friend. Back in the 60s and 70s he went off to Vietnam, and then returned without a scratch and a hot wife in tow. More recently he was retconned to be sent to Iraq, have his lower legs blown off by an IED, and then become the new host of the Venom symbiotic to become a superhero in his own right.
ANYWAY…. Flash memory is a really big part of this machine, so I used that to inspire the name. The fact that it is also the middle name of Chaos Manor’s proprietor is purely coincidence. Probably.
The CPU and Motherboard
This new build had been a near future plan for a while but the combined special on the ASUS Z170-AR motherboard and Intel Core i5-6500, combined with the knowledge the Samsung 950 was available, compelled me to pull the trigger. The rest of the components, nearly all offering an attractive price, quickly fell into place. Even the SSD, while commanding a price premium compared to SATA models of comparable capacity, had a decent discount at a time when most retailers aren’t bothering due to demand outstripping supply for the moment.
The CPU belongs to the most recent Sky lake generation, the sixth since the Core i3/5/7 line began, as indicated by the model number. The lack of a ‘K’ at the end of model number means it has a locked multiplier, the determinant of the processor’s internal clock rate compared to the rate at which it communicates with the rest of the system, and is thus unsuited for overclocking.
That became a source of difficulties.
Recently, motherboard makers have found a method of overclocking CPUs with locked multipliers due to a difference in how Skylake and its chip set work compared to previous generations but this is too recent to be a factor in the board we used. ASUS has released new firmware supporting the technique for several other of their ZI70 board but not for this particular one as yet. Which is alright as testing PCs to destruction is a sport I’ll leave to others.
The 6500 has a number of improvements over its predecessors, most of which are aimed at the mobile sector but some are universal, such as significant improvements to the video subsystem that in turn raises the ante for the entire PC market as Intel IGA (Integrated Graphics Adapter) remains the lowest common denominator that developers look to in their design decisions. PCIe 3.0 is standard, raising the overall bandwidth available with slightly less than 8 Gbps per lane where PCIe 2.0 delivered 5 Gbps with substantially greater overhead.
Another platform advance is DDR4 memory, with lower power, greater speed, and higher density potential. DDR3 topped out at 128 GB per module, and DDR4 beats that by a factor of 4, going all the way up to 512 GB in a single slot. While this isn’t going to figure into consumer desktops any year soon, it does translate into systems that are both more affordable and more powerful once the market shifts to the new standard. DDR4 prices have already dropped around 50% from early 2015. Intel does support the use of DDR3 with Skylake for low cost systems but the cost advantage should disappear within 2016.
One big feature that didn’t make it into Skylake is USB 3.1. As with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0, Intel is rarely in a hurry to integrate barely dry standards and this leaves the market open for third party chips on motherboards and add-in cards. Since Skylake uses a new socket, LGA1151, requiring newly designed boards all around, all but the cheapest feature USB 3.1 via a third party chip.
The most common is the Asmedia ASM1142, the latest from a longtime supplier of USB ICs. This chip connects to the system by a single PCIe 3.0 lane. At first glance this would seem inadequate to support the 10 Gbps bandwidth of USB 3.1 but the protocol overhead between the USB host and devices is great enough that the single lane is sufficient to handle the traffic to the rest of the system. The upcoming Kaby Lake generation from Intel is due to have USB 3.1 as a native feature and may perform better but probably not so much that it will be easily perceivable.
A big part of this generation isn’t really new but is entering the mainstream with Skylake and its motherboards is the M.2 slot for SSDs. The spec has appeared in high-end laptops for a while, and in the X99 generation of motherboards but these implementations were mostly either SATA or using older, slower PCIe with fewer lanes.
The fully realized version seen in Z170 systems utilizes four lanes of PCIe to connect to the system with a raw bandwidth of 3.2 GBps. That’s gigabyte with a capital G and capital B. This is such a massive gain in performance that it is wasted much of the time as the load from typical desktop apps doesn’t provide much challenge.
