I just got myself a new desktop PC! I am not much of a Windows user, but am looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077! I have never built a PC before, so I did the research and learnt a lot. Here is what I bought and why.
All images below are copyright the respective owners and taken directly from the linked manufacturer’s website.
I’m not sponsored (sadly), and make no claims or recommendations. This post is just what I bought for myself within my budget constraints. Links to third-party sites and software downloads at your own discretion.
I initially settled on the “value-buy” AMD Ryzen 5 3600, but after looking at the benchmarks and reviews after the Zen 3 launch, I decided on the Ryzen 5 5600X instead. The price hike of 57% may not be “worth” it though (though really I should be comparing against the 3600X).
Since it maintains 65W TDP, it only comes with the Wraith Stealth cooler. Wish AMD given a better to make the price increase more palatable for budget builders.
What I learnt:
- For games, single core speed more important than more cores.
- For productivity and media creation, more cores preferred.
For the motherboard, I went with a B550 chipset, as I don’t expect any future requirement for a X570.
It was a tossup between the ATX and micro-ATX (mATX) models, but in the end I went for the cheaper option. I eliminated models without at least one USB type C port, and I wanted a board with Wi-Fi. I got the ASRock B550M Steel Legend... mainly because it was cheap(er). Although Wi-Fi is not built-in, it’s got a third M.2 Key E slot for a Wi-Fi module (more on that next).
What I learnt:
- Too much about VRMs, power and thermals - but I still don’t care since I won’t bother to overclock.
- All the B550 motherboards make different tradeoffs, compared to the X570s which don’t have similar limitations, I didn’t notice this till too late. E.g.
- the ASRock Steel Legends can enable either the second M.2 or SATA 5 and SATA 6,
- the Gigabyte Aorus Pro can enable either the PCIe 3.0x4 or 1x M.2, and either PCIe 3.0x2 or 3x SATA.
The ASRock Steel Legends provide an additional M.2 slot (previously called NGFF) for Key E Wi-Fi. There are a few options, I got one using the latest Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200 module, which supports 802.11ax for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands plus Bluetooth 5.0 (of course the module I got is from China, but it the Intel chip).
Then I got 2x Wi-Fi antennas with a cable to the Key E card, since my motherboard has holes for antennas on the back plate, but otherwise you will need antennas on a PCI slot backing plate. But there was a small issue with the included 15 cm IPEX 4 to PR-SMA cables, they were too short and could not be routed under the heatsink to the back plate! I needed 30 cm.
- Antenna gain is could be 2, 3 or 8 dBi. See the reasons for each at netxl.
- IPEX 4 to RP-SMA - the M.2 card connects via tiny IPEX 4 press-in plugs, and this cable terminates at a female RP-SMA connector (threaded on the outside with and a pin inside).
- The antenna is then male RP-SMA. Though the sellers themselves get it all mixed up, so best to look at the photos carefully.
What I learnt:
- Getting a M.2 Wi-Fi card is great for mATX cases, saves you a PCIe slot, which in my case is blocked by a 2.7 slot GPU.
- There are many things to consider apart from the chip - the antenna type, the antenna output (back plate or PCI slot), the length of cables - so be very careful what you order.
- Warning: Do not get the Intel AX201, which works only with selected Intel chipsets!
I wanted something reasonably good and reasonably priced. An impossible ask, I know! G.Skill Ripjaws V was my DD4 DRAM of choice, but but my retailer didn’t carry this.
I finally settled on the Corsair Vengeance LPX 3600 MHz C18, which isn’t a great choice... it’s slow, but nothing else was available at this speed. It’s XMP profile timings are 18-22-22-42, but I’ve been running at 16-19-16-36.
What I learnt:
- There is a great table comparing different RAM speeds vs CAS latency posted by u/h0rnman on Reddit (full table replicated in footnote below), so we can compare, e.g. for cheaper RAM, (and I quote) “3600 CL 18 is better than 3200 CL 16”
- 3200 MHz CL 16 has 10.08 ns true latency with 0.63 ns clock cycle time.
- 3600 MHz CL 18 has 10.08 ns true latency with 0.56 ns clock cycle time.
- 3600 MHz CL 16 has 7.84 ns true latency with 0.56 ns clock cycle time.
- However, since Ryzen’s FCLK scales with frequency, so probably 4000 is best, but I could only get 3600
- For Ryzen, Gamers Nexus confirms four matching sticks is better than two, and therefore, dual rank is better than single rank - but who can tell?
