Mean and green: How to build a gaming PC that’s fast, quiet, and efficient
By Marco Chiappetta
Every enthusiast wants a killer, high-performance PC that blows fire and chews up benchmarks for breakfast. (PCMark, yum!) But packing a PC to the gills with cutting-edge hardware creates a hot rod in more than name alone: Truly powerful rigs tend to be big, hot, and loud, and they usually suck power faster than a parched pre-teen chugs Kool-Aid.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With all of the CPU advances, it’s now possible to configure a relatively fast system that’s also whisper quiet and surprisingly power efficient. With the right component choices and some careful planning, it doesn’t even have to break the bank. Here’s how we did it.
Picking the parts
Two primary factors drove our selection of components for this system: Power requirements and noise—more specifically, the potential for generating noise. Typically, components that consume less power require less cooling, and hence generate less noise. Some components, however—like mechanical hard drives—will generate audible noises regardless. We’d opt for low-power, lower-noise parts wherever possible.
We also wanted an enclosure that was designed from the start to be quiet. Of the many choices available, we chose the reasonably priced NXZT H230.
The H230 is an unassuming mid-tower with a couple of low-noise cooling fans (one intake, one exhaust) and sound-dampening material on its side panels. There are no fancy fan controllers built in, but we didn’t need one—we’ll explain why a little later. The H230 was available for just under $60. Though it includes two fans, the H230 has mounts for three, so we also picked up an additional 120mm, low-noise fan from Fractal Designs. We wanted to maximize the air-flow through the case to provide ample cooling for our other hardware.
The processor and cooler
Choosing a processor for the build was easy: Intel’s Haswell-based, 4th-generation Core processors are both fast and power-friendly.
We considered a 65W Core i5-4570S but eventually decided on the $220 Core i5-4670. Its thermal design power is somewhat higher at 84W, but it offers much higher-peak Turbo frequencies than the 4570S, which translates into better performance. Besides, 84W can easily be dissipated by a high-quality heatsink—and moving up to the i5-4670 only cost 20 additional dollars.
To control noise, we also decided to passively cool the CPU, using a larger heatsink in place of a dedicated fan. Many aftermarket heatsinks are designed to handle more powerful overclocked processors that can consume upward of 200W. The Core i5-4670’s 84W would be a piece of cake.
After a bit of searching, we chose a Xigmatek Prime SD1484. This tower-type cooler included a large cooling fan (that we didn’t use) and was available for a relatively low $39.99. Other, similarly-sized coolers were roughly double the price, even though Xigmatek’s offering had some more desirable features, like wider cooling fins and thick copper heat-pipes that made direct contact with the CPU.
The motherboard and RAM
We also wanted a quality motherboard with passive cooling—again, to keep noise down. The Z87 chipset-based Gigabyte Z87X-UD3 fit the bill for $160, including large heatsinks. A cheaper H81-based board would also have worked, but the motherboards available usually included much smaller heatsinks.
Next we selected the lowest-voltage, dual-channel, DDR3-1600 8GB memory kit we could find, as 1600MHz is the highest officially-supported memory frequency for Haswell processors and 8GB is plenty of memory for most folks. Lower-voltage memory equates to lower power consumption and lower heat output. We found an $85 8GB kit from G.SKILL that required only 1.25V, instead of the more typical 1.5V of higher-performance memory kits. Better still, the kit ran with tight timings (CAS 9), which would help performance.
Silent, speedy storage
Choosing an SSD for this build’s storage was a no-brainer, even though the one we chose, a 1TB Crucial M550, was the most expensive single component in the build at $530. Hard drives’ fast-spinning motors and rapidly moving parts emit whines and clicks that can sometimes be heard across a room. Solid state drives have no moving parts. They make less noise and consume less power, plus they’re fast. A 1TB drive skirts the usual SSD storage constraints. At about 50 cents a gigabyte, it was actually a heck of a deal—lower-capacity SSDs in the same class as the M550 typically sell for about $0.62 to $0.75 per gigabyte.
The graphics card
Choosing the graphics card for this build was also a piece of cake: Nvidia’s Maxwell microarchitecture currently has no equal in power efficiency, and Maxwell is only available in the recently released GeForce GTX 750 Ti.
Some variants of the GeForce GTX 750 Ti don’t even require a supplemental power connection, drawing all of the power they need from their PCI Express slot.
