This is the first computer I've built with all-new components, the second after last year's salvaged-parts Practise Cube.
For the last six years I've used a Core 2 Duo 13" MacBook Pro and it's served me well. However, when I looked at the currently available Macs, I was interested to find that none of them appealed to me. I've been using Apple laptops since 2001, but none of their desktop machines seemed as attractive as the idea of assembling my own.
Having made that decision, the parts selection was conveniently narrowed down by my desire to continue using Mac OS X. Windows 10 is fine for launching Steam and playing GTA V, but for actual work I've got 15 years of habits and workflows I'm in no hurry to change.
tonymacx86.com continues to recommend Haswell motherboards as Skylake support is still under development. Looking at their H97 suggestions however, it seemed likely that Gigabyte's H170N would be just as compatible as the H97N, so I decided to use the latest chipset, processor and memory, to count on Mac OS X support coming sooner rather than later.
And then a guide to installing "El Capitan on the Skylake H170N-WIFI" was published just four days later, it's turned out very well for me so far.
This computer serves all my work needs in Mac OS X, and all my gaming desires when I boot into Windows. It is small and quiet and cute, both fun to look at and tinker with.
Here are my thoughts on the components I chose:
CPU: Intel Core i5-6500 3.2GHz Quad-Core OEM/Tray Processor. One reason I waited for Skylake was its standard TDP of 65 Watts for the quad core i5s, the equivalent Haswell CPUs all being 84 Watts.
Practise Cube showed me the difficulty of trying to cool a high TDP part in a smaller machine, so I wanted to go as low in this regard as possible, while maintaining high performance. The 35 Watt 6500T was interesting, as was the slightly cheaper 6400, but in both cases the clock speed was considerably lower (2.5GHz and 2.7GHz respectively).
I went with the tray version both because I knew I wouldn't use Intel's included cooler and because it was in stock while the regular version was not. An item being out-of-stock decided some of my other component choices, I'll note the alternatives I considered where appropriate.
CPU COOLER: Noctua NH-L9x65. One of the last decisions I made was the computer case itself, so while the Raijintek Metis supports CPU coolers up to 160mm in height, I was originally considering re-using the Cooltek C2 or maybe going with something else that had just as low CPU cooler clearance. The NH-L9x65 is only 65mm high including the fan, yet it has a much smaller footprint than the Gelid cooler I used before. Said 131x123mm Gelid cooler caused problems when I added a GTX 960 as its heat pipes pushed against the graphics card. When I rotated it 180° it then covered the motherboard screws and CPU fan header, it needed to be removed to access both those and the RAM too. The NH-L9x65 is only 95x95mm and cools the 65 Watt i5-6500 with ease.
One change I made purely for aesthetic purposes was to replace the included NF-A9x14 with a grey NF-B9 redux fan. It is 11mm thicker but I prefer the colour scheme and it even performs slightly better. I also prefer the appearance of a top-down cooler compared to a tower one, I think it looks more interesting through the case's window as you can more clearly see the fan spinning.
MOTHERBOARD: Gigabyte GA-H170N-WIFI. Because I didn't choose an overclockable "K" CPU, I saw no need to get a Z170 motherboard. Even though some Z170 boards now allow overclocking of non-K CPUs, noise and thermals still make the H170N the right choice for me. As I had hoped, it appears to be nearly fully compatible with Mac OS X (only one of its two Ethernet ports doesn't work) and I appreciate the all-black design.
To be able to control audio volume over DisplayPort in Windows, I uninstalled the Realtek audio drivers. To do the same in Mac OS X, I use Soundflower.
One criticism I have is the location of the headers for USB 3.0, USB 2.0 and HD Audio. Not only do they necessitate the use of a low footprint CPU cooler, they also mean you have an extra bundle of cables to deal with. I'd prefer they be located along the edge with the SATA ports but understand there's limited space to work with; both the CMOS battery and WiFi card are mounted vertically.
MEMORY: Crucial 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-2133. Since Skylake doesn't support quad channel RAM I felt even less compunction going with a Mini-ITX motherboard over a Micro-ATX one, it being H170 means nothing faster than 2133MHz is necessary. I've used Crucial RAM for many years without incident, these also happened to be available for a good price. The out-of-stock contender was the G.Skill NT Series, I considered them purely for their black PCBs vs. the Crucial green. However, such little splashes of colour as this and the SATA power extensions look pleasing to me against the mostly monochrome selection of other parts.
STORAGE (WINDOWS): Crucial MX200 500GB M.2-2260 SSD. For Windows I wanted enough space to store the games I'm currently playing without having to shuffle them among drives. I didn't feel the need to spend twice as much for a PCIe SSD, though that is of course an option for improved performance in the future. Not having handled an M.2 SSD before, I was truly surprised by how tiny it was when I took it out of the box. Its out-of-stock contender was the Samsung 850 EVO.
STORAGE (MAC): Samsung 840 EVO 1TB 2.5" SSD. I've been using this 1TB SSD in my laptop for the last two years, it continues its role as a Mac OS X boot drive and the location for all my personal files. Using the same SSD on a twice as fast bus has been a noticeable improvement.
