It turns out I had so much to say about this new build that it's simply too much for a single blog post, so I broke it into two parts. In this first post, I list all the different parts I used in my new computer, and then I go into detail about the hardware and BIOS configuration steps I performed. In the next post, I talk about which drivers I had to install, where to find the correct versions, optimization tips, and finally I'll provide some benchmarking numbers to show how this new PC compares to my 2010 build.
THE REQUIREMENTSMy high-level goal when building this system was to have a fast, stable, and quiet PC that would enable me to run more simultaneous plugins and/or play more simultaneous notes of polyphony without any pops, dropouts, or other glitches in my audio than I could get with my old PC.
I had some more specific requirements, too:
- Must support the latest generation of Intel desktop processors.
- Must have a mix of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, because not all USB 2.0 devices work very well on USB 3 buses.
- Must have enough expansion slots that I can add a FireWire card (for my RME FireFace UFX), a PCIe graphics card, and a PCIe-based SSD drive.
- Must support a minimum of 5 internal SATA devices (two optical drives and three hard drives or SSDs).
- Must have enough DIMM slots that I can add memory as needed over time.
- Must have at least one fast Ethernet port, and none of that garbage "Killer Networking" crap.
- Whatever video card I get must have at least one HDMI port and one DVI port to support my existing monitors.
THE SHOPPING LISTI was really pleased with most of the components I had put into my original DAW PC, so my first thought was to seek out the latest and greatest components by the same manufacturers who made the parts I had used in that first computer. But there were problems...
- The one Gigabyte board that had all the features and ports I needed (the GA-X99-UD5) had almost universally bad user reviews relating to stability issues and malfunctioning features. Even positive reviews cited some problems that many users would probably consider showstopping bugs. Sadly, Gigabyte was out.
- The Plextor optical drive I'd set my heart on, the PX-880SA was no longer available, and I had a hard time locating the replacement model, the PX-890SA, in stock at a place with good shipping times/prices. Optical drives are virtually a commodity these days, though, so not a huge loss.
- Kingston wasn't on the list of approved RAM manufacturers for the ASUS motherboard I ended up choosing, so I picked one of the brands that they recommended instead.
- Processor: Intel Core i7-5930K. This is the second-most powerful of Intel's current generation of desktop processors (the Haswell-E family). It has only 6 cores (compared to the flagship Core i7-5960X), but a faster clock speed. This processor also costs nearly half as much as the 5960X, while delivering only around 20% less performance. It's a better value. I chose the 5930K over the entry-level Haswell-E processor, the Core i7-5820K, because of the 5930K's faster clock speed. The 5930K also has more PCI Express lanes (40), which means more expandability potential. In my case I could have skated by with the 28 lanes that the 5820K provides (I use x16 for graphics, x1 for FireWire, and x4 for my PCIe SSD drive, for 21 lanes total), but 28 lanes on the 5820K rules out the possibility of a dual-graphics card solution with most high-end cards.
- Cooling: Corsair H60 High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler. The Haswell-E family of CPUs don't include factory heatsinks like the old Bloomfield processor in my previous computer did. You can get an Intel-manufactured heatsink for these processors (the Intel Thermal Solution Air BXTS13A), but after-market manufacturers like Corsair deliver quieter solutions, which are attractive to anyone working in music.
- Motherboard: ASUS X99-A/USB 3.1 ATX. The Haswell-E processors require motherboards that support the LGA2011-v3 socket and the X99 chipset. This board met these and all of my other requirements, and although it was so new there weren't many reviews for it when I was shopping, its sibling board, the non-USB 3.1 X99-A was very well-reviewed. The only difference between the two (I believe) is that my model has an additional USB 3.1 host controller not present on the regular X99-A.
- Case: Antec P280. This case seemed to be the closest in form and function to the P183 case that I'd used for my first DAW system. This one turned out to be a little wider than I'd expected (it was a very tight fit under my desk!) but had plenty of room for a ton of drives and big expansion cards, in a very sturdy, quiet case. I also really like the "tool-less" 5.25" drive bays for optical drives and the removable drive trays that support both 3.5" hard disks and 2.5" SSDs. Antec makes a windowed version as well, but I prefer opaque cases.
