Wa­ter walk­ing with Ryzen

Zak Storey walks you through the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of build­ing one of the world’s most com­pact liq­uid-cooled rigs.

APC Australia - - Contents -


This month’s PC build dif­fers from most of our usual pro­jects: it’s de­vised with a sin­gle per­son in mind, as op­posed to try­ing to hit a spe­cific price point, use case... or just push­ing ev­ery­thing to the max, like we do with our most as­pi­ra­tional builds.

This ma­chine is de­signed around the whims of our crack­pot ed­i­tor. ITX builds are a pas­sion, and push­ing as much power as pos­si­ble into as small a form fac­tor as pos­si­ble is in­cred­i­bly en­tic­ing. In fact, it’s ar­guably what this in­dus­try has been all about for the last 60 years — en­abling more and more per­for­mance out of less and less space.

That said, this build project didn’t ac­tu­ally start out with ITX in mind. There have been nu­mer­ous re­vi­sions, count­less spec list changes, and a whole heap of ad­just­ments made be­fore even get­ting to this point. Orig­i­nally, we planned to take ad­van­tage of In­tel’s per­fectly bal­anced Core i9-7900X — delid­ded, of course — housed in an Enthoo Evolv ATX. Then, with the ad­vent of Spec­tre and Melt­down, we trans­ferred our propo­si­tion over to the no­tion of Ryzen once more — a Ryzen+ build, to be ex­act — but still tak­ing ad­van­tage of that ATX form fac­tor, and with an SLI ASUS GTX 1080 Ti con­fig­u­ra­tion. Fast-for­ward to this month and that no­tion was fi­nally shrunk down to an ITX sys­tem, and a sec­ond look at a cus­tom-mod­ded NZXT Manta, a chas­sis we’d worked on in the past. After we re­alised our cus­tom case ideas couldn’t be brought to fruition in time for get­ting the is­sue to print, we fi­nally set­tled on work­ing with Lian Li’s PC-Q37 — only for the spec to then get shaken up once again, with the launches of Sam­sung’s 970 Pro drives and ASUS’s X470-I mother­board.

In the run-up to this is­sue, it’s been hec­tic, to say the least. The or­gan­i­sa­tional side of things has been turned on its head so many times, it’s been enough to drive the chief colour picker in­sane, and for the de­sign team at APC to put out hits on all of us — the ed­i­tor in par­tic­u­lar. Stress, upon stress, upon stress. Why do we do this again?


Ev­ery time we hit up the draw­ing board for a build like this, there’s a sense of ap­pre­hen­sion. The de­gree of or­gan­i­sa­tion and luck re­quired is Her­culean, and even with all our ex­pe­ri­ence, it never comes easy.

From plan­ning the spec list, to re­quest­ing hard­ware, ar­rang­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, and more, it can take months for ev­ery­thing to come to­gether, only for a new prod­uct to launch, or a ship­ping dead­line to fall through, and scup­per the en­tire thing.

Un­like our reg­u­lar builds, th­ese one-off spe­cials are not about ab­so­lute power, and push­ing ev­ery­thing to the bleed­ing edge of tech­nol­ogy, but about craft­ing a PC that’s per­fect for the in­di­vid­ual it’s de­signed for.

Let’s be re­al­is­tic: you can prob­a­bly get the same per­for­mance for half the cost, or twice the per­for­mance for less than dou­ble the price. But you rarely find some­one who’s in­vested this much time and ef­fort into a rig and re­grets it. It’s a real labour of love.

This time around, we’ll be craft­ing a su­per-small liq­uid-cooled ITX Ryzen 2 rig, pack­ing some in­cred­i­ble hard­ware into as small a chas­sis as pos­si­ble. On top of that, we’ll be di­vulging all our tips and tricks to make the mi­cro man­age­able, giv­ing up our se­crets on ex­actly which man­u­fac­tur­ers and prod­ucts we chose to make our sys­tem build as easy as can be, and hope­fully in­spir­ing you to cre­ate your own slice of sil­i­con perfection, on any bud­get, in any chas­sis.


