Feature Article

Building the Ultimate mATX SLI PC with Intel's 5960X and Nvidia's GTX 980

With great power comes great responsibility.

I admit, I'm something of a sucker for small PCs with lots of power. A couple of years ago, I wanted to see how just how much computer I could cram into a mini-ITX case, kitting it out with goodies like an Intel i7 2700K CPU, 16GB of 1866 MHz RAM, and an Nvidia GTX 680 GPU. But two years is a long time in the tech world, and Intel has since unleashed three new generations of processors--Ivy Bridge, Haswell, and Broadwell--while Nvidia brought out its 900-series of GPUs, complete with a brand new architecture in the form of Maxwell. Naturally, I was curious to see what a difference two years makes, both in terms of raw performance, and just how small I could reasonably go with the build.

Thankfully, not only has the tech moved on considerably, but so has the fashion in PC cases. Bigger is no longer necessarily better thanks to a far larger choice of Mini-ITX and Micro-ATX cases. You could argue Bitfenix's Mini-ITX Prodigy case led the way here (outside of the original Shuttle PCs), being one of the few M-ITX cases on the market that let you use full-size graphics cards, power supplies, and watercooling systems. Other manufacturers followed suit, and now pretty much every major case-maker has an M-ITX or mATX model in its lineup. And with smaller cases comes greater choice in smaller motherboards, and PSUs, and all manner of power-efficient kit geared towards those building a smaller PC.

Even Intel's most powerful consumer CPU of them all, the recently released Haswell-E, doesn't demand the space of a full tower case, or the power of a 1000W Watt PSU.

X99 and Haswell-E

Yes, Haswell-E, the newest addition to Intel's "enthusiast" range, quite comfortably works in small cases, thanks to a few motherboard makers creating mATX-sized boards for it. And really, if money is no object, then Haswell-E is the chip to buy. It might be physically larger in size than its regular Maxwell siblings (including the overclocking focused Devil's Canyon lineup), requiring an all-new motherboard socket in the form of 2011-3, and lacking an integrated GPU, but its specs are undeniably impressive.

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The top end 3.0Ghz 5960X chip I'm using for my build features eight cores with hyperthreading (Ivy Bridge-E topped out at six), a huge 20MB of cache, and support for up to 40 PCI Express lanes. That's particularly useful for those wanting to run triple, quad, or 4-Way SLI or Crossfire setups. Depending on your chosen motherboard, it means that four individual GPUs could run at 8X speeds. Any left over PCIe lanes can be used with all-new M.2 SSDs, which connect to the system via PCIe, opening up the potential for even faster speeds than possible over SATA.

Of course, the 5960X doesn't come cheap. At $1000 it's by far the most expensive chip in Intel's consumer range, with only the workstation-focused Xeons topping it. That said, there are a few cheaper alternatives in the Haswell-E range. The $589 5930K ditches two of the cores, but keeps the 40 PCIe lanes, while the 5820K drops down to $389. That chip is something of a bargain if you're not planning on running more than two GPUs in your system, but getting the rest of the system up and running is still an expensive prospect.

For starters, you need a new motherboard, even if you're moving up from the previous generation Ivy Bridge-E. Given the target market, most of the X99 boards are geared towards overlockers, featuring high quality voltage regulation modules and circuit designs, and thus don't come cheap. Part of the reason for the move to an entirely new socket is the sheer number of new features that come as part of Haswell-E. Quad-channel DDR4 RAM is standard across every board, the core benefits being higher bandwidth (DDR4 starts at 2600Hmz), and reduced voltage requirements of 1.2v at expense of latency. Like most new tech, DDR4 is expensive, and there are currently only a handful of manufacturers making kits. The RAM I'm using for my build--16GB of Corsair's Vengeance LPX 2800MHz DDR4 RAM--costs $384, which represents a substantial mark up from DDR3.

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Elsewhere there's support for the aforementioned M.2 SSDs and SATA Express (which also lets you use PCIe SSDs). Not every board supports all these features, though. Case in point, EVGA's none-more-black X99 Micro. At the moment, only EVGA and ASRock are making mATX X99 motherboards, and both have made sacrifices in order to shrink the chipset down to a smaller size. Neither feature more than four RAM slots, and neither feature more than three PCIe slots (realistically, only two of those can be used at once with dual-slot GPUs), meaning there's less use for all those PCIe lanes. Disappointingly, the EVGA board doesn't feature SATA Express either, and its M.2 slot makes use of the smaller Type 2230 (30mm) slot, which no high-capacity M.2 SSDs currently use.