- SSD storage: I have never owned an SSD drive before, and I wanted to finally bite the bullet this time around. I went with the 400GB version of the Intel Solid-State Drive 750 Series (model SSDPEDMW40) for my boot drive. This is a super-fast PCIe device that only works on motherboards that include NVMe support. I also picked up the 480GB version of the Intel 535 Series (model SSDSC2BW480H6), which are standard SATA drives. I'm using this one for applications and plugins, and the PCIe drive for the operating system and documents.
- Hard disk storage: I also got a 2TB WD Black drive for samples and downloads and finally a 3TB WD Black drive for backups.
- Power Supply: Corsair AX860i Digital ATX Power Supply. I loved the Corsair power supply I'd used in my previous system, both because it was quiet and because of the wonderful modular cable system. I actually originally bought the less expensive Corsair HX850i for my new PC, but was unable to properly fit the 24-pin power cable it came with into the ASUS motherboard's power connector. Corsair shipped me a replacement cable, but in my impatience I went out and picked up the AX860i, which uses different cables from the other models- and this one worked. I don't know if the replacement cable Corsair sent me for my HX850i would have solved my problem. I have to be honest in saying I'm not sure I fully understand the difference between Corsair's AX and HX lines. I think the AX models are supposed to be quieter and more flexible for overclocking, but that's really tough to determine from the specifications. You might also notice that they have "AXi" and "HXi" lines versus their own "AX" and "HX" lines. The "i" models have digital connectors that plug into a USB header on your motherboard so you can use their special Corsair Link software to monitor your system. Nice, but probably not essential.
- RAM: I got a 16GB kit that included two 8GB sticks of Crucial CT8G4DFD8213 DDR4 2133 MT/s RAM. This particular model was on the ASUS QVL (qualified vendors list) for my motherboard. There's a 32GB (4-DIMM) kit of the same model. Since I'm using 2 sticks of RAM, I'm getting dual-channel memory support. If I added another two matched sticks, I could get quad-channel support, but the jury's still out on whether that makes any difference for music production.
- Optical: There's not a lot of difference between optical drives these days, they mostly have similar specs and they're almost all dirt cheap. I initially just ordered a LITE-ON iHAS124 optical drive, but I ended up also picking up an LG Electronics Internal Super Multi Drive (GH24NSC0B) at a local shop to speed up some install operations.
- Video: EVGA GeForce GTX 960 4GB FTW ACX 2.0+. I do play a game now and then, so I wanted a graphics card that could at least handle moderate gaming without making too much noise. As of this writing, the GTX-960 is right in the middle of the NVIDIA product line in terms of both price and performance. You might think the GTX-960 was an odd choice for a DAW PC considering that it has two giant fans on it, but get this: The fans don't even come on unless the video card reaches 66 degrees Celsius (151 degrees Fahrenheit). If you're not actually doing any 3D graphics or pushing your system very hard, the fans might never spin at all. NOTE: If you're looking to save a bit of money in your DAW PC build, graphics is definitely one area where you can skimp. Just about any PCI Express graphics card with the right monitor connections will do just fine for music production purposes. (The ASUS X99-A boards do not include on-board video; you must add your own.)
- FireWire: Rosewill PCIe FireWire 1394a Card 2+1 Ports (RC-504). My old Gigabyte board had on-board FireWire with a Texas Instruments chipset, but it's hard to find modern boards with 1394 ports. I wanted to keep being able to use my RME FireFace UFX interface as a FireWire device, so I picked up this inexpensive card with a VIA chipset. I know, I know, people always say "Get TI," but it works just fine with my interface. I have also recently heard that there might be incompatibilities with TI-based FireWire cards and some modern boards, so you might want to look into this more if this is an area of concern for you.
