Upgrade fever has hit, and with black November/cyber week deals, I’ve managed to snag pretty much all of my system upgrade with 3 key exceptions – the CPU, the GPU, and the GPU waterblock. Technically 4 since the main NVMe boot drive is not yet purchased either, but I expect that after the war I’m going to go through for the missing main hardware, the boot drive will be a piece of cake.
But I should backtrack. Last time I wrote about my 2020 tentative system replacement, I had identified broadly with a set of goals and a listing of hardware. Obviously, a lot of things have changed since then, with firmer details on product performance and clear availability issues across the board (something I’ll probably write separately about in the near future).
After finalizing the budget for my build last week, a flurry of purchases followed and now this week, I am sitting on a near-complete new rig…
Broadly speaking, it fits a lot of what I described previously, but there are some big changes I made that are not all apparent by the photo, so I’ll discuss.
Motherboard: B550 over X570?: The biggest point I found myself coming back to was the motherboard. I’ve almost entirely used Asus motherboards in recent years for my builds, with a single diversion to MSI and one to EVGA for their bonkers Classified SR-2. I, therefore, settled early on getting the X570 Crosshair VIII Hero, or the new Dark Hero – either would do. The more I looked into it this generation, however, and the more the B550 options appealed.
Normally, AMD’s lineup of chipsets for motherboards are an Xx70 and a Bx50 option, with X boards carrying better CPU power delivery, broader memory support, superior cooling and overclocking, etc, and the B literally standing for Budget.
Well, in the 500 series, AMD definitely inverted things a bit. Due to the massive release gap this time for X570 and B550, the B550 boards (the highest-end chipset AMD launched in 2020) got a lot more goodies and offers some really nice premium boards. I had settled back into Asus and looked at their ROG Strix B550 boards, but ultimately, I went with the ASRock B550 Taichi. Why? Well, it has great PCIE support which will work perfectly for my capture card-added setup for recording and streaming, and allows fairly easy use of dual NVME drives, provided that only 1 gets PCIE 4.0 from the CPU and the other is PCIE 3.0 from the chipset. While I didn’t initially think of this feature much, as my budget grew a little due to Black Friday savings, I ended up changing my storage goals slightly, which I’ll detail later.
But the Taichi was a hard sell before to me based on the looks, until I had a revelation. Corsair has excellent looking gold watercooling fittings. The Taichi is also gold/bronze, and if I was to go with a Final Fantasy XIV mod theme to compliment the case…that would look really nice, with the gear motif on the motherboard even matching with the Shadowbringers release of The Epic of Alexander Ultimate raid! So then that snapped together a few other component choices and…
The build is Final Fantasy XIV themed: Prior to deciding on Alliance colors from WoW on my last build, I had called it “Contrast” and was planning a black/white visual aesthetic for the system, with a white case and white illumination playing with an all-black hardware selection with additional white LED illumination to create a cool look. This build I…well, I didn’t have a strong visual theme right off the top. As I started to plan a custom watercooling loop for the build, I thought about a lot of things that would be enabled with the look of liquid moving around the case. Maybe black liquid, or satin black tubing? Maybe blackout components and waterblocks with underglow LEDs? Maybe contrasting fittings?
When I decided on the Corsair ecosystem for my watercooling, one thing they had in most of the embedded videos on their Hydro X product pages was a video of parts filling with purple liquid they offer, which looked cool to me (to my own surprise) and it all sort of clicked.
The name of my upcoming build is now “Shadowbringer” which, as you might note, is a non-pluralized version of the current FFXIV expansion! The idea hit me to use the contrast of mostly black hardware with gold accents (the B550 Taichi motherboard, Corsair Hydro X watercooling parts in black with gold compression fittings) and then to tie in the Shadowbringers idea by using the purple fluid in the loop through clear tubing to showcase it, tied together with cycling gold and purple RGB illumination and a few shiny gold/purple foil vinyl decals, one of the word Shadowbringer from the FFXIV logo, and the other my channel-font logo for Twitch inside the case.
The decals are going to be custom designs from me, cut via my mother-in-law’s Cricut, and the foil vinyl I picked for it looks extra sharp. I think the look is going to be stunning in full build, and I am really excited to see it complete just for that.
The watercooling loop – learning to walk before I run: I talked a lot about using hardline tubing when I first brought up that I would be watercooling my new system for the first time ever via a custom loop. I liked the idea when I didn’t have a clear theme in mind, and although I liked it for the Shadowbringer concept as well, I started to get some doubts.
Firstly, I’ve never done a custom loop and going straight to hardline, while doable, was daunting to me. I figured it would look stunning, but the amount of work, maintenance, and precision I would need was something that was scaring me away. In the end, when I decided on the Shadowbringer theme, gold compression fittings for soft tubing are much larger and visually cooler in my opinion, and it would push me to the clear tubing (the only option from Corsair, although I could have mixed and matched with another vendor for other color options) which meant the purple coolant could fill the visual gap left from solid or opaque tubing.
