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Embracing Windows 8 With A New PC System Build
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Date: Apr 17, 2013
Section:Systems
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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The Components

One of the perks of working at a place like HotHardware is that we have access to some of the hottest hardware around. So when I decided to dive into Windows 8 head-first a few months ago, I thought I’d give the OS as much breathing room as possible and install it on a freshly built, ultra high-end rig. Building myself a second system for Windows 8 while tweaking and getting accustomed to the OS’s new interface, and whatever other quirks popped up, would help me remain semi-productive before making the actual transition to the new machine.

Before I show you the hardware I used for the build and discuss some of the issues that I had to contend with along the way, I want to be clear that this is not some sort of build guide or recommended spec sheet. I’m simply posting up some geek porn for all of you hardware lovers out there and outlining my experience so far with the new machine and with Windows 8 in general. Because a particular piece of hardware was a good fit for my build doesn’t mean it’ll suit your needs. Then again, if the hardware I use serves me well—considering the beating I put on my rigs—it’ll likely work out for you all, too. So that has to count for something.


Say Hello To Gigabyte's GA-X79S-UP5-WIFI

I tend to configure my systems around the processor and motherboard and "build outward". I just so happened to have an Intel Core i7-3960X at my disposal, which is still one of the fastest processors Intel has released to date. With high clocks, 6 cores and support for 12 threads with HyperThreading, the Core i7-3960X is plenty powerful for just about any desktop computing task.

Because I was using a 3960X, I obviously needed a Socket 2011 motherboard to go along with it, in addition to a quad-channel memory kit, hefty power supply, etc. To that end, I snagged a GA-X79S-UP5-WIFI from our friends at Gigabyte. The GA-X79S-UP5-WIFI was a perfect fit for my build for a couple of reasons. For one, it is outfitted with an Intel C606 Express chipset, which is essentially a new revision of the original X79 but with all of the SATA and SAS ports which didn’t make it onto the original X79 enabled. The board also sports a host of enthusiast-class features, like support for SLI and CrossFire, Intel and Realtek Gigabit NICs, plenty of USB 3.0 ports, Firewire and more. The board’s got nice beefy heatsinks and includes a PCIe WiFi card, too.


A Pair of Gigabyte GV-N680OC-2GD GTX 680s Pushin' Pixels

I’m lucky enough to have a 30” HP ZR30w with a native resolution of 2560x1600 for personal use and do plenty of gaming (though not as much as I would like!). I also like to crank up the eye candy in-game, so some powerful graphics cards were in order. I ended up with a pair of factory overclocked Gigabyte GeForce GTX 680 cards, model GV-N680OC-2GD, running in SLI. These cards are nice and quiet at idle and with six cooling fans, they move plenty of air under load without being overly noisy. The rig I was replacing had a pair of Radeon HD 6970s in it, so the GTX 680s would also be a nice upgrade.


Storage: Dual Intel SSD 520s and a Pair Of Seagate Savvio 10K.5s

As for storage, I opted for pair of 240GB Intel SSD 520 series drives running in a RAID 0 configuration for the OS, apps, and games, along with a pair of Seagate Savvio 10K.5 900GB drives running in a RAID 1 configuration for bulk storage and backup purposes. (I also back up important data to a NAS device). A pair of SSDs running in RAID 0 is a bit of overkill, but when you can move upwards of 1GB per second, file transfers and copies are super-quick, and level load times in games are sped up nicely—so I say, why not? The Savvios are somewhat older drives that I happened to have laying around. Since they were essentially new and could utilize the SAS interface available on the Gigabyte GA-X79S-UP5-WIFI motherboard, I put them to use.
 

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The Build

To accompany the motherboard, processor, graphics cards, and storage array, I still needed some memory, a case, power supply, a cooler, and an assortment of other components and accessories, especially since I’m a stickler for cable management, fitment, and build quality. Simply stuffing components in a case willy-nilly just won’t do. If I’m building a machine for myself, along with being fast it’s got to be clean, cool, quiet, and sturdy. The sturdy part is even more important now that I’ve got two curious and adventurous little ones running around the house, but that’s a story for another day...


Cooler Master TPC 812 Cooler, Flanked by Corsair Fans and Vengeance RAM

For memory, I turned to enthusiast favorite Corsair. A Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 16GB quad-channel kit (4 x 4GB) would be more than adequate, and support for X.M.P. makes configuring the ROM to run at its optimal settings quick and painless.