- Wi-Fi: EnGenius Technologies 4-Port Wireless N300 Media Bridge (ERB300H). I do not like most desktop solutions for Wi-Fi. Internal solutions usually have poor range to begin with, which only gets worse if you keep your computer under a desk or in a closet. Also, the external antennas for some desktop Wi-Fi cards often have very short wires, making placing them difficult. Wi-Fi transmissions can also cause interference with audio gear (particularly reference monitors), so that can be a hassle as well. Rather than install Wi-Fi in a desktop, I prefer to run a cable from the computer's Ethernet port out to an external wireless bridge, like the ERB300H. I'm running Ethernet from three different computers in my studio to an ERB300H that's wall-mounted several feet away, where it causes no interference with my monitors. All my computers now get super-fast network connections without any of the Wi-Fi-related reception or performance troubles that many desktop users deal with.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHERIt took several days to get everything assembled and running properly. Part of the long setup time was because of the problems I had with the motherboard power cable on the original power supply I ordered, but a lot of it was figuring out which ports to use, which BIOS settings were required, and which drivers to install. I'm presenting all of my findings below. This is by no means a replacement for the various quick start guides and manuals that come with the various components (trust me, you will need that stuff), but in the rest of this post I'll cover a lot of things that aren't in the manuals.
But first, here's what it looks like inside with everything wired up:
HARDWARE INSTALLATION: CASE
Placing the motherboard and other components in the case was pretty straightforward, but here are some notes and observations:
- The only documentation that ships in the Antec P280 box is a 1-page product overview. You can find the full PDF manual here.
- Antec was not overly generous in the selection of screws and zip ties they provided, but they did include just enough for me to install my gear. The case ships with 10 brass colored motherboard standoffs (little posts that support your motherboard). Six of the standoffs were already installed in the case, but I had to screw in three more in order to have a place for each of the nine screws required to install the ASUS motherboard.
- Some of the individual screws are a little hard to tell apart! I recommend separating them by appearance to the best of your abilities. There are four screws for mounting your power supply (they have wide, flat heads with a ridge on the edge), and ten screws for installing the motherboard. Don't confuse the motherboard screws for the six (optional) drive bay screws or the eight 2.5" tray-mount screws; the thread patterns aren't exactly the same, but they're close enough that you can get mixed up.
- The case comes with two top exhaust fans and one rear fan. They are nice, quiet fans, so I kept the top two, however I replaced the rear fan, using that slot for the fan that came with my cooling solution. The case fans are powered with a single standard 4-pin Molex plug. It appears that they always spin so long as the computer is running; there may be a way to control this in the Corsair Link software or BIOS settings. But they're incredibly quiet, so I haven't bothered.
- The manual doesn't mention that in order to install optical drives into the 5.25" bays, you have to remove a metal panel that sits between each bay and the plastic cover on the front of the case. It is not particularly fun removing this panel (basically, I just rocked it back and forth until the metal gave way), but you need to do this in order to pop off the front covers. Once the panels and covers are off, though, installing the drives is a breeze.
- The case includes two little slots between the 3.5" rack and the 5.25" bays just for 2.5" drives. Even though it's very convenient to be able to slip a little SSD into those 2.5" slots, they aren't recessed back far enough to make the SATA power connections very easy if you're installing other drives in the 3.5" rack. Instead I opted to mount all my 2.5" and 3.5" drives in the trays below. The Corsair AX860i and HX850i power supplies both came with two cables for delivering SATA power. I used one cable to power my two 5.25" optical drives and the other to power the rest of the drives. I ran the second cable through one of the rubber-ringed cable routing holes for easier access to the back of the 2.5" and 3.5" drives. This required removal of the right side of the case, which thankfully was just as easy as removing the left.
- It was a little bit of a challenge popping the ASUS board's I/O panel into place at the rear of the case, but it ended up working out. The board itself holds the panel in place once it's tightened down.
- Don't overlook the fact that the ASUS motherboard has two power connectors: an 8-pin connector at the top edge, and a 24-pin one on the upper-right. The Corsair power supplies come with the correct cables to connect to both. (For the 24-pin connector, the Corsair cables have a 2-part connector that you must fasten together in able to connect to the X99-A boards.)