One thing lacking compared to my old laptop is the ability to use Apple's whole-drive encryption. For that reason, I've partitioned it so that an unencrypted 100GB partition is for the OS and applications, the encrypted 900GB that remains is for my User folder.
I placed this drive nearer to the motherboard as its 7mm height does not interfere with the fan headers in the same way a 9.5mm high HDD does. This SSD obviously didn't cost me 0€ but as I bought it so long ago I didn't enter its price here. The modern equivalent costs ~300€.
STORAGE (MEDIA): Seagate Momentus SpinPoint 2TB 2.5" 5400RPM HDD. Because the Windows SSD has BitLocker enabled and because the Mac SSD is formatted with HFS+, neither operating system can see the other's drive. I prefer this arrangement as it means one cannot mess up the other. I intended to format this drive as ExFAT, to use it for the media I wanted to be accessible in both operating systems. Unfortunately, Mac OS X's ExFAT handling is very buggy, so for now it's HFS+ and therefore not accessible to Windows.
STORAGE (CABLES): Akasa PROSLIM AK-CBSA05-30BK 30cm and AK-CBSA05-50BK 50cm Black SATA Data Cables. These are thin and flexible, they seemed necessary in such a tiny case. The 30cm cable connects the 2.5" Mac SSD that's closest to the motherboard, the 50cm one goes all around the power supply to the right side of the case and connects the 2.5" Media HDD. Routing the cables this way allows me to hide them as much as possible.
VIDEO CARD: KFA2 GeForce GTX 970 4GB. I originally put the 2GB GTX 960 from Practise Cube v2 inside RedToast, but in December 2016 I swapped it out for a 4GB GTX 970. It's comparable to a GTX 1060 in performance and is slightly cheaper at 245€. Nvidia's lack of Mac OS X support for their 10 Series cards is why I decided to buy this instead of the 435€ GTX 1070 I'd been saving towards.
In terms of GTA V performance, with the GTX 960 I'd capped the frame rate at 30fps because the constant fluctuating between 35fps and 55fps was distracting to me. With the GTX 970 I can now play GTA V at 2560x1440 with VSync turned on, the only time the frame rate dips below 60fps is when I frolic in the glorious grass.
CASE: RAIJINTEK Metis (Red). This was delightful to work with as it can be completely disassembled, I had great fun working out where to route the cables. I originally planned to get the non-windowed version but when that was 20€ more I decided to try my hand at lighting things up.
One major criticism I have is regarding the lip that protrudes along the bottom edge of the expansion slot, just below where the graphics card sticks out the back of the case. When combined with the GTX 970, this lip makes the HDMI port completely inaccessible, at least using the cables I have to hand. I connect my only monitor via DisplayPort with no problem, but this is something to keep in mind when choosing which graphics card to use with this case.
CASE (LED LIGHTING): BitFenix Alchemy Connect 120mm White LED Strips. Because the side panel is made of aluminium, I used these rather than their magnetic successors. They were easy to apply around the window, and they can be daisy-chained together, only one Molex port is required. One strip goes along the bottom edge of the window and the other goes along the edge closest to the front of the case, they light things up brightly and evenly.
CASE (USB 2.0 CABLE): Delock 20cm USB 2.0 Pin Header to Type-A Female Connector. There are two USB 3.0 ports at the front of the case's top panel, and the cable that's used to connect those to the motherboard includes a USB 2.0 connector as well. I cut that off as it was unnecessarily dangly, and then used this little cable to connect the wireless dongle for my Xbox 360 controller, so that I could keep it inside the case instead of it hanging off the back. Maybe because of the big plastic window, or maybe because the computer sits just two feet away from me on the desk, but the Xbox controller has worked without incident, my concerns of Faraday cage interference were proven exaggerated.
CASE (CABLE TIES): 100 Black 10cm Cable Ties. I've used ~80 of these so far, so many times positioning and snipping and repositioning and more snipping. The way I was able to combine the power supply extension cable, the cables for USB 3.0, USB 2.0 and HD Audio, the Xbox 360 dongle cable and the PCI-E cable into one big "spine", up along the top of the case, is what allows me to make nearly all the cables not visible through the window.
POWER SUPPLY: Sharkoon SilentStorm 500W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular SFX-L. The SilverStone SX500-LG was my first choice as I had read good reviews. Unfortunately for me, while completely silent at idle and pleasantly humming under load, it would make a distracting and unpleasant clacking sound when somewhere in between. This "Sharkoon" model appears to be almost identical other than its fan spins all the time, there's no ramping or clicking. It's quiet and because of how I'm cooling the case, with cool air being drawn in at the back, I prefer this running all the time to act as the exhaust.
Being slightly smaller in all dimensions than a regular ATX power supply, this also provided me with space in which to manage cables; most of them lie between the power supply and the left and front panels of the case, as do the SATA power extensions that were also necessary.
The included modular cables are all black, flat and ribbon style. This allowed me to fold and route them in interesting ways, both beneath the motherboard and around the power supply itself. It also allowed me to peel them apart, that only six of the eight PCI-E cables need to go to the graphics card and only four of the eight ATX 12V cables need to go underneath the motherboard. I did the same with the front panel connectors too, peeling away the LED status cables as I only wanted to use the two necessary for the power button.