When systems with 32 GB or more of RAM are used with applications handling data measured in the tens of gigabytes, the difference will be obvious. Easy enough for serious top resolution video editing or 3D animation rendering but most of us aren’t creating the next Pixar feature.
It will take a while for clever engineers to find ways to make this more useful to the average user. The difference between this and a SATA-III SSD is noticeable in various operations that complete with unexpected speed but it is subtle compared to the dramatic difference when first going from a spinning platter drive to an SSD.
How future PCs will exploit this performance remains a matter for speculation. If Intel and Microsoft have a concrete idea it hasn’t been publicized much, likely for fear of the Osborne Effect.
Intel says their Optane, non-volatile memory that is supposed to hit the market in 2016, will be a thousand times faster and ten times denser than flash memory. Applied to the M.2 form factor used by the Samsung 950 in Eugene, this would allow for a 5 TB drive about the size of a few stacked business cards.
Intel has suggested that one way this will be sold is as DIMM memory modules rather than treated as drives for secondary storage. This means the Optane would become part of the memory map alongside the system’s RAM.
This where 64-bit addressing really takes off and the ability of DDR4 to support a 512 GB DIMM sees practical use in a consumer PC. (This won’t be using the slots in existing DDR4 motherboards but rather a new extended spec Intel is introducing. These will appear first in servers where the user base is better equipped to deal with the new concepts required. Just to stir things up further, Intel has suggested a future PC might not have any volatile DRAM at all, though this would be severely limiting for video performance.)
The earliest PC implementation would likely treat the Optane block as a virtual drive – RAM disks, as they used to be called back when floppies stalked the earth. Apps and data would still load into RAM to be used. Later, as the OS and apps catch up, the mapped memory would be treated as normal memory that is a little slower and has apps in suspension waiting to be invoked.
The difference between having the app running from RAM and running from Optane will be small enough that it will require some design work to make the system smart enough to know which apps are deserving of the greater speed of RAM vs. the risk of data loss from power failure. That is all in the future but those trying to figure out how to make this work have the PCIe SSDs now to start the process.
Old Amiga hands may find some familiarity in this. On the Amiga there was Chip RAM and Fast RAM. Chip RAM was shared with the co-processors performing audio and video tasks while Fast RAM was solely seen by the CPU. This was an important consideration when performing a CPU intensive task or allocated memory for a RAM disk. Twenty years later a similar situation is arising, although at orders of magnitude greater amounts of memory and speeds.
Although the ATTO benchmarks are stunning, the PCIe SSD is a bit of a letdown for casual use in a desktop. The advantage for mobile PCs and very small systems like an Intel NUC is obvious. Unless one is building RAIDs of 3.5” drive and/or installing multiple video cards, there is little reason for a full feature desktop PC to be much larger than those currently targeting HTPC use.
Perhaps I’ve gotten spoiled.
Last night I updated an older 2007 laptop that hadn’t been turned on in months. It uses SATA-II, so installing an SSD is of limited value. It felt excruciatingly slow compared to the HP AMD A6 laptop with an SSD. If I strain my memory, I can recall that the initial transition from parallel hard drives to SATA didn’t feel like much of an upgrade in casual use, even if the benchmarks made it clear there was quite a difference, especially if RAID were used.
So is M.2 too much of a good thing? Might there not be a place for something faster than SATA but within the realm of current system ability to exploit, less demanding on system resources, and perhaps less of a pain in the wallet? Much of the industry thought this might be the case and the ASUS, like nearly all Z170 boards but the smallest, has what they came up with as a solution. The only problem is you’ll never have the option to use it.
On these boards you can spot what appears to be a pair of SATA ports and a third smaller port, positioned away slightly from the other SATA ports. These three are a standard called SATA Express. If it looks like two SATA ports ganged up to form one port with twice the bandwidth, well, it pretty much is, along with some ideas borrowed from the Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) format use in high-end storage systems found in enterprise data centers.