- The first time I installed Windows on this system, I encountered very severe latency issues when trying to do audio, and I have reason to believe that it was at least partly due to my SATA configuration. The X99-A boards have three banks of SATA connectors: A, B, and C (this is how the User Guide labels them- I don't think they're marked this was on the board). At first I was using the A bank for my two optical drives and the B bank for two of my other drives, and the top ports of the C bank for the rest. After doing some web searches on similar problems with ASUS boards, I learned that there might be some issues with the B-bank of ports. On the motherboard they are labeled as "SATA Express." The final time I installed Windows on the system, I changed the connections so that my 2.5" and 3.5" drives were all connected on the bottom-most ports in the C bank (ports 7-10). There is a note in the User Guide that these ports do not support Intel Rapid Storage Technology or RAID configuration. I wasn't interested in either, so this wasn't a problem for me. I haven't had any issues with this new configuration, however I don't have any hard evidence that the SATA ports alone were the cause of the initial instability. (Note: At BIOS defaults, all of the board's SATA ports are set to run in AHCI mode, which is what I wanted.)
- When I was working with the Corsair HX850i power supply, several of the modular cables were difficult to pop into place on the unit itself. You might find it easier to connect the cables you need to the back of the unit first before mounting it inside the case. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I had significant problems with the the HX850i's 24-pin power connector. Not only was it difficult to seat in the back of the unit, but I simply could not get it to make a firm connection to the motherboard's connector. It wouldn't lock into place, and eventually came loose, cutting power to the computer, several times. Corsair did ship me a new cable, but I had already moved on to the AX860i by then.
- Both Corsair power supplies I worked with had special Corsair Link connectors. Whereas the HX850i included a USB cable that connected directly to a USB header on the motherboard, the AX860i included a small device called the Corsair Link USB Dongle that connects to the power supply with a special cable, but also connects to a USB header on the motherboard.
- The Corsair H60 cooler ships with a thin layer of thermal paste on the underside of the pump, which will fuse to your CPU once everything's connected and powered up. So you don't need to buy your own thermal paste unless you ever detach the pump and need to re-connect it later.
- The Quick Start guide that came with the H60 was a little bit too minimal, and I'm not sure if there's an actual full-length user guide for it. I'll just note that if you're using a Haswell-E processor with the LGA2011-v3 socket, you don't need to worry about installing a back plate to your motherboard; that's only for older processors. For LGA2011 processors, all you need to connect the pump to your CPU are the standoff screws (make sure to use the LGA2011 ones, they are shorter on one side than the other), the mounting bracket that fits over the pump, and the thumb screws.
- The single most confusing and worst documented part of the entire build was installing the cooler- specifically, figuring out where to connect the cooler to the motherboard. The Corsair H60 cooler has two major components: There's the "fan" section, which is really a fan attached to a small radiator that actually looks like a miniature car radiator, and then there's the "pump" section that attaches to the top of your CPU. Both the fan and the pump have their own power connectors, and they have different requirements. The pump needs constant and consistent current in order to function properly. It's not meant to ramp up and down in power like an actual CPU fan might. The fan, however, even though it's not directly attached to your CPU, can and should be controlled to adjust speed as needed. The good news is that the X99-A motherboards have a bunch of different fan connectors to suit every possible cooling need. The bad news is that there is pretty much no information in the manual or ASUS's site about what's different between the connectors or when you should use which connectors. But basically, here's what I was able to determine: The best place to connect the H60's fan seems to be the ASUS board's CPU_FAN connector at the upper edge of the board. The best place to connect the H60's pump is to one of the chassis fan connectors (CHA_FAN1 or CHA_FAN2, near the left bank of DIMM slots). You can control how the fan connectors operate in the BIOS, but for now I'm just using the BIOS defaults.
- The ASUS X99-A boards have four 16-lane PCI Express slots. Since a PCIe graphics card is mandatory with these motherboards (due to their lack of on-board video), this means that PCIe slot 1 (the one closest to the CPU) is going to be occupied with your graphics card.
- The physical installation instructions for Intel's PCIe NVMe Solid-State Drives says that the closer to the CPU you install the SSD card, the better the performance, however they also say that the slot furthest away from the CPU might be the best to use "if you are having detection issues." I didn't want to have to do any PCIe troubleshooting, so I just placed my SSD card in slot 6, the 16-lane slot nearest the bottom edge of the board.
- Even though my graphics card only occupied one PCI Express slot on the motherboard, it is a double-width card, and it ended up covering the 4-lane PCIe slot #2. This meant that my only option for installing the FireWire card (which can only use slots 2 or 5, because they're the ones with PCIe 1.0 compatibility) was slot 5.