I bought the Kingston A2000 NVMe. Reasonably priced and at 2,200 / 2,000 read / write, it’s faster than many others since it has DRAM.
And I got a Western Digital Purple Surveillance hard drive for my long term storage. I don’t have CCTVs, but it was cheap and I hope it can last. That’s all I care about actually.
I actually have at about 5 other 2.5" SSDs / 3.5" HDDs, hence the need for SATA ports!
What I learnt:
- Go M.2 NVMe, as it is 3-6+ times faster than SATA III. Initially I was going to re-use an existing SATA SSD, but SATA III bandwidth is limited to 600 Mbps.
- And, make sure it’s NVMe as there are slow M.2 SATA drives!
- There are slower NVMe’s, ’round about 2000 Mbps (like the Kingston A2000, PNY CS2310 or ADATA SX6000), and fast ones exceeding 3,000 Mbps (like the Kingston KC2500, PNY CS3030 or ADATA SX8200). And those that support PCIe 4.0 are suppposed to be faster.
- Generally, NVMEs with a DRAM cache should be faster... though it’s really not clear which models have a cache.
A 650W power supply was all I needed, but finally decided on a Cooler Master MWE Gold 750 Full Modular, because it was just 12% more costly.
After building I realize a Full Modular PSU is overkill and in fact, I had a hard time plugging everything in because I installed the PSU first before the cables! There are so many cables all users will certainly use, so semi-modular makes more sense.
I hope a 750W PSU it will be more future-proof, if I decide to upgrade to a Nvidia RTX 3000-series or AMD Radeon RX 6000-series, in the future.
What I learnt:
- All PSU are not created equal and neither the rating (80+ Gold, Silver, etc.nor price are great indicators of the engineering build. Some PSU lists:
- On the Linus Tech Tips Forum, Luke Savenije’s PSU Tier List
- And Tom’s Hardware Forum points to Raison John Bassig’s Power Supply Unit Comparison on Google Drive
Good mATX cases are hard to find, especially ones that meet my criteria - good airflow / mesh, 2x USB 3.0 (now called USB 3.2 Gen 1) front panel and at least 2x 2.5" SSD and 2x 3.5" HDD bays. I neither NZXT, nor Phanteks (Eclipse series) do mATX at a price point I liked.
The refreshed Tecware Quad cube was intriguing but I couldn’t find any reviews nor a manual on-line. Horizontal motherboard eliminates GPU sag. Plus, it’s avaiable in white! Manufacturers take note, black is so passé (truth be told, with my bad eyesight, I struggled with black cables + black screws + black motherboard + black RAM/PSU/CPU/GPU + black fans + black cable ties + in a black case).
So I decided on the well received Cooler Master MasterBox NR400. Does not look fancy, but lots to like! I found it to be a very high quality case that ticks all the boxes in my list below. Plus there is even a version with an optical disk bay for those who need one (though alas it wasn’t avaible).
What I learnt:
- Most comparison tools aren’t detailed enough to match my list of requirements, I had to go vendor by vendor! But, PCPartPicker is a great start.
- Cheap cases cheap out on all these (in no particular order):
- front panel ports and buttons, especially 2x USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 type C (why bother with USB 2.0),
- mesh or slots for airflow, punching holes is expensive,
- magnetic mesh dust protection covers,
- removable covers for the PCI slots,
- the two main cable slots have rubberized grommets (which offer protection against sharp edges),
- wider cable management space,
- hidden PSU under a shroud,
- more mounting points for storage, coolers / fans, cable ties,
- screwless storage mounting,
- movable and removable mounting bay for storage since not everyone has 3.5" drives,
- “accessories bundle” mainly the quantity of rubber gaskets for SSD/HDD eyelets (see the last point below), cable ties, various screws, etc.
- tempered glass panel with thumbscrews - the glass on the NR400 slides in on slots (so there is less chance of dropping it upon unscrewing) plus and all thumbscrews are on the back (making for very clean slides),
- fan count, RGB, RGB controllers and fan type (3 or 4 PIN), see below) - I really don’t care about RGB
- And, mATX leaves very little space between the GPU and PSU shroud for 2.7-3 slot GPUs.
- Finally, about the NR400 drive cage specifically,
- The screwless mounts force the HDDs to be circuit-board-side down, but the single L-shared SATA cable provided faces the opposite direction. I can’t clerly describe this, but trust me - the cable can’t bend that way to fit. This is a headache that I have yet to solve!
- FYI to use the top-most bay (above the cage), insert the small-end rubber gaskets into the eyelets - I couldn’t figure this out until I saw someone do it on a build video!
