Building the Bench: A New System for Cases and Cooling
New Components, New Approach
After 20 or so enclosure reviews over the past year and a half and some pretty inconsistent test hardware along the way, I decided to adopt a standardized test bench for all reviews going forward. Makes sense, right? Turns out choosing the best components for a cases and cooling test system was a lot more difficult than I expected going in, as special consideration had to be made for everything from form-factor to noise and heat levels.
Along with the new components I will also be changing the approach to future reviews by expanding the scope of CPU cooler testing. After some debate as to the type of CPU cooler to employ I decided that a better test of an enclosure would be to use both closed-loop liquid and air cooling for every review, and provide thermal and noise results for each. For CPU cooler reviews themselves I'll be adding a "real-world" load result to the charts to offer a more realistic scenario, running a standard desktop application (in this case a video encoder) in addition to the torture-test result using Prime95.
But what about this new build? It isn't completely done but here's a quick look at the components I ended up with so far along with the rationale for each selection.
CPU – Intel Core i5-6600K ($249, Amazon.com)
The introduction of Intel’s 6th generation Skylake processors provided the
excuse opportunity for an upgrade after using an AMD FX-6300 system for the last couple of enclosure reviews, and after toying with the idea of the new i7-6700K, and immediately realizing this was likely overkill and (more importantly) completely unavailable for purchase at the time, I went with the more "reasonable" option with the i5. There has long been a debate as to the need for hyper-threading for gaming (though this may be changing with the introduction of DX12) but in any case this is still a very powerful processor and when stressed should produce a challenging enough thermal load to adequately test both CPU coolers and enclosures going forward.
GPU – XFX Double Dissipation Radeon R9 290X ($347, Amazon.com)
This was by far the most difficult selection. I don’t think of my own use when choosing a card for a test system like this, as it must meet a set of criteria to be a good fit for enclosure benchmarks. If I choose a card that runs very cool and with minimal noise, GPU benchmarks will be far less significant as the card won’t adequately challenge the design and thermal characteristics of the enclosure. There are certainly options that run at greater temperatures and higher noise (a reference R9 290X for example), but I didn’t want a blower-style cooler with the GPU. Why? More and more GPUs are released with some sort of large multi-fan design rather than a blower, and for enclosure testing I want to know how the case handles the extra warm air.
Noise was an important consideration, as levels from an enclosure of course vary based on the installed components. With noise measurements a GPU cooler that has very low output at idle (or zero, as some recent cooler designs permit) will allow system idle levels to fall more on case fans and airflow than a GPU that might drown them out. (This would also allow a better benchmark of CPU cooler noise - particularly with self-contained liquid coolers and audible pump noise.) And while I wanted very quiet performance at idle, at load there must be sufficient noise to measure the performance of the enclosure in this regard, though of course nothing will truly tax a design quite like a loud blower. I hope I've found a good balance here.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have it all. It could certainly be argued that a reference 290X or the like would have made a better choice since it is very quiet at idle and presents temperature and noise extremes when pushed. It’s partly a personal preference, but the market has certainly shifted from a preponderance of blower-style designs and I wanted a GPU that better represented a typical build.
Having chosen the new i5-6600K I needed a Z170 motherboard (this was the only LGA 1151 chipset available at the time), and my (primary) motherboard choice was never in question. I have been a fan of the ASUS Republic of Gamers motherboards (and the smaller mATX variant in particular) for the last few Intel generations. Since I often look at smaller enclosures that don’t support a full ATX motherboard, having a micro-ATX option makes sense as I can drop it into cases small and large. Thus I chose the ASUS Maximus VIII Gene, a micro-ATX Z170 motherboard that offers more features than most full-sized boards, and looks really nice doing it.
The need for a mini-ITX board prompted me to invest in a compatible option for the smallest PC enclosures as well, and for this I chose the EVGA Stinger board, one of the first mini-ITX options to appear for the new Z170 chipset. Is a $200 motherboard overkill for the occasional mini-ITX enclosure review? I think this smaller form-factor will be getting more attention going forward and there are an ever-increasing number of very solid enclosures for this form-factor.
Rounding Out the Build
- Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB 2400 MHz DDR4 Memory ($58.95, Amazon.com)
- SilverStone Strider ST1000-P 1000W Power Supply ($164.99, Amazon.com)
Moving to Z170 necessitated the purchase of some DDR4 memory, and for this I went with the best deal at the time, a pair of 4GB Crucial Ballistix Sport 2400 MHz modules for a little under $60. Power is supplied by my existing SilverStone ST1000-P PSU, a solid 1000W unit with fully modular cables for a clean-looking build.
Storage will be handled by a combination of SSD for the OS and a traditional spinning hard drive. In previous reviews I have used just one drive – generally an SSD – and having both a 2.5-inch SSD and 3.5-inch hard drive in each enclosure tested will be a closer configuration to what I imagine most builders are using today.
Where's the CPU Cooler?
Cooling is a very big deal, and I certainly didn’t want to skimp here. It’s so important in fact that it prompted the single biggest change to the way I will approach thermal testing. I wanted consistency for all enclosure reviews going forward and that would mean selecting one CPU cooler to use with every build - or in this case one air and one closed-loop liquid cooler as I plan on testing both with each enclosure.
I'm still deliberating, though I'll list some of the finalists here. Since I want to be able to use the same air cooler in any enclosure I narrowed down the choices to something with a lower profile. This means that excellent low-cost options like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo are out, given the larger tower heatsink design. Finding an air option that isn't ultra-quiet is another consideration, as it wouldn’t be very compelling to consistently show the same idle and load CPU noise results.
Here are a few CPU coolers I'm considering:
- Corsair H105 Liquid CPU Cooler ($101.19, Amazon.com)
- Corsair H75 Liquid CPU Cooler ($74.99, Amazon.com)
- Noctua NH-L9x65 CPU Cooler ($59.99, Amazon.com)
- Phanteks PH-TC12LS CPU cooler ($41.99, Amazon.com)
My first choice for a 240 mm liquid cooler is the venerable Corsair H105, a powerful option that uses PWM fans, which would permit the fan speeds to better scale with the air cooler tested, as the coolers would be relying on the same motherboard fan speed profile. A Corsair H75 could be the fallback option if the enclosure doesn’t support the larger radiator as it is the 120 mm companion to the H105. Air cooling won't be an easy choice, and while I generally prefer Noctua there so many really good options out there from Cooler Master and others that are more popular, and less expensive, that it's almost overwhelming.
One final note; a big part of the new enclosure testing methodology is a commitment to comparative data, which of course means re-testing enclosures with the new components. Recently reviewed enclosures such as the Fractal Design Define S, Phanteks Enthoo EVOLV ATX, SilverStone Raven RV05, and others will be re-tested to help create more useful graphs and better reviews going forward. Now it’s time to give these new components a temporary home and run some benchmarks, one enclosure at a time!