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Skylake self-build -- by Xylon 2017

From Savvy Humans Know Tech

I built this at the start of 2017 because my 2008 AMD desktop was struggling with workloads such as compiling large programs, and some heavyweight web-pages.

Cost was important for me, but I had certain requirements I really wanted:

  • I wanted it to have 16GiB of RAM. The things I do on it today only require 8GiB, but I wanted it to be future-proof.
  • I wanted a ~500GB self-encrypting SSD. This is expensive but I hate hard-disks (extremely slow, noisy, energy inefficient).
  • I wanted it to run fairly quietly. This means no cheap unbranded power-supply or stock CPU cooler.
  • I wanted to use the fastest processor technology the new Debian, Debian Stretch, will support.

Skylake1.jpg

Parts I chose

I decided to go for an Intel processor, because at that time AMD's lineup was not performance-competitive with Intel's. Also I know that the integrated graphics in Intel's processors works great with Free Software.

Intel "7th gen", KabyLake had just been released, but I decided to build my computer using "6th gen", Skylake. This is because my favourite Operating System, Debian, takes a long time to add support for new processors, so SkyLake is the newest generation likely to be well supported.

I decided to order the case and motherboard first, and have them in hand before ordering anything else. This is because they are the core components of the machine and have the biggest effects on compatibility.

I chose to use the MicroATX form factor, because this form factor is big-enough for a 5.25 inch optical drive whilst not being unnecessarily huge like ATX.

First parts:

  • For the case I chose the Antec NSK 3100, because it's a cheap MicroATX case from a good brand. Cost: £40 from Scan.
  • For the motherboard I chose the Gigabyte GA-B150M-HD3. It's cheap and has a legacy PCI slot, allowing me to re-use my PCI wireless card (from ThinkPenguin). Cost: £70 from ebuyer.

Having received these I got a processor:

  • i3 6320 second-hand on eBay for £107. This is the fastest dual-core processor in the SkyLake lineup, for a very good price!

I bought the bulk of my parts from Scan, at a cost of £380:

  • Corsair 16GB DDR4 Vengeance LPX 2133MHz Memory Kit, £120. Cheapest 16GiB of compatible memory they sold.
  • Crucial MX300 SSD, £140. This was the cheapest ~500GB self-encrypting SSD I could find.
  • EVGA 500BQ power supply, £50. Good brand so it's quiet. Modular which ought to mean less cable mess. 500W is more than I need but there aren't many PSUs less than that on the market.
  • ASUS DRW-24D5MT 24x SATA DVD/CD Rewriter. Cheap drive that supports M-Disk. I use M-Disks for backups. $15
  • Some other accessories such as some USB 3.0 cables and a 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive for backups.

I didn't buy a graphics card. This is because I am happy to use the integrated graphics provided by the processor.

From QuietPC.com I got £70 worth of cooling upgrades:

  • Thermalright True Spirit 90M CPU cooler. This has a much more efficient heat-sink than the stock cooler that came with the CPU, and is therefore quieter.
  • Case fans: Noctua NF-A9 FLX and NF-S12A FLX. The 92mm is to replace the cheap rear case fan that came with the case. The 120mm is to add in the front, drawing air in through a dust filter.
  • Dust filter for intake fan: Scythe 120mm Fan Filter Attachment, FFA-12

Total spend for the computer was almost £700.

Skylake2.jpg

Building it

The case is well made and I like it.

Everything was generally easy to put together, however I had some minor issues:

The power supply provided a slight disappointment. It's a modular power supply which means I only have to plug in the cables I need. This ought to mean less unneeded cables in the computer. However it turned out that the only cable that's not modular, the one that powers the motherboard, is quadruple overlong and really fat. So I have a huge mass of cable anyway. It's otherwise a very nice power-supply though. And I appreciate that it has the 80+ bronze rating (means it's energy efficient).

Another minor issue is the fact that the motherboard only has one system-fan header, so I had to use an adaptor to power the frontal fan off of a SATA-power plug.

The BIOS that came pre-installed on the motherboard had really terrible fan control settings. The BIOS is proprietary so I couldn't fix it myself, but fortunately, downloading and flashing a newer BIOS partly solved my issue.

Still however the CPU fan speed tends to oscillate between fast and slow under load. I thought mboard manufacturers had worked out how to solve this years ago. For example you can have a stepped speed design where the threshold to jump up to and drop down from a speed are different.

Another BIOS issue is present in the newer version. When I set up the self-encryption on the SSD, the BIOS kept trying to boot the wrong thing. The only way to fix this was to disable all alternative boot devices (putting the SSD as the highest priority drive was not-enough, BIOS thinks it knows better).

Results

The result is fab. The computer is faster, quieter, and more energy efficient than my old computer. It meets all objectives.

It runs a fully Free Operating System, Debian, just fine. As Debian Stretch still hasn't been released, at the moment I run Debian Jessie on it, getting kernel and graphics components from the backports repository to have proper support for SkyLake.

What I might have done differently

The most problematic item was the motherboard. Especially it's BIOS, which is both shit and proprietary (thus unfix-able). So if I built it again I would spend more money or choose a different brand for my motherboard. BIOS will still probably be proprietary as this is industry standard practice, but hopefully less shit.

Specs

Case: Antec NSK 3100 MicroATX case
Processor: Intel i3 6320
RAM: 16 GiB DDR4 2133MHz UDIMM non-ECC dual-channel memory
Integrated Graphics: Intel 530
Storage: 525GB Crucial MX300, 2.5inch
Connectivity front:
  • 2 x USB 3.0 ports
  • audio microphone jack, 3.5mm
  • audio headphone jack, 3.5mm
  • card reader
Connectivity back:
  • audio line-in jack, 3.5mm
  • audio microphone jack, 3.5mm
  • audio line-out jack, 3.5mm
  • 4 x USB 3.0 ports
  • 2 x USB 2.0 ports
  • VGA port
  • DVI port
  • HDMI port
Optical drive: ASUS DRW-24D5MT 24x SATA DVD/CD Rewriter
Networking:
  • Gigabit ethernet port
  • Penguin Wireless N PCI card; IEEE 802.11b/g/n
Dimensions:
  • width: 180mm
  • height: 365mm
  • depth: 430mm