Secondly, in terms of cost, the watercooling loop was ballooning to be one of the most spendy parts of the whole build, and a big part of that was the need for extra tools and practice tubing for learning the ropes of hardline watercooling. An easy reduction to the cost that dropped nearly $100 immediately was going to soft tubing, since it can be cut easily (very easily!) with normal household scissors and even the small-ish amount included in Corsair’s soft tubing box would easily be enough with the loop order I planned. In the end, it definitely was – I still have a good chunk of extra tubing, an already-built drain system with an extra soft tube to socket into the drain valve for easy release, and I ran the tubing for my (currently non-existent!) graphics card.
It was an interesting learning experience – intuitively, I thought the way to prevent kinking in the soft tubing was to cut it long and have slop in the line, but I quickly discovered that the slop was often where kinks came into play easiest, so I got to a good baseline build and then trimmed up the tubing to make tighter runs until no kink or sag was in the lines. I’ll be tightening it up more once the actual hardware is in there (since I don’t want to crush an empty CPU socket and can only guess at the fitment of the GPU tubing for now!), but I got it to a neat place with tubing runs I’m actually fairly proud of.
In terms of radiators, I went back and forth on whether or not I would end up using every possible radiator mounting option, and initially decided not to have a 120mm radiator at the back exhaust of the case, but between my budget being larger than initially expected and a fairly good discount on the whole setup through a coupon code with Corsair, I ended up maxing out the case with one radiator each in 360mm, 240mm, and 120mm sizes. And against my urges otherwise, I went with all push fan configurations – no fan sandwiches, and that worked out in my favor, as the mounting locations and sizing of the case, motherboard, pump/reservoir combo, and the single layer of fans per radiator as-is already takes up a ton of space and makes it such that the graphics card is going to have a tight (but measured) squeeze into its home.
The theme meant getting some unexpected components: When I decided on the Shadowbringer theme for the build, I brainstormed some easy ways to get the case full of hardware that would fit the theme without clashing with other components. So for Shadowbringers and Final Fantasy XIV in general, that meant a few theme words came to mind: light, shadow, crystal, gears – and with those words, I set out to rebuild my part list. The motherboard I documented above, but on other components, I landed in some weird places.
The weirdest to me is the RAM. While I love G.Skill TridentZ RAM (I have a 32 GB kit of the original RGB version in my current system!), the Royal variant never appealed to me, as I couldn’t see a build where it fit, and surely never the gold version even then! Well, until a themed build around FFXIV and the current Shadowbringers expansion was on my mind, in which case the gold makes an outstanding accent color and the crystalline RGB LED bar up top made the most sense. So it is what I got – still at the 64 GB target I set, although I went with a more standard 3200 MHz kit that I hope to be able to overclock to 3600 MHz speeds, but if I can’t, the performance difference is minor. Worth chasing for a bit, but minor.
Then, of course, came the watercooling parts, which were easy to adjust to theme as I discussed above and probably the parts that most inspired the change. With that move, I fully locked in on the Corsair CPU waterblock instead of the much more expensive Optimus or EKWB solutions, since the performance gap is insignificant in most testing between the blocks and I like the balance of looks, performance, and cost of the Corsair option.
I had already been looking at the Cooler Master TD500 Mesh case for the build as I like Cooler Master cases quite generally, and the TD500 Mesh has a cool tempered glass side panel with creases that connect to a crystalline-like case geometry on the front panel, which gave me room for the vinyl decals I had planned and space to add more to the front if I want to (like symbols for the Twelve, or maybe a chocobo silhouette or job emblems or something else!). So far, my early experience with it is pretty good – I wish that it had a cable management bump in the backside panel, along with more cable channels to tie down to in general, but my messy and bad first attempt at cramming the loose hardware I had sitting around into it went very well, all told, and while it was an effort, I got the case sealed tight without any crunching or issues!
Storage upgrades, go!: When I was most recently discussing the build, I had settled on a 1 TB NVME boot drive/game drive that would be PCIE Gen 4, along with bringing over my existing storage outside of the NVME drive. Well, Black Friday deals really, really, REALLY changed that.
First, I found 1 TB SATA SSDs way marked down, from SK Hynix. I grabbed two for a RAID 0 setup to replace my 500 GB x2 SATA SSDs, which stay in the current case for my wife. Then, there was a sale on Seagate 8 TB platter drives, so I grabbed two of those to replace my 5 TB drives, which are going into a Synology NAS box we also got on sale over the US holiday weekend. Lastly, between budget favorability and sales, I managed to narrow down my PCIE Gen 4 drive selection to 3 choices, and picked up a 2 TB NVME drive on PCIE Gen 3 for a sweet deal, which makes my current planned storage as follows:
2 TB NVME PCIE 4.0 Boot Drive/Game Drive
2 TB NVME PCIE 3.0 Game/App/Scratch Drive for editing
2x1TB SATA SSDs in RAID 0
2x8TB 7200 RPM SATA HDD in RAID 0
10 TB NAS for out of system backup
OneDrive and Google Drive cloud backups
So, yeah, it is a little crazy, but it allows me some segmentation. MMOs and older titles I want fastest loading times in don’t need the PCIE Gen 4 SSD, so I can keep WoW, FFXIV, GW2, SWTOR, and whatever open world single player titles I’m playing on the Gen 3 NVME drive for blazing fast loading without constraints. Then I have the Gen 4 NVME drive for faster booting and for use once current console-optimized titles begin to launch on PC, since the options I have in mind for that drive all meet or exceed the sequential performance of the PS5 SSD and have competitive random performance, which should be fully leveraged once DirectStorage launches. The SATA SSDs are for working on other projects that don’t need or cannot use the NVME performance fully, and the HDDs are for bulk storage of older files and performance loading of most of my PC game library (which currently occupies near 5 TB on its own!).