Step one: the doozy — the strip-down. It’s so, so, so im­por­tant you get this right, es­pe­cially in a liq­uid-cooled build, par­tic­u­larly when it’s as tight and cramped as this, be­cause it’s the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to see where your ra­di­a­tors fit, and try to fig­ure out your tub­ing runs, and where you might need pass-throughs. In our case, we knew ahead of time we’d need ev­ery edge we could get. That meant re­duc­ing phys­i­cal drives, cable clut­ter, any­thing that might cause an is­sue. The hard drive cage and grom­met cov­ers were all re­moved prior to the build shoot. Once we be­gan, we got the mother­board set up ASAP — that meant CPU in, block on, mem­ory in, and M.2 stor­age in. Once that was all se­cured, we quickly in­stalled it to see ex­actly where we’d need to fit ev­ery­thing else.


We knew this build was go­ing to strug­gle with air­flow. Hav­ing no tra­di­tional front panel meant air ac­cess came from the bot­tom and top — and that was it. Prob­lem is, there isn’t enough space to mount fans in the bot­tom if you’re us­ing an ad­di­tional ra­di­a­tor there as well. To get around this, we de­cided to in­vest in two slim 120mm Noc­tuas, and mount them on the un­der­side of the chas­sis. We also had to move the ra­di­a­tor as far for­ward as we could to make sure the fit­tings wouldn’t be blocked by the GPU. We used rub­ber wash­ers with the screws, to se­cure the fans to the ra­di­a­tor, as they’re 10mm slim­mer than their stan­dard coun­ter­parts, and we needed to make that up some­how. There’s a few ad­just­ments we can still make. In an ideal world, we would re­place the feet with af­ter­mar­ket cus­tom-cut acrylic ones, to give the chas­sis more height, and al­low us to use full-sized, more pow­er­ful Noc­tuas in­stead. Cou­ple that with some fan guards, and we’d be good to go.


More ra­di­a­tor chal­lenges: this time from the top thick-as-hell 45mm rad. By de­fault, the big­ger 45s come with a mas­sive reser­voir at the end, along­side six in­di­vid­ual G1/4-inch mount­ing holes (seven if you in­clude the one at the other end), all of which need plug­ging. It’s great for choices in loop ori­en­ta­tion, less so when you’re mount­ing them to flush ra­di­a­tor brack­ets, like the one on the PCQ37. As th­ese stop fit­tings were push­ing the rad down, we took the ra­di­a­tor mount­ing bracket out of the chas­sis, marked up where the fit­tings were go­ing to go, found the cen­tre us­ing a rule, drilled a pi­lot hole, then used a man­drel to take out the rest, al­low­ing the fit­ting to pass through un­hin­dered, and re­duc­ing our clear­ance is­sues. There’s an­other re­mov­able brushed alu­minium panel that sits on top of this, so our hand­i­work is hid­den, but it’ll also act as a drain valve or fill port when we have to do some loop main­te­nance.


This part was pos­si­bly the most frus­trat­ing. From past ex­pe­ri­ence, we knew soft tub­ing in the rear of the case was go­ing to make our lives eas­ier. Un­for­tu­nately, due to the lack of room and the need for pass-throughs in places for the reser­voir, the tight curves led to the most ob­vi­ous tub­ing runs kink­ing, which is bad. In the end, just to fit the pump in the chas­sis, we had to re­move one of the plas­tic grom­mets that hold the side panel in place (there are seven in to­tal, so los­ing one isn’t the end of the world), then run four 90-de­gree fit­tings, with the small­est slither of soft tub­ing be­tween to reach the pump in­let. To fin­ish the loop, we ran an ad­di­tional length of soft tub­ing straight up from the left-hand side of the pump to a sec­ond passthrough in the roof, con­nect­ing to the ra­di­a­tor on the other side.


Next up on the list of mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the chas­sis (and the first ap­pear­ance of our bearded mod­ding as­sis­tant) is a reser­voir mount­ing bracket. We didn’t re­ally need to add this bracket, as the reser­voir is se­cured by two 15mm-long ex­ten­sion fit­tings com­ing off the bot­tom ra­di­a­tor, and a sec­ond fit­ting com­ing out of the bot­tom-right of the res, con­nect­ing to a fu­ture drilled pass-through, go­ing through the mother­board panel and into the pump, hid­den on the other side. That said, to keep our res sit­ting proud and level, ad­ding this bracket (in­cluded with the res) makes sense. Us­ing a per­ma­nent marker, and some ex­tra hands to hold the res in place, we marked the holes we needed to drill, be­fore pump­ing through that soft gooey alu­minium with a stan­dard 4mm drill bit. You might no­tice the use of a sticky note here; fold it to cre­ate a tray, and at­tach it be­low where you in­tend to drill, to catch all the metal fil­ings.


