Build­ing a black & white work­horse PC

Get $2,800 of bal­anced power with Alex Cox's yin and yang build.

APC Australia - - Contents -


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.


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.

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