With such low power requirements, 750 Ti cards can also be cooled by relatively tiny heatsinks. We wanted a 750 Ti with a little more oomph than stock cards, however, and ultimately opted for the $175 EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti FTW with ACX cooling. EVGA’s ACX cooler is large by GTX 750 Ti standards and features two oversized, but quiet fans. The card is also overclocked to goose performance a bit.
The power supply
The last component we needed was a power supply. Our CPU and GPU combined required less than 150 watts of power, so we searched for 400- to 500-watt supply that was 80 PLUS certified and outfitted with a large, quiet cooling fan. We settled on a 430W unit from EVGA that cost less than $40. It was plenty for this build and even afforded us headroom for future upgrades.
Read on for the comprehensive parts total, build guide, and benchmark results.
If you’re keeping track, the complete parts breakdown for the system is as follows:
GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti FTW with ACX Cooling – $174.99
Storage: Crucial M550 1TB SSD – $529.99
Optical drive: Samsung DVD-R – $19.99
Chassis: ZNXT H230 – $59.99
Power Supply: EVGA 430W 80 PLUS Certified – $39.99
CPU cooler: Xigmatek Prime SD1484 – $39.99
Miscellaneous: Fractal Design Silent Series R2 120mm Fan – $11.99
Operating system: Windows 8.1 OEM – $99
Total cost: $1,441.89
At over $1400, this system isn’t exactly cheap. Note, however, that you could save a significant amount of money and bring the price much closer to the $1000 mark if you opted for a smaller SSD, a cheaper motherboard, stock cooling, and a previous-generation (but still low-power) graphics card like the GeForce GTX 650 Ti .
Putting it all together
Physically putting this system together was as easy as pie, with no surprises or snags.
The CPU, GPU, and RAM are keyed and only fit in their respective sockets or slots one way, so you can’t really do it wrong. The case had no trouble accommodating our motherboard and drives. And there was ample room to route, tie-down, and hide cables at various points throughout the rig.
The only extraordinary steps we took with this build were to install an additional intake fan into an available location at the front of the case, adding the aftermarket cooler with its unique mounting accessories, and connecting the case’s cooling fans to the motherboard to provide automatic fan control.
If you’d like more detailed steps on actually assembling a PC, we’d recommend checking out a couple of recent articles. Follow our PC building best practices and you shouldn’t have any trouble piecing a system together, while our detailed guide on how to properly install a CPU cooler will help ensure you get that crucial process right the first time.
Testing the sound of sweet, strong silence
To find out how we did on this project, we ran a number of benchmarks to quantify the system’s performance and monitored power consumption and noise output throughout testing. To show how the system performed in a variety of workloads, we ran a number of tests, including PCMark 7, 3DMark, Cinebench R15 and a couple of games. Here’s how the system did:
As you can see, overall performance was quite good. The relatively fast CPU, discrete graphics card, and SSD pushed the system’s PCMark 7 score well over 7,200 points, which is nothing to sneeze at, easily trumping our recent Steam Box and upgrade test builds. (PCMark 7 measures overall system performance.)
The system’s scores in 3DMark’s graphics test and Cinebench R15’s CPU and GPU benchmarks were also good, particularly in Cinebench’s OpenGL test, where the rig put up over 122 frames per second (fps). The system also handled 1080p gaming well, with frame rates in excess of 50 fps in Lost Planet 2 and 72 fps in Batman: Arkham Origins, with all image quality options set to their high-quality modes, with anti-aliasing enabled. Opting for a more powerful graphics card would obviously result in higher frame rates, but would negatively impact power draw and very possibly the noise level.
More importantly, the system remained nice and quiet regardless of the workload, and power consumption was relatively low, especially considering how quickly the system ran. From about one foot away from the rear of the system, it registered only 39.6 decibels on our digital sound level meter. That’s not silent by any means—it’s impossible to be totally silent when there are fans moving air around—but it is very, very quiet. The fans in the system produced an unobtrusive, low-pitched hum that was hardly noticeable during use. Ditching the extra fan up front would’ve made the rig even quieter, but since the rig was built to game, it felt prudent to include it.
As for power consumption, check this out:
The power consumption numbers are impressive in light of the system’s performance. To put things into perspective, this system probably consumed half as much power while idling than the light bulbs above your desk. Even under load, the system’s power consumption peaked at 144 watts. If you thought that a 430-watt PSU wasn’t enough for this kind of rig, think again.
In the end, we couldn’t be more pleased with this system. It wasn’t cheap, but it proved to be fast, quiet, and quite power-friendly. That puts a nice, green sheen on your need for speed.