The fan grille came with its shiny gold logo the wrong way round for my purposes, so I flipped it 180º and now you can read "SilentStorm SFX Gold" without turning the case (or your head) upside down.
POWER SUPPLY (SATA CABLES): Phobya 30cm SATA Power Extension Cables. The SATA cables that come with the power supply work fine with drives mounted in a traditional drive cage, but with the two 2.5" drives in my machine being mounted on the "floor", there was not enough clearance to plug them in. These "Phobya" extensions are routed similarly to the SATA data cables, going either side of the power supply. On Amazon they looked all black, only when I received them did I realise they were actually colourful cables covered by a black mesh. As I wrote earlier, because they are just a tiny bit of colour, I think I will keep using them. If I ever change my mind I can get these NZXT SATA Power extensions instead.
POWER SUPPLY (POWER CABLE): InLine C13 Left-Angled 1.8m Black Power Cable. This was bought solely for aesthetic purposes; the cable that comes with the power supply functions entirely properly, but it sticks out too far from the back of the case. This Left-Angled cable sticks out much less, the cable goes straight down to the desk instead of jutting out into space.
WIRELESS NETWORK ADAPTER: Broadcom BCM94352Z 802.11a/b/g/n/ac M.2 (E). The Gigabyte motherboard includes WiFi via an Intel M.2 (E) card, but that card is not compatible with Mac OS X. As I need WiFi, I replaced it with this Broadcom card, it also provides more reliable Bluetooth than the Intel one did. To get to the tiny screw that secures the card in place I did have to remove the CPU cooler, so if you know you want to change the card too, make sure to do so before installing that.
CASE FAN: Noctua NF-S12B redux-1200 PWM. The case comes with a black 120mm fan, it's visible in some of my photos, but at one point I thought it was broken, there were scary grinding noises and the whole machine was shaking. I later worked out this was caused by a rogue sticker blocking one of the fans on the graphics card, but before that I blamed the stock fan and so bought this one to replace it. I appreciate both the performance and the looks of Noctua's redux series, so I got this and the NF-B9 at the same time, that they would match.
At idle this fan span at ~800 RPM, which I found a little too loud. Changing the speed setting from "Normal" to "Silent" in the motherboard's UEFI reduced it to ~650 RPM, which is much quieter. Under load it reaches ~800 RPM but by that point the GPU fans are at ~2000 RPM, they drown everything else out.
CASE FAN (FAN FILTER): SilverStone SST-FF122B. To both reduce dust and to provide more effective cooling, I flipped the 120mm fan from being an exhaust to an intake. Cool air is drawn in the back, flows over and through the CPU cooler, maybe reaches the graphics card, and then warm air is pushed out by the PSU fan, it exits underneath the case. This dust filter sticks magnetically to the steel back of the case, it hopefully prevents dust being sucked in by the fan, and then positive pressure prevents dust being drawn through the other holes and gaps in the case.
MONITOR: Dell U2713HM 27". This 2560x1440 60Hz IPS monitor is quite nice. I use Windows 10 scaled at 150% and Mac OS X in 1440x810 HiDPI mode. 1440x810 is a new development for me as with my old laptop I was using 1280x720 HiDPI. While 1280x720 HiDPI is simpler mathematically, and I'm used to 1280 horizontal pixels, 720 vertically was always a little annoying. I've also configured 1600x900 HiDPI for when I need a little more space, but 1440x810 is proving to be the best balance for me so far, it's a subtle upgrade from the 1280x800 laptop displays I've been using for the last ten years. As for the price, I bought this a few years ago too, it probably wouldn't make much sense to buy this model today.
MONITOR (CABLE): ASSMANN 2m DisplayPort Cable. I needed a DisplayPort cable as the one I had for my laptop has a Mini DisplayPort connection on one end. This one was named ASSMANN, it even says ASSMANN on the bag it came in, though sadly it doesn't say ASSMANN on the cable itself. It was also reasonably priced and works well, but ASSMANN is why I chose it.
KEYBOARD: Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad. After 15 years with the same keyboard layout I'm keeping things really consistent. This was a Christmas present, they cost 59€. The new Magic Keyboard has the benefit of operating as both a USB and a Bluetooth keyboard, so it can be used for changing UEFI settings unlike a regular Bluetooth keyboard. However, the lack of a number pad and the twice-as-high price is why I wanted this wired one. It also has a USB port on either side, which I use for connecting a mouse.
MOUSE: Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse 2.0. Another Christmas present, this mouse weighs little and has a long cable. So I opened it up, jammed nearly all the cable inside, and now it's less likely to go skittering away, the cable is only 20cm long. I use an Xbox 360 controller to play most games and they complement each other well, with a glossy edge between matte top and sides.
I've finished working on RedToast for now, the main upgrade I look forward to is a 4TB PCIe M.2 SSD when those (i) exist and (ii) are reasonably priced. I could also swap the i5-6500 for an i7-7700, install 32GB of RAM instead of 16GB, but neither of those are needed right now.
Thank you for reading this, for all your kind comments too.