How we built one of the most powerful DIY gaming PCs you can buy today

pcw haswell ebuild primary
Brad Chacos

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A wise New Englander once said “Anything worth doing [is] worth overdoing.” That sentiment sums up PCWorld’s new Haswell-E-based graphics card testing rig to a T.

Sure, a simple quad-core Core i5 processor would function just fine for testing games. Yeah, we could probably get by with a standard air cooler. And using bleeding-edge DDR4 memory to measure how well Bioshock Infinite runs? That’s just plain excessive. Absurd, really.

But hey: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And, uh, we wanted to make sure no other aspect of the PC created bottlenecks during our graphics tests (or at least that’s what I told my boss).

PCWorld’s celebrating the no-holds-barred spirit of glorious PC gaming excess all week long, and this build represents the epitome of that. Over the coming days, we’ll publish additional build guides focused on Intel’s Devils Canyon processor (and its ridonkulous 4GHz clock speeds) and the beastliest AMD rig imaginable. But this one’s focused on creating one of the most powerful PCs money can buy, cornerstoned by Nvidia’s flagship GTX 980 and Intel’s octa-core Core i7-5960X—the most audacious consumer processor in the world.

Take a deep breath and try not to drool, for GabeN’s sake. It’s time to get excessive.

The hardware

haswell e Brad Chacos

As I said, the beating heart of this beast is Intel’s Core i7-5960X—the pinnacle of the Haswell-E enthusiast platform and Intel’s first eight-core desktop processor. Beyond the hyperthreading-augmented cores, this chip packs 20MB of cache and a whopping 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes, making it ideal for avoiding CPU bottlenecks and running multi-card graphics setups. The Core i7-5960X rocks a 3GHz base clock speed that ramps up to 3.5GHz when additional oomph is required.

In the interests of MOAR POWER, we’re eschewing a traditional CPU air cooler in favor of Corsair’s Hydro Series H100i, a closed-loop water cooler built for extreme performance.

Closed-loop water coolers keep your stock processor frosty even under tremendous load—and help you achieve insane overclocks, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Who doesn’t like better performance?) Beyond supplying superior cooling capabilities, closed-loop coolers make far less noise than the usual heat sink-fan duo, and because it’s a self-contained system, installation is a breeze compared to custom water-cooling setups. The H100i specifically features a pair of 120mm top-mounted fans paired with a 240mm radiator, along with the Corsair Link monitoring and control software.

nvidia gtx 980 Brad Chacos

Nvidia's GTX 980 reference card.

The yin to Intel’s yang in this build is Nvidia’s recently released GTX 980 graphics card. Built using Nvidia’s new “Big Maxwell” GPU architecture, the GTX 980 offers best-in-class performance and truly remarkable power efficiency, running cool and staying quiet even under extended loads. It easily bested all comers in PCWorld’s recent graphics card slug-fest. Simply put, it’s the best single-GPU graphics card you can buy today, and single-GPU rigs always have fewer hiccups and driver issues than builds with multiple graphics cards (or single graphics cards with multiple GPUs).

x99 deluxe motherboard Brad Chacos

The Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard.

Sitting underneath it all is the Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard, sporting an LGA 2011-v3 socket compatible with Haswell-E processors. The board actually has more socket pins than its competition. Asus says the extra hardware in its “OC Socket” improves its—you guessed it—overclocking potential, and it’s augmented by a plethora of additional overclocking tools as well as Asus’ custom UEFI. The X99 is loaded with high-speed ports aplenty, Asus’ Crystal Sound 2 technology, dual-channel LAN, 802.11ac Wi-Fi compatibility, and much, much more than we can realistically cover in this piece—you can read all the details here.

