Building a black & white workhorse PC
Get $2,800 of balanced power with Alex Cox's yin and yang build.
For most of the writers here at APC, the workhorse machines in our daily lives are typically paradoxes. The digital equivalent of the ship of Theseus; every part of them transplanted and replaced over the past decade, until nothing of the original truly remains. So are they still the same PCs? More to the point, for this humble writer, has it really been a decade since he last sat down with a desk full of components and built a rig from scratch? The former question will remain paradoxical, but the latter has a new answer: no. He’s built a new machine to escape the ridicule and derision of the APC team, and bring our lumbering skills back up to scratch.
As is, no doubt, hugely apparent, a massive part of our decision-making process when speccing up this machine was our desire for an alternate aesthetic. The black-based glowing RGB monolith is a modern staple, but we’ve added contrast and brightness, pulling out lurid colour in favour of a slick monochrome combo. Liquid cooling is all the rage, but without the budget for such frippery (and with a mind to do something different yet traditional), we’ve opted for massive negative pressure airflow. All components included, there’s a total of 10 fans spinning away inside.
Our sub-$3,000 budget (and that overarching colour scheme) really determined the makeup of the PC itself, but even after splurging on fancy fans, we’ve not been forced to skimp on the goods. It’s landed squarely at the mid-range, with Intel’s 4GHz, quad-core Core i3-8350K (probably the best overclockable chip you can get with limited cash right now) sitting at its heart.
Approaching a fresh, modern case as someone who’s scraped their knuckles on cheap Chinese boxes in the past is a revelation. While so many aspects of the PC building process have remained familiar over the past 10 years, there’s an astonishing level of logic, flexibility and build quality evident in NZXT’s white-outered H400i microATX mini tower case. It’s made for cable routing, for pretty builds, for compact constructions, for a subtle first glance, and a remarkable second, and it’s just brilliant to work with.
Getting massive airflow into the case meant ripping out the stock fans and raiding Noctua’s warehouse for a stack of cooling gear, namely a foursome of NF-A14 140mm fans for the rear and front of the case, an NF-F12 fan for rear exhaust, and a pair of the same to replace the decidedly not-monochrome brown fan of the NH-U12S cooler. Each fan includes replaceable corner vibration dampeners in a host of colours — critically, for us, four each of black and white. Topping it all off is a white NA-HC2 cooler cover to make the CPU pop and complement the H400i’s cable tidy bar.
It might seem like we’ve chosen the components specifically for their hue: the gloomy ASUS RoG Strix Z370-G mobo, the bright glossy ASUS GeForce GTX 1060, the white LED brilliance of Corsair’s Vengeance RAM, the mat ink of a 500GB Samsung 850 Evo SSD up front on display, the milky braided modular tentacles of the Corsair RM750x PSU. And we have. But, damn, that Core i3-8350K needed a collection of capable counterparts to really make it fly, and that’s precisely what we’ve offered it. For a mid-range build, we’d expect this to burn through the benchmarks right now, and give us plenty of room for future expansion.
Starting from scratch is both the best way to get your head in a build and the key to a clean, organised machine. Gaining full access to that case means tearing it to shreds at the beginning. Everything that can be removed needs to be removed, including the front panel and dust filter, the tempered glass side and white rear cover, the nifty cable tidy bar (which takes a bit of bending to free it), and the stock fans. With as much elbow room as possible freed up inside, it’s time to start working from the bottom up, pressing the padded rear port panel into place, then bolting down the mobo after screwing in an extra pair of standoffs to support it.
Although there’s lots of room to stuff cables into the rear of the H400i’s PSU bay, we’ve gone for a modular PSU, because even the copious routing channels on the rear panel will get overloaded by a full contingent of individually braided strands. Before installing the PSU, we added only those cables that were absolutely necessary, plugging them into the left-most sockets to minimise the wrist-twisting acrobatics required to add outlets if upgrading in the future, then removed the PSU bracket from the rear of the case, screwed it on to the PSU, and posted everything in, sending the cables out the back of the case to be properly routed later on.
Before the case gets too crowded, and with the motherboard and PSU safely in place, it’s time to install the case fans. This is a dull and arduous process that means adding eight awkward silicon vibration dampeners to each edge of each corner of each fan, being mindful of the airflow direction of each fan — we’re dragging air in through the front, and exhausting it through the top and rear of the case. We chose to add the white bumpers to the fan side facing the inner of the case, so we only needed to consider the rotational orientation of the fans (and the egress of their cables through the back of the case) at install time; had we instead put them on the window side, we’d have had to consider the cables much earlier.
Oddly, installing the CPU cooler is one of the trickiest bits of this build. It requires a bit of pre-preparation, pulling the brown Noctua fan off (and keeping it carefully aside, because it’s awesome, and the only reason we’re not using it here is its colour), and removing its wire clips, then preparing the pair of 120mm fans, equipping them with clips, and considering both the direction of airflow and the location on the motherboard of the CPU fan headers. Bracket on, cooling paste on, cooler on. We then clip on the fan that’s furthest from the fan headers, plugging it into the OPT header, which will become inaccessible once we’ve clipped on and plugged in the one on the other side. The magnetic mount for the cooler cover needs to be added next, followed by the second fan, then the white cooler cover simply drops on over the top.
HOOK IT UP
Here’s a bit of inside information: We made it through this build with only one tiny finger wound, and it’s not entirely clear where that came from. We blame our atypical lack of injury mainly on the formulaic, logical, top-down outside-in build process we employed. Thus the next step: installing those painful motherboard cables and headers that require improbable finger gymnastics if there’s anything else in the case, and routing them neatly out of the way at this early stage. Then it’s in with the RAM — in the motherboard’s second channel, to ensure good clearance from the fan-laden cooler — in with the CPU, and in with the Kingston M.2 SSD, after liberating it from the PCIe card it initially comes attached to.
Time to finish up, and it’s a relatively simple process. The Samsung SSD goes in the cradle on front of the PSU bay — route the SATA cable and power through the handy hole next to it, and catch the flying springs that are released when you pop the cradle off — and then we install the graphics card; we initially routed the six-pin power cable through the back of the machine, and later moved it to the much more attractive hole on top of the PSU bay. With all the components ensconced, the cable tidy bar reinstalled, and the cables beautifully routed on the back, and definitely not all stuffed haphazardly into the main recess, the front and sides of the case can go back on at last.