proto retro ripper
I built a Ryzen system and setup an Epyc server. But something was missing. What could it be? Let’s build a new gaming PC to find out.
My current desktop system, as in a computer that sits at a desk, not necessarily any old laptop used for assorted desktoppering, is an i5-3750K that was a few years old a few years ago. It has a mild overclock to 4GHz, but we’re finally getting to the point where games can effectively use more than four cores. I ran out of space on the original SSD and added an nvme drive in an expansion slot, but now that’s filling up. Thank you studio AAA. It’s a good thing 16GB RAM is probably still adequate, because I’d feel really silly buying DDR3 in this day and age.
The only component that’s still high end is the 1080 Ti graphics card. The drawback is it tends to get kinda loud. I accidentally turned off the fan curve (fixed it at 20%) a while ago and it was rather pleasant gaming like that, except for the drop in performance as the card hit 90C and throttled down. But then I did a few more experiments and noticed that even with the fan spinning quite loudly, the card would power throttle. There’s a slider to adjust up to 120% power budget, but then we’re back into even more heat and even louder fans.
The short version is it can render 4K at close to 60 fps (wobbling around 50) with slightly detuned graphics quality (chunky shadows, etc.) at what’s, for me, the limit of acceptable acoustics. But the potential is there to run at 60 fps with fewer compromises given better (and quieter) cooling.
Lots of big fans spinning slow should make less noise than one small fan trying to launch into space. Or we can try water cooling. Although water cooled computer is kind of a lie. The water just moves the heat around. The only thing cooling the computer is still air. So, lots of fans (and radiators) it is.
I really like the look of the Fractal Design R6 case. I kinda wanted to build a computer just to have a reason to use the case. And it aims to be quiet. Unfortunately for my purposes, it seems the design of the case may impede airflow, counterintuitively increasing noise as the fans have to spin harder. So I went with the Meshify S2 case. Fairly roomy inside, big open vents on the front and top. It comes with foam filters behind the grills which I pulled out for even less impedance.
So I’m aiming to stick one large radiator in the front and one in the top, with a bunch of fans. Since they’re supposed to fit, I went with 280mm radiators and 140mm fans everywhere. As opposed to 360mm and 120mm.
The important property for how fast I’ll need to run the fans is coolant temperature, so I’d like some way to monitor that.
A quick diversion to mention that the 12 core 1920X Threadripper is now only $200. Although it’s on sale because it’s already kinda obsolete as well. Hence the retro name of the project. Still it’s a big upgrade over the i5. Current generation alternatives would be either the 12 core 3900X for $500 or the 6 core 3600 for $200.
More importantly though, it’s the big TR4 socket, with all the PCIe lanes and memory channels, etc. There’s nothing I’d be doing with this system (at the moment anyway) which would justify spending $2000 on a current gen threadripper. Especially since I wasn’t entirely sure the concept would work. Hence, the proto in the name. If everything works out, in a year or two I upgrade again. Zen 3? DDR5?
Also, I can pass people on the sidewalk and be like, yo, guess what, I’ve got a threadripper.
I was looking at several X399 options when I happened to notice that Gigabyte Aorus boards have headers for external temperature sensors. Just what I wanted! If other manufacturers include this feature, they make it very difficult to find out. Some forum digging indicates that most boards seem to lack this feature, although it seems like an obvious feature to add on a modern high end board. Even Gigabyte doesn’t make it easy to find out which boards have it. You need to know it exists, then carefully check the spec sheet for each board in question. For other manufacturers, if you don’t see it, does that mean it doesn’t exist or just that you didn’t examine page 19 of the manual closely enough?
So the X399 Aorus Pro it is. There’s also tons of PWM fan headers. For reasons, I wanted to avoid the use of splitters or hubs. Also, unlike something like the Corsair Commander, I can set custom fan (and pump) curves in the BIOS, tied to either CPU or coolant temperature. I’d prefer that over relying on some janky application which probably only works when the cloud is shining. I don’t need to share my fan profile on twitter.
Otherwise, it’s got the fairly standard X399 load out.
Core components selected, we need to buy a crap ton of accessories. The radiators. The fans. Fittings. More. Pump. Water block. Another block for the GPU. Etc. Even more so than a regular build, it’s easy to forget something.