As for cooling, I chose a Cooler Master TPC 812 for a couple of reasons. Although liquid coolers can offer better performance, I’m still fond of high-performance air coolers. With liquid coolers, if a fan or the pump fails, you’re screwed. Although rare, they can leak and cause damage to other components, too. With a high-end air cooler, especially one like the TPC 812 which is huge and uses two fans, both fans could fail and the air circulating through the case may still be enough to keep a processor running reliably. The TPC812 is interesting in that it uses vertical vapor chambers and heat pipes, along with a solid copper base and a large array of aluminum thin-fins to dissipate heat. I did ditch the stock Cooler Master fans, though, and instead used a pair of Corsair Air Series SP120 fans in a push-pull configuration. I particularly like Corsair’s high performance fans not only because they’re very quiet, but because the corner mounts are surrounded entirely in vibration dampening material. If you’ve ever mounted a fan and heard annoying, repetitive vibrations, you’ll appreciate Corsair’s rubber mounts because they don’t transmit vibration. The fans have customizable color rings, too, which can be used to personalize a system a bit.

As you can see in the shot above, even with the huge cooler, relatively tall RAM, and dual cooling fans, fitment wasn’t an issue and the RAM actually benefits from the air circulated by the CPU cooler’s fans.


The Cooler Master Cosmos II Is Simply A Beast

To do justice to components as nice as these, they should be installed in an equally awesome case and fed ample power. My choice of power supply was easy; after reviewing the Corsair AX1200i a few months back, I knew that puppy was going into my next rig. Not only does it provide copious amounts of power, but it’s fully modular and ultra-quiet, too. Choosing the AX1200i was a no-brainer.

As for the case, I wanted a high-performance head turner with plenty of interior legroom. There were plenty of nice options on the table, but ultimately I chose the Cooler Master Cosmos II. I had previously owned the original Cosmos and a Cosmos S and had enjoyed those cases. The Cosmos II not only looks the part and offers high performance, but some of its features come in quite handy. For example, the sliding panels that cover the front panel and external 5.25” drive bays are perfect for keeping chubby little fingers away, and I dig having one-touch control for individual case fans (which were also upgraded with Corsair fans) and lighting. The Cosmos II proved to be very well designed and great to work with, though the thing is massive. At 13.5 x 27.7 x 26.1 inches, the Cosmos II can swallow lesser mid-towers—seriously.

Other components in the system included a pair of optical drives (one Blu-Ray and one DVD-R) I had available and a Sound Blaster Titanium HD.

    
Some Interior Shots of the Build

Physically assembling the system was mostly uneventful—thankfully. There were no issues to speak of with any of the components and the Cosmos II’s ample space and myriad nooks and crannies to hide cables made cable management a snap. The Gigabyte motherboard’s slot configuration keeps plenty of space between the graphics cards, and there was plenty of space to route and mount everything without significantly obstructing airflow. Considering the multitude of nylon zip ties, tie-downs, and Velcro straps I used to secure everything, I dread the day when I have to pull this baby apart and replace or upgrade a component, but for now she looks great, and everything’s as secure as Fort Knox.

The only hardware-related issue I ran into had to do with the motherboard and Seagate Savvio hard drive. Although the motherboard includes a SAS controller, all of the ports on the board are of the SATA variety--and the board doesn’t include any SATA-to-SAS cables. I had to order a couple of SATA-to-SAS cables after the fact, but once I did, the drives plugged right in and were identified and worked properly.

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OS and Issues

With the hardware fully assembled, it was time to get the OS installation going. As I mentioned, I’m a stickler when building my personal systems and prefer not to muck with them once they’re done. Before running the Windows installer, I made sure to download all of the latest drivers available for every component, updated the BIOS/UEFI on the mobo, and also all of the latest firmwares (where available) for the other components. If something wasn’t going to work, it wasn’t going to be because a firmware needed updating...


The Much-Maligned Windows 8 Start Screen

With all of the necessary drivers in tow and the system fully updated, I began the Windows 8 installation and was impressed by the speed of the process. Windows 8 Pro x64 was literally installed and running on the system within 15-20 minutes. It helped that I was installing the OS from a fast USB 3.0 thumb drive onto a killer rig, of course, but the swiftness of the installation was appreciated nonetheless.

Once the OS installation was complete, I installed all necessary drivers and ran Windows Update until no more updates were listed. Then I did some basic stability tests, played some games, and got a feel for the system. Unfortunately, once I began poking around, I ran into a few issues.