The two ports can be used separately as normal SATA-III 6 Gbps connections. But given a SATA Express device, the pair and their little friend can be used to provide a 12 Gbps connection to an SSD which should be significantly lower priced than an equivalent capacity M.2 drive, thanks to being able to use lesser performance flash memory in the roomier and less thermally sensitive 2.5” hard drive form factor.
The design also allows for transitional devices that use existing controllers to offer more savings while raising the performance ceiling over SATA. The idea was that a desktop PC could have a single SATA Express drive for its primary boot and app volume and still have plenty of SATA ports left over for more hard drives and optical drives.
Sounds great, but for the problem that nobody is producing SATA Express devices. Although a few devices were demonstrated at trade events, none of the companies with the level of market power needed to place sufficiently large orders for the new parts involved was willing to commit.
The looming approach of M.2 and its awesome numbers overwhelmed the other practical considerations in favor of SATA Express. So you’ll likely never use SATA Express and since most people don’t utilize the entire bank of six SATA connectors, it comes off as rather a waste.
But it isn’t a complete wash. Some clever folks felt the same concern and found a way to utilize the SATA Express port: http://bit.ly/1ZTM72s
Because you cannot have too many USB 3.1 ports, can you?
Although this is a lost generation for SATA Express, the story doesn’t end there.
A new spec, building on SATA Express but leaving behind the transitional elements and implementing a 3.2 GBps interface compatible with M.2, is coming, possibly as soon as Intel’s Kaby Lake generation but certainly in the following Cannonlake.
The new spec is called U.2, and has the same four lanes of PCI-e 3.0 providing the bandwidth. The main difference between U.2 and M.2 is the use of the 2.5” hard drive form factor, allowing for higher capacities and less concern about heat. This should give future U.2 drives a small cost advantage over M.2 drive, making them the preference for desktop builds while M.2 owns the mobile and HTPC spaces.
Some Build Challenges
The build had a few challenges along the way, even though most of the parts were a real pleasure to use.
The Corsair power supply is simple and competent, offering all the plugs needed for a system drawing the level of wattage it can deliver. Eugene as currently configured comes nowhere near that and there is extensive untapped potential for adding drives, video cards, etc.
A modular PSU would have been nicer, eliminating the need to find places to tuck away unused cables but it would have been significantly more expensive and might even be a bad choice for those who have difficulty keeping track of the spare parts from their PC.
The Thermaltake Chaser A71 case has an obvious heritage in common with the cases used for Alien Artifact and Swan systems, but is much less expensive. Most of the major attractions are there, even so. Removable bottom air filter, four front panel USB ports divided between 2.0 and 3.0, SATA drive docking station on the top front, removable left panel for easy routing of cables behind the motherboard tray, removable drive carriers, additional fan spacer to ensure a liquid cooling radiator has enough clearance for a card in the x16 slot most often used for video, and more. It is a very nice case for the money.
The cooling system is where I first encountered difficulty. This was my first time building a system with liquid cooling and it involved having to consider things like air flow that had been easily taken for granted before.
The package includes a fan to push air through the radiator and the instructions detail how an existing rear fan can be used in conjunction to pull air through to the outside world. But the screws needed to mount both fans this way are not included, just enough for one or the other. That should be adequate for Jerry’s usage but is a bit disappointing. At the least, they could have detailed the specs of the needed screws to simplify obtain them for yourself.
The packaging of the liquid cooler indicated it was usable on several socket types used for recent Intel and AMD systems, including LGA1150. All of my research indicates anything designed for the mechanical aspects of LGA1150 should also work with Skylake’s LGA1151 but if that is true I have to wonder about the accuracy of this mounting system.
It took a good deal of wrestling to get it screwed in place and there was considerable added anxiety when the story broke around this time of Skylake processors being damaged by cooling system mounting mishaps. It was not this brand of equipment but it was a worry I could have done without.