One of the highlights of Haswell-E is its memory—it's the first processor to support DDR4, the futuristic successor to the DDR3 memory found in today’s PCs. DDR4 RAM pushes memory clocks higher than DDR3 can handle while simultaneously drawing less power, as you’d know if you’d read PCWorld’s DDR4 primer. We outfitted the rig with 16GB of Corsair’s high-end Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory, in the form of four 4GB modules. It’s gorgeous, with a low-profile aluminum heat spreader and a 2800MHz clock speed just begging to be pushed even further—though living on the cutting edge will put a hurting on your wallet. Embracing DDR4 and this kit will set you back $430 (though all the hardware in this rig was supplied by vendors for testing purposes).

intel 730 ssd corsair vengeance lpx ddr4 Brad Chacos

Corsair's Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory and Intel's 730 series SSD.

Corsair also provided a spacious Obsidian-series 750D full tower case, which features a sleek monolithic design, buckets of customizable expansion potential, great air flow, and plenty of interior elbow room—making it ideal for housing a powerful PC build like this.

We’re also using Corsair’s enthusiast-level 1200-watt AX1200i power supply. The big-time wattage can easily support our base system and numerous graphics cards without breaking a sweat, and it’s highly efficient, with an 80 Plus Platinum certification. The modular design lets you use only the power cables you need, helping to keep things tidy inside your case. The AX1200i’s ultra-quiet fan design and Corsair Link software are just icing on the cake.

corsair ax1200i power supply Brad Chacos

Corsair's AX1200i power supply.

For storage, we went with a 480GB Intel 730 series SSD—I’m a sucker for the skull logo Intel slaps on its drives—and a 750GB mechanical hard drive we had in the lab. We passed on a speedier PCIe SSD because we may very well need those PCIe slots for testing multi-card setups in the future. 

We also decided to forego installing a CD drive, because it’s better to install the latest hardware drivers straight from the manufacturer's website rather than from an included disc, and, well, because Steam.

Here’s a quick recap of the build, for those keeping score at home:

  • Intel Core i7-5960X - $1000
  • Nvidia GTX 980 (reference card) - $550
  • Asus X99 Deluxe - $400
  • Corsair H100i closed-loop cooler - $100
  • Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory - $430
  • 480GB Intel 730 SSD - $300
  • Corsair AX1200i - $350
  • Corsair Obsidian 750D - $160
  • Windows 8.1 Pro - $200

That gives us a total system cost of $3490. Now onto the fun stuff!

Building the beast

Cobbling together a $3500 behemoth utilizes the same basic process as assembling any other PC, though this build had a few quirks—the most notable stemming from the addition of the closed-loop water cooler.

corsair h100i assembly Brad Chacos

Assembling the Corsair H100i closed-loop water cooler.

Installing all the major components into the motherboard—processor, cooler, RAM—is usually my first step of a PC build, but you have to install the Corsair H100i into the top of your case before installing the motherboard. Attach the pair of included fans to the radiator block—making note of Corsair’s recommendation to position the fans so that they’re blowing up and through the block, rather than back down on your motherboard—then attach the assembly to the open fan slots at the top of the case. It’s pretty straightforward, though it leaves the thick tubes and a pump dangling in the middle of your case.

haswell e build motherboard Brad Chacos

Build out the motherboard before installing it in your case to make your life easier.

With that done, it’s time to build out your motherboard. Install the Haswell-E processor into the socket—it only fits one way—and insert the RAM into the appropriate sockets. Note that with the X99 Deluxe, you’ll want to install the four DDR4 modules into only the dark-gray-colored sockets, as explained in the motherboard’s manual. (Setups with more or fewer memory modules would be arranged in different specific slots.) You don’t have to install a CPU cooler backplate on the rear of the board, since the Corsair H100i’s LGA 2011-v3 setup simply slots into the available holes on the top of the socket.

Now it’s time to install the motherboard.

asus x99 deluxe motherboard shield Brad Chacos

Don't forget to install your I/O shield before installing your motherboard.

Wait! Before you actually install the motherboard, make sure to install the I/O shield in the rear panel of your case. Failing to do so is one of the most common PC building mistakes. It’s one of the most frustrating, too: If you forget about it until the end, you’ll have to rip your entire system apart and start over. Don’t go there.