Most of the components came from Corsair. They have a full line of custom cooling stuff now. Some of the rest came from XSPC. The Corsair fittings come in a four pack and are kinda expensive in my mind and a bit chunky, but they sure are shiny and chrome! The XSPC fittings are much smaller and lighter, and rather plain, but come in a cheaper six pack. I bought 2x Corsair, which I thought would be good, and 1x XSPC as a backup in case I lost one or something. Apparently I’m bad at math because I ended up using all 14 fittings in the final build.
I have 2x Corsair 280mm radiators. They too are solidly built, with a good fit and finish. At one point, I wasn’t sure if 280mm would clear the top of the case, and bought a XSPC 360mm crossflow radiator, which would have help reduced some tubing runs as well. I’m sure it works fine as a radiator, but there’s some corners cut. The fins on the pipes don’t quite go all the way to the ends. And the fins’ edges are slightly uneven, making it kinda uncomfortable to hold in the hand. The Corsair is very flat and even in comparison. Like a bed of nails, it’s much more comfortable with the nails all even in height. Not that I’m really planning on holding these things for any length of time. The Corsair radiators also have little plates under the screw holes so you don’t drill into the fins, a nice touch.
Corsair water block for the GPU. No complaints there, except it required snipping some RGB wires off because they don’t detach. And the manual was hilariously sparing, especially with regards to disassembling the existing cooler and heat sink. The XSPC water block itself is fine, although the design is prone to catching air bubbles. It attaches to the CPU socket by screwing in four posts, sliding the block over the posts, then attaching a nut to hold it down. Problem here is one of the posts I received had the nut rusted on to the post. I eventually got it off using two pairs of pliers and the unrestrained use of excessive force, but not without warping the post. It seems to work fine with only three posts, but probably not ideal for the bigger 280W CPUs. At least this is only a prototype.
I guess all D5 pumps are about the same, but the Corsair one has nice reservoir on top, once you again snip off the RGB wires.
This took several hours longer than a normal build, and was at times rather frustrating. In part, that’s because I did things in a suboptimal order. In part, simply because there’s a lot of stuff getting jammed together, and even with a spacious case it quickly gets cramped. Major contrast with previous experience putting almost nothing into an open cube case.
At first I did a check to make sure the top radiator with fans would clear the height of the motherboard and RAM. It does, but barely. It’s required to install the motherboard first, then drop the radiator in from the top. (There’s a removeable top rail it lives on for this purpose.) Then I took that apart, and put all the other radiator and pump in, but no fans. Then, figuring the water tubing would be the hardest part, connected all that.
Filled it up, let it run a bit, hey, look, everything is great. Now to finish the other parts. Oops. Can’t install RAM with the fans. And I wanted to plug the fans to headers that were now under the radiator. And I can’t move the radiator when it’s attached to water filled tubes. Probably should have just taken it all apart again at this point, but I managed to push through.
I started with 9 meters of soft tubing, and managed to get about 1.5 meters inside the case, with very little left over. Maybe in the future someone will invent a way to measure before cutting. Some angle fittings to avoid bends would have helped, but it was hard to know which sets to buy in advance, and I didn’t feel like burning more money on that. I think in the future it would be easier to go with stupidly large loopy loops than try to make precise runs.
The screws. My god, the screws. It was like living in dystopian Screw Jack City.
Getting all the wires in place was much more of a chore than usual. They don’t like bending the way they need to bend. The case includes a non removable power supply shroud. Normally, I don’t care too much about pretty cable routing. They go where they go, whatever. But that’s not an option here. You have to do things properly. At one point I ripped out a rubber grommet trying to fit everything through. And then I discover that the CPU power connectors are in the corner under the radiator, and we’re going to have to slide that down some. The end result is I’m still not taking this to the PC show. One gadget that helped was the EVGA powerlink, which is a right angle adapter for graphics card power connectors. Plugging the cables into that, and then wrestling that into the card was pretty easy.
In general, it was a fairly typical you need a third hand, and maybe a third eye, build, just even more elaborate. Every operation required three hands, not just that one tricky bit.
The screws attaching the pump to the bottom prevent the dust filter from sliding back in.