A Clock Too Fast
The next big issue was caused by the motherboard being very clever in its design but the accompanying documentation far less so.
Overclocking, running a processor at greater than its factory specified rate, is a big emphasis on gaming oriented boards. The cutting edge of new game releases challenge PC performance and the dedicated gamer can never have too much horsepower in his box or try to squeeze more from those ponies. This is all well and good but can become an annoyance for those wanting the overall quality and features of the high-end board without risking stability or outright destruction of components.
On the board is a three position switch, offering Off, TPU I, and TPU II. According to the manual this is to maximize CPU performance by specifying the method installed: TPU I for air cooling and TPU II for liquid cooling. This seemed in keeping with the dedicated power header for liquid cooling pumps also featured on the board. Nowhere in the description was it overtly stated that this was solely for use with overclocking and it should be left in the Off position if one doesn’t intend to overclock.
When the time came to power up the system for the first time, it automatically chose a setting (15%) that was too unstable to allow for an OS installed. Poking around in the firmware turned no obvious method to simply turn off overclocking. The best I could do was to reduce the overclock to 12%. This was fairly stable and allowed Windows to be installed but ran into problems if the machine was allowed to go into hibernation mode. A forced shutdown would be needed to regain use of the computer.
I was stubbornly determined to find the answer on my own but once I relented I soon learned of the TPU switch’s true function from a hardware site forum. Turn TPU to Off and Eugene has run reliably at the proper speed ever since.
Front Panel Irritations
The next issue had to be my fault but raises an issue that has annoyed me for years. Motherboards are still using the same block of pins method for connecting front panel functions after nearly thirty years. The ASUS motherboard included a pin block that greatly simplifies the task because you make all of the connections and place it on the mother board as a single item.
But there can still be problems. The connector for reset button is two side by side pins but the reset on the motherboard is three pins. You only need two but getting the right two was surprisingly difficult. I began to wonder if the case and motherboard were incompatible.
In the past I’d gotten past this by doing a little surgery on the case connector, cutting the end in half so the pins could be placed individually. I wanted to avoid that this time and with some searching found a two pin male to female extender. Annoyingly, these were only sold in groups of four and worse, I ended up not needing them.
I did some research to assure myself that I understood which pins needed connecting and set about doing it over. This time it worked.
Why I had to repeat this was a mystery I’ll chalk up to cosmic rays affecting my brain. Yet, why was this necessary at all? Why isn’t there a single standardized connector to get the essential PC case functions set up? Power, power LED, reset, and HDD activity. Those four are a given on every PC. It’s long since time a single keyed connector, similar to those for front panel USB and audio ports, was standardized for everyone to use.
Complaints aside, this was a very enjoyable build. Much of the future was revealed, between incredible storage speed and native video support for 4K displays. An LG MU27 27” 4K monitor was obtained to put the latter through its paces and we’ll be reporting on that experience in the future. Suffice to say, the 1080p screens I once dreamt of possessing are now merely OK.
We welcome comments about this build. And if you have built a nice system, we invite you to share your experiences with other CMR readers. Learn how you can submit your article to CMR here.
Here are the components used in the building of Eugene, along with shortened links to the product pages. All links will open in a new window.
CPU: Intel Core i5-6500 : http://intel.ly/1ZTM86w
Case: Thermaltake Chaser A71 : http://bit.ly/1ZTM72u
PSU: Corsair CX750w : http://bit.ly/1ZTM86x
Motherboard: ASUS Z170-AR : http://bit.ly/1ZTM86y
SSD: Samsung 950 Pro : http://bit.ly/1ZTM86D
Cooling: Thermaltake Water 3.0 liquid cooling : http://bit.ly/1ZTM72z
Optical drive: LG 16X BD-RW : http://bit.ly/1ZTM7iR
Display: LG 27MU67 4K IPS monitor : http://bit.ly/1ZTM7iW