Done with that? Let’s continue with the motherboard installation. The Obsidian 750D case has built-in standoffs for ATX-sized motherboards, so don’t scrounge around in the assorted screw bags looking for discrete standoffs.

corsair h100i pump protection paste haswell e build Brad Chacos

The block on the upper-left side of the screen is the bottom of the Corsair H100i's pump. See the white thermal paste and protective plastic cover? Remove the latter before installing the cooler on your CPU.

Once your motherboard’s screwed in, it’s time to connect the water cooler to your Haswell-E chip. Install the LGA 2011 standoff screws provided with the H100i into the four corner holes of the bracket sitting over the processor. Slide the cooler’s mounting bracket over the pump, then pop the plastic cover off the pump and gently place the cooler on top of the processor. Nope, you don’t need to fiddle with thermal paste—the Corsair H100i ships with a layer of it already in place. Tighten the thumb screws to lock it in nice and tight.

install corsair h100i Brad Chacos

The Corsair H100i, installed and awaiting cabling.

Stop! Before you continue, connect the rear fan to the 4-pin fan connector on the left side of the motherboard, next to the left-most memory module and above the first PCIe slot. If you wait until later it’ll be a major pain in the neck to reach. Trust me on this.

Everthing’s nice and easy from here. Install the GTX 980 in the top PCIe slot—you’ll have to remove the appropriate metal I/O covers on the rear of the case first, of course. Then install your storage drives in the case’s drive cages. Since we’re using only a pair of drives for this build, we removed the leftmost set of drive cages completely, installing both in the rightmost set, to give us even more arm room inside the case. It’s a great feature of the Obsidian 750D.

intel 730 ssd install Brad Chacos

The Intel 730 series SSD in a Corsair 750D drive tray.

Next, install the Corsair AX1200i power supply and route power to your motherboard, video card, storage drives, and water cooler. One of the highlights of the AX1200i is its modular nature—you only have to install the power cabling you actually need to use, which helps you keep the inside of your case clutter-free.

When that’s done, all that’s left to do is connect all the various loose wires and cables inside the case. Try to plan it out so that as much of your wiring as possible is hidden behind the motherboard tray, to help with system airflow and give the machine a clean, tight look. Also be sure to refer to the H100i cooler’s manual while you’re wiring it to make sure you’re doing everything right.

finished build Brad Chacos

The finished Haswell-E/GTX 980 build. Look at all the extra room! The Obsidian series 750D is a wonderfully spacious case to work in.

That’s it! Slap the case back together and you’re staring a finished, absolutely fire-breathing beast of a PC build.

I am Haswell-E, hear me roar!

How fire-breathing, you ask? Well, you can see how the Haswell-E/GTX 980 duo performed in the slew of gaming benchmarks found in PCWorld’s graphics card slug-fest, which used this rig for testing. (Spoiler: It’s really, really impressive.)

I also ran a couple more benchmarks, PCMark 8 and SiSoftware Sandra, to get a feel for the entire system’s overall chops. A rig this powerful kicks just as much ass as you’d expect, scoring tippity-top numbers in both tests. That means it rocks for all uses: File transfers, video and image editing, productivity tasks, you name it. 

metro last light redux

We tested the two top Nvidia and AMD graphics cards in this Haswell-E build, and the GTX 980 blew away all comers. (Click to enlarge.)

Beyond the benchmarks, this system is as snappy as any I’ve ever used, chewing through games at 2560x1600 resolution and opening applications almost before your hand even touches your mouse. It’s borderline ludicrous—and I can’t want to see how powerful this puppy gets once I try my hand at overclocking it. The H100i keeps the octa-core Haswell-E chip running at a consistent and cold 28 degrees Celsius even after hours of gaming and benchmarking, so there’s plenty of room to push the processor even harder. Plenty.

As I said, though, anything worth doing is worth overdoing—and this rig overdoes it well. And tomorrow’s example of glorious PC excess will crank the visuals even higher with the help of AMD’s Radeon R9 295x2, a $1000 behemoth that’s basically two high-end R9 290X GPUs crammed into a single graphics card so monstrous that it ships with its own integrated water cooling solution. Stay tuned.

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