That said, despite those omissions, the $250 EVGA X99 Micro is a great motherboard, with high quality VRMs and caps used throughout. It's also far less offensive than the ASRock boards, which only come in bright blue, or an eye-searing red. That might well float your boat, but for me, the black color scheme of the EVGA board makes for a far classier look.

SLI Fun Times

The X99 Micro also makes for quite the potent performer, particularly when paired with some suitably powerful GPUs. The obvious choice here are Nvidia's $500 GTX 980 GPUs, which are currently the fastest on the market, and also far more power efficient than anything from AMD. That's important in a small case, where there's less space to dissipate heat, and where a bigger power supply might not an option. If you wanted to save a few bucks, you could go with the similarly impressive GTX 970s, but then, if you're planning on going Haswell-E, money isn't likely to be too much of an issue.

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Speaking of which, one GPU simply isn't going to cut it in a system like this, and if you're planning on playing above 30fps at 1440p or 4K resolutions, then an SLI or Crossfire setup is needed. Going mATX means you can't go with more than two GPUs (EVGA claims you can do three-way SLI on the X99 Micro, but you'd need to use slim watercooling blocks to do so), but that's still plenty of poke for games, particularly when coupled with the Haswell-E CPU and faster DDR4 RAM.

Trying to find a case that can comfortably accommodate two full-length GPUs like the GTX 980s, along with the PSU to power them, immediately restricts your options somewhat--and if you want one that's easy to build in with good airflow, you've got even less choice. However, Corsair's Air 240 fits the bill on all accounts. There's just enough room for the X99 Micro and two GTX 980s, while the dual chamber design that separates the hard drives and PSU from the other components means there's plenty of good airflow, and enough space for a proper PSU; the design also makes cable management an absolute dream.

The case also sports enough space to fit a dual 120mm radiator. Intel recommends using a watercooling setup if you're planning any sort of overclocking, and certainly, during benchmarking, I noticed Haswell-E runs noticeably toastier than its cheaper cousins, with temperatures pushing 70 degrees under load with only a moderate boost in voltage. Corsair's H100i fits the bill nicely, offering up some of the best cooling performance for an all-in-one system, while its thin profile means a push/pull fan configuration is possible, even with long GPUs like the GTX 980s.

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For power, I went with Corsair's HX750i, which is platinum rated, and puts out 750 watts of power. Now, that might not seem like enough for an overclocked system with two GPUs, but power efficiency has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and as I discovered, it's more than enough to power the system: during regular desktop use, the PSU's fan doesn't even spin up. For storage I settled on two of Crucial's MX550 SSDs hooked up in RAID 0, which should make up for the lack of a suitably sized M.2 SSD, and boast even faster performance. Completing the look are white sleeved PSU cables, along with some of Corsair's SP120 white LED fans.

The total cost is an eye-watering $3714.77, which is a lot of money, but actually quite reasonable when compared to the cost of pre-build X99 systems from boutique manufacturers like Origin and Digital Storm.

The Build

Thankfully, putting the system together was mostly a pleasant experience, thanks in part to the Air 240, which was more than roomy enough to work inside, despite its small footprint. However, using an mATX board does mean you have to make a few compromises with cooling, particularly if you use a H100i or similar watercooling system too. With a mATX board in place, none of the fan mounts on the bottom of the case are useable, while the radiator and hoses of the H100i block the front two on the top of the case. That limits you to using just a single exhaust 120mm exhaust fan on the top of the case, which is fine if you're using blower-style GPUs that exhaust air out of the case anyway.

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However, if you're planning on using GPUs that exhaust into the case, that might not enough to keep things from getting too toasty inside. You could potentially reverse the airflow in such a situation, having all the hot air exhaust out over the H100i from the front of the case. You could also make use of the two 80mm fan mounts on the back of the case, but 80mm fans are notoriously loud and inefficient, so are best avoided if possible.

A couple of other issues that cropped up included the placement of the USB 3.0 header on the motherboard, which is placed right underneath the second GPU, making it unusable without a low-profile adaptor. I also had trouble with the power cables for the GPUs, which had to be bent back significantly in order to slide the side of the case back on. Only GPUs that conform the standard PCIe card height will fit, meaning taller cards like ASUS's GTX 980 Strix or XFX's Double Dissipation models can't be used.