- And, I wish there was one more mounting position closer to the front of the case, the space from the PSU to the drive cage is rather narrow.
- The NR400 manual is very sneaky, look closely and Cooler Master seems to use some sort of right-angle 22-pin SATA adapter in Step 5 (this is not included of course):
From my research, the “best” cheap fan is the Arctic P12 PWM.
What I learnt:
- Setup your fans first, before the motherboard and PSU go in. I had challenges routing cables neatly, as some fan cables simply couldn’t reach the headers I wanted them to.
- Positive or negative pressure? (NewEgg has an explanation with pictures), but from what I know:
- Positive pressure - pushes more air into the case than out (I think I’d prefer this and I set up 2 front + 1 top intakes with 1 rear exhaust - but I have no idea, since the fans often power down),
- Negative pressure - pulls more air out of the case, but will get more dusty,
- Neutral - equal inflow and outflow.
- Fan type? Some are airflow optimized (like the Arctic F-series) while others are pressure optimized (like the Arctic P-series), which is good for heatsinks, radiators... and, methinks, mesh cases.
- If you care to compare capability vs noise, watch (and listen) the fan shoot-outs by The Tech Buyer’s Guru, dated 12 July 2020 and Optimum Tech, dated 27 July 2020
- 3-pin fans are older and more common but 4-pin fans have PWM capability, to allow the motherboard fine control over motor speed (rather than by adjusting voltage) and can run at low speed without stalling.
- Look at the arrow on the side of the fan for airflow direction.
- And finally, for NR400 mATX case owners, for the front, go with two 120 mm fans.
- I got two 140 mm fans instead and they don’t quite align as nicely as I’d like them to - the upper fan is too high (doesn’t align with the CPU), and the lower fan is too low (mostly facing the HDD tray and PSU instead of the GPU).
- The case comes with 4 screwless fan mounts, but with the Arctics, they don’t hold the fans tightly enough.
Keyboard and Mouse
I wanted a tenkeyless / TkL / 80% / 87 key mechanical keyboard that wouldn’t break the bank. I was evaluating ... but in the end I bought a 1stPlayer DK5.0 Lite keyboard with Outemu Red switches, and a 1stPlayer DK3.0 7-button 6400 dpi mouse.
A mistake! The keyboard isn’t great. The keys can’t be swapped out, does not come with a keycap puller and uses non-detachable, non-braided cable. And not to mention the terrible software! 1stPlayer has different software for each device, and in the case of the mouse, it always defaults to Chinese language.
On the bright side, the keyboard and mouse are support customizable true RGB, and support macros.
On the keyboard:
- I remap the Pause to Enter, because compared to a full size 101-key keyboard, that is probably the key I miss the most!
- Sometimes I map something else to the Caplock key, depending on what I’m doing - some apps use
Backspace or Entertoo much, which is not left-hand-friendly.
For the mouse:
- I map the mouse side buttons to Control-Alt-Left and Control-Alt-Right to quickly switch between virtual desktops. I miss the macOS 3-finger swipe gesture, but this is a great alternative.
- I map the second middle button to Backspace so I can quickly navigate back in Explorer or my Web Browser.
What I learnt:
- Mechanical keyboards with hot-swappable switches, braided and replaceable cables, key cap pullers and more standard button sizes are preferable.
- And optical keyboards are even faster and more durable (no physical contact)... but as expected, more expensive.
- PS2 keyboards are “better” in terms of Windows 7 support, n-key rollover and ghosting.
- Find somewhere to get a hands-on feel of the different switches - Red, Blue, Brown, Black - as explained by PC Gamer
Putting it together was pretty painless. Roughly half-a-day of effort.
My B550M Steel Legend was already updated to the latest BIOS (AMD AGESA ComboAM4v2 184.108.40.206 Patch C).
Installing Windows from a USB stick was painless. Everything worked, including Wi-Fi and Ethernet!
BTW ASRock’s ASRock Motherboard Utility a.k.a. A-Tuner crashes for me, and I didn’t bother with any of their software or drivers.
And, AMD Ryzen Master 220.127.116.112 apparently does not support B550! Apparently I have a CPU speed of 0 MHz with 0\0 cores.
Update 17 Nov: The latest ASRock Motherboard Utility beta v3.0.378, dated 11 Nov 2020 no longer crashes on startup; added note about Ryzen Master not working. Update 21 Nov: Some minor edits - and I forgot to say, I was inspired by Superman / Geralt himself, Henry Cavill.