The first thing I noticed was that the graphics cards weren’t always initializing properly. Sometimes they’d work correctly, but other times, the second card wouldn’t initialize properly, and I couldn’t enable SLI. I tried swapping their positions, using different slots, using a new SLI bridge connector, and experimenting with older firmware revisions, all to no avail. It turned out this issue was related to NVIDIA’s early Windows 8 drivers, and all I could do was wait. NVIDIA’s newer drivers fixed the issue, thankfully, and the graphics cards have been humming along perfectly ever since.

The next issue I came across was related to the Sound Blaster Titanium HD. Creative Labs initial Windows 8 drivers would install and seemed to work properly until the system rebooted, and then I’d have no sound. This issue turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, because while researching the issue I stumbled across PAX’s modified driver packages for the card, which significantly enhanced audio quality in my opinion. I had to wait for Creative to release updated drivers to completely alleviate the issue I mentioned (and for PAX to update with the latest build, too), but once I had the update in hand, the sound card worked properly—most of the time. The only other minor issue that cropped up with the latest drivers only happens when waking the machine from sleep. If I wake the system and immediately play a sound, there is significant crackling and distortion. But once the machine has been awake for a few moments, the distortion goes away.

I never really nailed down the cause or exact resolution of the third issue I came across. Randomly, when powering up the system, it seemed that the SAS controller would not initialize and spin up the hard drives, which caused Windows 8 to hang while booting and forced a system shut down. I’d hit the power button, a few seconds later I’d see the Windows 8 logo, and then the system would just shut back down. I'd hit the power button again, and the rig would fire up normally and work fine. Over the course of the few months that I’ve been using the system, Gigabyte has released a few BIOS updates for the GA-X79S-UP5-WIFI, and Intel has updated their storage drivers, and I've installed both. As of today, I’m using the latest versions of each, and the system starts up fine, but I’m not sure if it was the BIOS update or drivers that fixed it. The issue didn’t happen consistently anyway, so troubleshooting it proved to be difficult. Regardless, I’m glad things are working properly now.

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So, What's the Verdict?

After using this new system and Windows 8 for the last few months, I’m sure many of you are wondering if I have any regrets and if I plan to move to Windows 7. The answer to that question is absolutely not. I know I’m in the minority, but I really like Windows 8. The OS is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and there are most definitely some kinks to be ironed out, but I believe Windows 8 is a superior OS to Windows 7 and that every OS has its problems.

Many of Windows 8’s detractors point to two main issues with the OS: its lack of a traditional Start button and Microsoft’s insistence on forcing Metro / the Modern UI on end users. Before I made the move to Windows 8, I was concerned about these very same issues. I also disliked that Microsoft did away with Aero effects and didn’t want to re-learn how to navigate around Windows after I had grown so accustomed to every edition since Windows 95.


Now That's A Workspace...

But instead of installing the OS, trying it for a few hours, and deciding I didn’t like it, I forced myself to use it exclusively. And once I had mastered the UI, I began to appreciate all of the operating system’s underlying improvements. Make no mistake—I think Metro / the Modern UI is butt-ugly and wish Microsoft gave users the option to boot to the desktop without having to resort to third-party utilities. But I understand what Microsoft was trying to do, and whether you like it or not, the Start screen—when personalized and organized properly—is much faster than the old Start menu when running non-pinned applications. With the old Start button, you had to click Start, then click All Programs, find the application folder, wait for it to expand, find the shortcut, and then click it. With the Start screen, assuming you’re in desktop view, one simply needs to hit the Windows key, scroll to the shortcut and click. It takes more work on the end user’s part to personalize and organize the Start screen, but expending the effort is worthwhile.

There are plenty of other noteworthy improvements in Windows 8, as well. The OS boots and shuts down much quicker, and it wakes from sleep faster, too. Windows 8 has a much-improved task manager; an ultra-handy menu that gives users quick access to things like Device Manager, Disk Management, Event Viewer and a host of other features with a single click; and search is also vastly improved. Many more aspects of Windows 8 are GPU-accelerated, which gives the OS a much more fluid feel than previous editions of Windows. Multi-monitor support is improved, and the OS’ overall footprint is smaller than Windows 7's, too. Windows 8 is simply faster and less resource-hungry than Windows 7. Benchmarks may not show much if any performance difference between Windows 7 and 8, but Windows 8 is snappier than Windows 7 all around in real-world use, which is something I appreciate. I wish Microsoft simply gave users the option of keeping the Start menu and booting to the desktop, but they didn’t; so I adjusted to the changes, and I’m glad I did.

Anyway, that's enough rambling. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse at my recent system build. If you've got any questions, concerns, or just want to flame me for liking Windows 8, by all means, please post a comment below or in the forum.



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