Overclocking and Performance Benchmarks

As you'd expect, Haswell-E chips all come fully unlocked, allowing you to overclock them as far as your cooling system and PSU will allow. Faster RAM does make things trickier than they should be, though. If you're using RAM rated at anything over 2666MHz with EVGA's board, you need to adjust the base clock in order to get it running at its rated or overlocked speed. The X.M.P. profiles of the Corsair RAM did this automatically, and left us with a very stable system, but you may want to go ahead and do things manually if you're planning a substantial overclock.

Blackmagic Speed Test showed impressive results for the system's RAID 0 setup.
Blackmagic Speed Test showed impressive results for the system's RAID 0 setup.
Cinebench is great for testing multithreaded workloads, with the score of 1726 reflecting the CPU's impressive core count.
Cinebench is great for testing multithreaded workloads, with the score of 1726 reflecting the CPU's impressive core count.

For my system, I went with a 125MHz base clock, which makes use of the base strap ratio to keep things like the PCIe bus running at the stock 100MHz. Combined with the 2200MHz RAM multiplier, this gave us a RAM speed of 2750MHz, just shy of its rated speed of 2800MHz. I did experiment with pushing the RAM up to 3000MHz using the 2666MHz multiplier, but even with a voltage boost to 1.35v, the system was never quite stable.

As for the CPU, things were a little easier. Using a multiplier of 35 gave the CPU a boost clock speed of 4.37Ghz, a nice bump over the stock boost of 3.5Ghz. Surprisingly, it only needed 1.18mv to run stably at that speed. Under load, that resulted in core temperatures of around 65 degrees, which isn't too bad at all considering the size of the case. Power wise, even overclocked and with both GPUs going full pelt, the system only pulled 580 watts, which dropped to around 190 watts at idle.

Taxing the system proved to be a challenge; suffice to say, anything less than 4K just isn't worth bothering with. At 1080p the system flew threw every game we threw at it, posting over 100fps in each game with all settings maxed out. Even at 1440p, the system had no problems delivering frame rates well above 60. Only at 4K did the system begin to struggle, but even there the results were impressive. Even if you don't have a 4K screen, Nvidia's Dynamic Super Resolution technology mean you can render games at 4K, and then downscale them to 1080p for increased sharpness. The results are impressive, and largely remove the need to use anti-aliasing, which improves performance.

GameSettingsAverage FPS
Bioshock Infinite4K DSR, Ultra, No AA109
Tomb Raider4K DSR, Ultra, FXAA, TressFX46
Metro Last Light4X SSAA, Ultra, Ultra Tessellation55
Assassin's Creed: Black FlagDSR 4K, Ultra, HBAO+, Ultra, God Rays, No AA59
Watch DogsDSR 4K. High Textures, Ultra, HBAO+, No AA52
Battlefield 4DSR 4K, Ultra, HBAO, No AA80
Crysis 3DSR 4K, Ultra, No AA38

Verdict

But are these results impressive enough to warrant spending nearly $4000 on a gaming system? Certainly, you could get similar performance with a Devil's Canyon i5 or i7 and a pair of GTX 970s, which would bring the cost down considerably. The truth of the matter is that Intel's 5960X isn't the best choice for gaming: there's simply no game that takes advantage of that many cores, with the higher clock speeds of Devil's Canyon having far more of an impact. And, as we discovered in our review, the GTX 970's performance is nearly as good as that of the GTX 980, but costs half as much.

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The real kicker here is that Intel's X99 platforms and Haswell-E CPUs push poor old AMD even further down the performance pipeline--and the company isn't catching up anytime soon. Yes, this is system is overkill for the vast majority of people, and even those who have the need for 16 overclocked threads on the desktop may find it hard to justify a $1000 CPU. But being sensible isn't what Haswell-E is about.

You might not ever tap into all its power, and you certainly won't max it out while playing games at anything less than 4K. No, Haswell-E and Nvidia's GTX 980 is like many of the finer things in life: expensive, exclusive, and oh-so lust worthy. Its bleeding edge tech will eventually trickle down into cheaper products, but for now, if you want the absolute best in computing, Intel's Haswell-E is it.

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Mark Walton

Mark is a senior staff writer based out of the UK, the home of heavy metal and superior chocolate.

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