We know what you’re think­ing: no guide, no se­cur­ing tool, cut­ting straight down on a ta­ble, with a hack­saw? What? Don’t worry. You can be su­per-anal about cut­ting tub­ing, but you don’t need to be. It doesn’t even need to be that straight a cut. The best way to cut tub­ing is to work out how long a length you need, and cut it with a hack­saw, in as com­fort­able a po­si­tion as pos­si­ble. Make sure you stay safe, of course, and cut off more than you think you’ll need, but if you mess up the end, don’t sweat it. If the cut is wonky, use sand­pa­per or nee­dle files to smooth the rough edges and make it level. Next, use a de­bur­ring tool to give your tube some soft edges, mak­ing it eas­ier to fit, then sand it some more to get rid of the grit, blow it out, and bam! Job done: one straight, level, cham­fered, clean tube.


There’s a phrase we al­ways re­peat to our­selves when­ever it comes to build­ing liq­uid-cooled rigs: “Keep it sim­ple, stupid.” This is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant with tub­ing runs, where it’s al­most al­ways a bet­ter de­ci­sion to use a fit­ting in place of a bend, un­less there’s no other op­tion. If you do want bends in your tub­ing, the best way to in­te­grate them is through pure 90-de­gree an­gles. They’re the sim­plest and quick­est bend to cre­ate — you don’t need any care­fully crafted an­gle tem­plates or any­thing weird, be­cause the whole world is lit­er­ally filled with 90-de­gree an­gles. Us hu­mans, we love square edges. In this case, to make our bends, we’re us­ing the edge of the chas­sis it­self to line up our 90-de­gree an­gle, mid-bend, to make sure it’s the per­fect shape. This par­tic­u­lar tube will go on to be­come our CPU-to-GPU line.


The small­est parts in a liq­uid-cooled build are the most dif­fi­cult to work with. This lit­tle length of tub­ing, con­nect­ing the pump to the pass-through and into the ra­di­a­tor, took us 45 min­utes to get right, per­pet­u­ally sand­ing and short­en­ing it to get it to fit cor­rectly. Even then, we re­alised the pass-through it­self needed to be moved ever so slightly to the left, purely to keep the tub­ing run straight and level. That’s not an ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity, more of an aes­thetic de­sign de­ci­sion, if any­thing. But be­cause alu­minium is so soft to work with, as met­als go, it’s easy enough to take a nee­dle file to it, and just shift the pass-through ever so slightly to per­fect the tub­ing run. On top of that, the smaller you go, the more trou­ble­some it be­comes to se­cure the com­pres­sion fit­ting tops, be­cause you start run­ning out of space.


This is what we were talk­ing about. You can see we’ve used a ro­tary S-fit­ting (act­ing as two 90-de­gree fit­tings) to con­nect a 90-de­gree length of tub­ing from the GPU to the CPU block. This way, we can keep the tub­ing look­ing clean, straight into the GPU block, with­out harm­ing the over­all aes­thet­ics. The other 90-de­gree line com­ing out of the GPU is a com­bi­na­tion of two 90-de­gree fit­tings, fol­lowed by a length of tub­ing with a 90-de­gree bend, which goes down into the ra­di­a­tor be­low. This al­lows the coolant to pass into the rad, then up through a male-to-male ro­tary con­nec­tor and two ex­ten­sions, which then go into the reser­voir. The smart thing about hav­ing those ro­tary ex­ten­sion fit­tings be­low the reser­voir is that we can ro­tate the res, with­out los­ing com­pres­sion on the rub­ber o-rings, which lets us test other tub­ing runs with­out un­screw­ing the reser­voir en­tirely.


De­ci­sions, de­ci­sions. Once all our tub­ing runs were com­plete, there was one last de­ci­sion to make: coolant colour. We de­cided to go with the May­hems Clear X1 as op­posed to the UV Black we also had, be­cause the frosted tub­ing Al­pha­cool sent us looked so sexy on its own. Run­ning black coolant through it would take away some of the aes­thetic love. That, how­ever, was the least of our worries, be­cause we had to fill and prime the loop first, which is a daunt­ing task with even a sim­ple loop, never mind ours. For this rig, we had to tip the en­tire sys­tem side­ways, un­screw the cap on the side of the reser­voir fac­ing up­ward, then par­tially fill the res as high as we could, screw the cap back on, turn it back up, power cy­cle the pump un­til the res was empty, then re­peat un­til done.

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