As I start to work more on video and render projects, my storage was becoming a clear point of improvement, and while I do worry that some of this is “just because I can,” I think I’ve at least set up a clean rationale in my own mind for why I’m building 22 TB of storage with 6 TB of SSD capacity into my new system!
The specs when I reach the end: I’ve been talking a lot in the last few months about GPUs in particular, and wavering between Nvidia’s RTX 3000 series and AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 series. Likewise, I’ve vascillated between the 12-core Ryzen 9 5900x and the 16-core Ryzen 9 5950x. For now, I’ve locked in on the 5950x – I expect it will be the last part I buy for the system, as rumors peg availability concerns starting to turn for the Zen 3 CPUs in the last half of December, and the 5950x, while popular, is often not as popular as the 5900x, both of which seem to get similar levels of supply into retail. It also lets me claim a core count upgrade and should be an ideal match to both current consoles, as it matches the rumored configuration of one 8-core CCX from the PS5 while also allowing apps designed for Xbox Series X and the 4+4 layout there to work as designed, provided those kinds of optimizations carry over to PC ports.
As for the graphics card? I’ve got the money set aside and the time to chase a Radeon RX 6900 XT when that launches this upcoming Tuesday…but I’ve committed at this time to buy whichever I can get first of the Geforce RTX 3080, the Radeon RX 6800 XT, or the Radeon RX 6900 XT. I’m leaning towards cards that already have waterblocks for sale (so the Founder’s Edition or reference RTX 3080s and the reference RX 6800 XT/6900 XT) but if it comes down to it, I could get a card without a current waterblock on the market and wait patiently for one to launch while air cooling the card. The situation with availability has been abysmal on all sides, but after all the talk from AMD, their launch of the 6800-series cards was rough to watch, as it seems that a pathetically small number of cards made it to retail. Because of that, I’m not locking myself in to a choice there yet – I’ve picked the models that match a budgetary and performance range (budget why the RX 6900 XT is the furthest north I’ll go on price, while the RTX 3080/6800 XT is the furthest south on performance I’ll allow for how long I want this system to last). My hope is that Tuesday’s launch goes perfectly and I can snag a reference RX 6900 XT, but I’ve already got myself in 3 different stock tracking Discords, 2 different notification sites, a Telegram group with notifications on stock, and spend a little bit of time daily checking Twitter for retailers to see if they confirm new drops of inventory coming in.
I fully expect it will be rough, and I’ve prepared myself mentally to have my nearly complete system just sitting on the floor next to me sans CPU or GPU until February or March of next year, but I’ve also setup every available tool I can find to watch for stock to come in and pounce on it. Today I almost got a Radeon RX 6800 XT but missed adding it to my cart by seconds – yes, it is that bad right now! I’m optimistic that my night owl tendencies might help – the other night, I was able to stare at a Ryzen 9 5900x listing for around 5 minutes at 2 AM without it selling out, so had I decided to lock-in on 12-cores then, I could have already had the CPU in-hand. Ultimately, a part of building the system I want and expect to last 5 years with just simple maintenance means being patient and planning smartly ahead to get exactly what I want without capitulating to the scalpers or just scrapping the idea until after Q1 2021 when hopefully things stabilize.
So, then, my final parts list:
Ryzen 9 5950X
ASRock B550 Taichi
64 GB GSkill TridentZ Royal Gold DDR4 3200 memory
2 TB Western Digital SN850/Samsung 980 Pro/Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus NVME SSD Boot Drive
2 TB XPG SX8100 NVME SSD Storage Drive
1 TB x2 SK Hynix Gold SATA SSDs
8TB x2 Seagate Ironwolf NAS HDDs
EVGA 1000w GQ Power Supply
Cooler Master TD500 Mesh black case
Corsair Hydro X Watercooling loop with XC5 CPU Block, XR5 Radiators, XD5 Pump/Reservoir, Gold Compression Fittings, Softline Tubing, Cooler Master SickleFlow ARGB Fans x3, TD500 included ARGB fans x3, Corsair XL5 Purple coolant
XSPC Water Temperature Display connected to Corsair included Pump temperature sensor
Graphics Card: Whatever I can get between an RTX 3080, RX 6800 XT, RX 6900 XT
Overall, I’m very excited to get the new build nearly complete, and thrilled to have already made a lot of progress with the build. When I get the CPU and GPU, I should be able to just drop them in, leak test the loop, and then drain and fill with the real coolant and get rolling! I’ve already benchmarked my current system up and down to compare the before and after and once the full new system is ready, I’ll probably share more of that!