- That leaves me two 16-lane slots (3 and 4) unoccupied and accessible and since I have one of the 40-lane CPUs, I have 21 lanes available (which means I could add a 16-lane card and a 4-lane card, or two cards that were 8 lanes or less).
The first time I configured this system, I was running the BIOS version the board shipped with, which was version 0401 from March 2015. After Windows was installed and I was troubleshooting the various audio performance problems I was experiencing, I started looking into how to upgrade the BIOS to the latest version. Wow- what a headache that turned out to be! The User Guide lists FOUR different ways to update the BIOS, however not a single one of the methods is described completely accurately. The one I ended up using was the "ASUS EZ Flash 2" method.
The way this method works is, you need to copy the BIOS image that you download from the ASUS help desk page to a USB thumb drive, plug it in, and then go to the ASUS EZ Flash Utility in the Advanced mode of BIOS. The thing they don't tell you is that the Flash Utility will only let you upload BIOS images that are named a specific way (and the files you download from ASUS.com are NOT named the correct way). If you try to select your downloaded BIOS file and it isn't named properly, you'll get an error that makes it sound like you downloaded a corrupt image, when in fact it's just a simple filename problem.
People familiar with ASUS might already know that ASUS sometimes provides a "BIOS Renamer" utility that takes a selected file and gives it the appropriate name for your motherboard- but as of this writing, ASUS has not published a renamer for the USB 3.1 version of the X99-A boards, and the regular X99-A version of the program does not work for the USB 3.1 boards.
The correct filename to use for the X99-A USB 3.1 board doesn't appear to be published anywhere on the Internet- well, until now: The correct filename to use for this board is X99AU31.CAP. If you have the regular (non-USB 3.1) X99-A, the filename is X99A.CAP. I only figured this out when I was taking a look at the contents of the disc that came with the motherboard. It has a number of CAP files (BIOS images) for the different X99 series boards in its root directory.
*begin rant* Here's my biggest complaint about ASUS: Even though this motherboard appears to be really good and solid, and the paper manual it shipped with contained a lot of crucial information, they provide almost no other useful details anywhere on their site or in the downloads for these motherboards. I haven't seen a single readme for any of the downloads on the site. It was really infuriating when I was trying to figure this stuff out. *end rant*
Note that when you upgrade the BIOS, this appears to wipe out any customizations you may have made to the settings. This was immediately apparent to me, because whenever I installed a different BIOS, I'd have to reconfigure it to boot from my NVMe SSD drive.
BIOS: BOOTING FROM THE INTEL PCIe NVMe SSD DRIVE
If you're using one of Intel's 750 Series PCIe/NVMe SSDs as a boot drive, you will definitely want to bookmark this page, where the most recent drivers and documentation for the drives. Download the "Boot Guide for NVMe PCIe SSD" PDF from this page. While there isn't currently information specifically about the X99-A or X99-A USB 3.1, the "ASUS X99-Deluxe" section is close enough. You should read it very carefully and do what it says, although the BIOS Configuration section of the document does not mention one very important thing!
After updating the CSM settings in BIOS to instruct PCI-E/PCI expansion devices to use the UEFI driver first, you need to tell BIOS which device it should boot from- the problem is, the Intel PCIe SSD drive will not show up in any of the "Boot Option" menus until you do this: Scroll down the BOOT page past the CSM stuff to where it says Hard Drive BBS Priorities and click that. In the Boot\Boot screen that appears, select your SSD device for Boot Option #1. When you return back to the main Boot page you'll see that your SSD is now selected as the default boot device.
After you save your changes and restart, you can continue with the Windows-specific sections of the document. One of the reasons I bought an additional optical drive is so that during Windows setup, I could have my Windows 7 disc in the top drive, and the SSD driver disc in the bottom drive. You will absolutely need this disc in order to be able to install Windows on your SSD drive. Make sure to pick the Custom install option in Windows setup in order to locate the Load Driver button mentioned in the Intel documentation.
Note that the driver on the disc included with the SSD drive is pretty old- although it works just fine for Windows installation. After Windows is installed you can upgrade to the latest one from the Intel page I mentioned earler.