Filling was fairly uneventful. Add as much liquid as possible, run pump a touch, fill again, play rock a bye baby with the case, repeat, fill, repeat. Draining is a bit more problematic since I don’t have an opening actually at the top of the loop. Was very thankful I thought ahead and at least tried adding a drain port though. It did help. Spilling was a minor issue; leaking was not.
The entire operation took over pretty much the entirety of my living room, dining room, and kitchen.
It is as desired very quiet. It took some fiddling with the fans and temperature sensors to drive everything appropriately, but it’s all good now. By default, the BIOS was trying to drive everything off CPU temps, which meant the pump was practically stalled. After about 50% PWM, the pump starts making a louder humming noise, but it can run that fast without noise and it still moves a visible amount of coolant. (There’s a tiny spin wheel on the GPU block, which is an accessory I forgot to buy. Fortunately, it’s included, if a bit awkward to see since it’s upside down. Nevertheless, it gives an approximate visual for how things are moving.)
There doesn’t appear to be any reason to increase fans beyond about 700 RPM. At this speed, from an arm away, I can’t hear it over my refrigerator. Even my neighbor’s heat pump is louder.
I think I got a little carried away with the concept. Honestly, my real problem was addressed by simply water cooling the GPU, and a single front radiator would have been sufficient for that. Using a 280mm radiator on top just barely, barely fit, and maybe won’t with other components. That’s a little unfortunate. Rebuilding for another motherboard may require switching to a 360mm on top to make it fit.
The GPU temp hovers around 35C even with a 120% power setting now, a fair bit lower than 90C. It now holds steady at 1960MHz all the time.
The CPU temperature seems fine, despite the missing post.
While I don’t regret setting things up to control every fan individually, or monitor coolant temperature, it seems unnecessary in the long run. Even at mild settings, the coolant moves fast enough to keep all components cool, and there’s enough radiator surface and air flow to keep the coolant cool. But that’s what prototypes are for. I’d be pretty comfortable building a future system and just statically configuring everything to run at similar speeds.
The total effort involved was about twice what I expected or planned for, but not impossible. Even so, I spent more time watching youtube videos and reading forum posts trying to figure out which components to buy and what would be enough or too much. Despite this, it’s very hard to find information on how any specific combination of parts will work. Like, could I have used the R6 case? I think so, but I went with the Meshify case out of an abundance of caution, and I’m not inclined to start over again.
In general, I think most of the results were pretty predictable, although it’s hard to know what people mean by “silent”. I’m being vague myself. I don’t have a sound meter, nor do I know what 35 or 40 dB really sound like.
I bought an external molex power supply to drive the pump for testing instead of hot wiring the main power supply. This was an excellent decision. Especially, once I had everything wired up, but then needed to resize a tube to unkink it, much better than unplugging the ATX connector again.
One thing I didn’t account for but realize in retrospect is that even small upgrades are now serious endeavors. I left half the RAM slots empty, but filling them is no longer just a matter of popping the side panel and dropping them in. There’s a hose running through the space where I thought a 10G network card might go.
In a year or so, once my knuckles have healed, I’ll consider doing it all over again. The goal with the prototype was to build something that could be upgraded with a “simple” motherboard and CPU swap, but it seems I may need to replace a few more components. By the time I get around to a CPU upgrade, will probably want a GPU upgrade as well.
The X399 is a dead platform. I knew that. And also that, as AMD raises the ceiling for desktop ryzen to 16 cores, the floor for entry level threadripper keeps rising as well. The actual necessity for threadripper keeps receding. On the other hand, with 12 cores to busy up, maybe I’ll find a new hobby to make use of them.
Before this all started, I was seriously thinking about just buying a Corsair One “trashcan” style system. That option is perhaps even more appealing, were it not for the fact this thing is already here. I remain fascinated by cases with the potential to use well engineered airflow to achieve better results than brute force big boxes.
It would have been simpler, cheaper, and better by basically every metric to simply purchase a 2080 Super with hybrid cooler.
Two Gamers Nexus links.
There’s no reason to buy the 1920X in 2019. Ha, well, I got it in 2020. But otherwise, I must say I agree. This was not the most value savvy purchase, except it was adequate and fun.
Meshify S2 case review. They tested with a very different cooling setup, but this is where I got the idea to remove the foam filters.