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  • DIY Building a Z87 Computer for Flight Simulation


    Review by Doug Horton. It’s always exciting when manufacturers release new generations of computer components. This build was triggered by the 2013 releases by Intel of 4th generation CORE™ processors and the release by NVIDIA and its manufacturing partners of the 700 series of graphics cards. I was curious to learn what was new with these components and how changes would affect performance of flight simulator programs. We’ll focus on the build in this review and performance in a future article.


    I’ve been building my own computers for over 20 years, though it’s always challenging because I don’t do it often. I’m apprehensive about whether the new computer will run when first turned on, and I always wonder how it will perform after it’s loaded with assorted software. Components include a few samples from manufacturers, and other components were purchased.


    Thankfully, everything worked “out of the box,” Windows 7 and other software installations were uneventful, the UEFI BIOS is a joy to operate, and I’ve been enjoying great performance in flight simulation programs displayed on multiple monitors.


    Components for DIY Z87 Computer


    Following are descriptions of and comments about the components used for this build.


    Case: Corsair Obsidian 650D. According to its manufacturer: “the Obsidian Series 650D mid-tower case is manufactured with strong, stamped steel parts for increased rigidity, and coated with black textured paint. The front panel features a beautiful black brushed aluminum faceplate to bring a subtle elegance to your next build.” Though classified as a mid-tower, this case is spacious, measuring 21.5” (546mm) L x 9” (229mm) W x 20.5” (521mm) H.


    The front panel ports are located behind a small spring-loaded, push-to-release, drop-down access door. From left to right there are two USB 3.0 ports, microphone and headset ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and a firewire port. If needed, a card reader could be added in one of the four external bays under these connectors.


    Just above the front panel connectors, at the top of the enclosure, is a small sliding door that reveals an external SATA hot-swap bay for one 2.5 or 3.5 inch drive. This feature has an innovative spring-loaded plastic vane, which guides and holds one side of a 2.5 inch drive or retracts if a 3.5 inch drive is inserted.



    Corsair Obsidian 650D case


    Corsair suggests that this case provides excellent cooling, and I’m reminded that there’s often a trade-off between noise and cooling efficiency. With this case, fan noise is reduced by inclusion of two quiet 200 mm fans and not ventilating the left side door, though it does contain a Plexiglas window. Cooling begins with a large, black 200mm intake fan positioned behind the easily accessed front dust filter, to push a lot of air into the case.


    Air is exhausted by a second quiet 200mm fan on top of the case, as well as by the usual rear case 120mm fan. Note that the overall air pressure balance is negative with this arrangement, so additional air is drawn into the case through other openings. Air for the bottom mounted power supply is drawn in from below the case, through a dedicated slide-out filter, and as usual, it’s discharged out of the case by the power supply fan.


    The top fan can be replaced by dual 120mm or 140mm fans, or optionally, it can be replaced by single or dual radiators and fans for liquid cooling. All furnished fans are controlled by a three-speed fan controller, which can support up to four fans. Users can thereby make their own choices between cooling performance and noise. It’s not obvious to find, but the small three-position switch for this controller is inside and on the right side of the hot-swap bay.


    One peculiarity of this case is that it was designed just before manufacturers began providing motherboards with 20 pin USB 3.0 connectors. As received, this case has two cables with USB 3.0 male plugs for connecting the two USB 3.0 front panel ports, but current generations of motherboards don’t typically have internal USB 3.0 ports. Fortunately, after much searching, I found an inexpensive solution on several websites.


    On Amazon.com, for example, it’s identified as an “8-inch USB 3.0 20-Pin Motherboard Female to 2 Type-A Female Connectors Y-Cable,” as shown below, selling for $6.45 USD, plus tax and/or shipping, at time of writing. It works!



    Motherboard 20-pin female to two USB 3.0 female connector cable.


    Motherboard: ASUS Maximus VI Hero. I selected this ASUS Republic of Gamers (ROG) series motherboard because at the time, it was being recommended by Jetline Systems for their popular line of professionally built flight simulation computers and because it facilitates easy overclocking of the i7-4770K and similar “unlocked” Intel 4th generation processors. Here are some of the impressive features of this motherboard, paraphrased from selected ASUS descriptions:


    Intel® Z87 Express Chipset

    • The single-chipset design supports socket LGA1150 Intel 4th generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3 processors. It is designed to improve performance by utilizing serial point-to-point links, allowing increased bandwidth and stability. It natively supports up to six USB 3.0 ports for up to ten times faster transfer rates than USB 2.0. The chipset also supports the integrated graphics capability of the i7-4770K processor.

    Dual Intelligent Processors 4 with 4-way Optimization.

    • Precise DIGI+ Power control for Intel 4th generation CORE processors
    • CPU performance boost
    • Customized fan control for cool and quiet performance
    • All-around energy efficiency

    Extreme Engine DIGI+ III Power Delivery

    • Digital architecture provides high stability and precision for the CPU and memory, featuring dynamic speed adjustments and upgraded power components, including NexFET MOSFETs for high efficiency and better durability in half the size of standard MOSFETs. Exclusive BlackWing chokes remain cool with up to 60 amps of power, along with minimal power loss. 10K Black Metallic capacitors are designed to last longer and provide greater temperature endurance than generic solid state capacitors.

    Quad-GPU SLI and Quad-GPU/3-Way CrossFireX Support

    • The Maximus VI Hero features the user’s choice of either SLI™ or CrossFireX configuration to host two graphics cards, each of which can contain up to two GPUs.

    Second Generation T-Topology

    • For extreme memory overclocking under full load, ASUS developed the world's first 2nd generation T-Topology. This feature is intended to optimize the motherboard layout, to minimize (electronic) coupling noise and signal reflection, to allow increasing DRAM overclocking. ASUS suggests that testing shows about 5% more memory overclocking margin under full load with this feature.



    ASUS Maximus VI Hero motherboard



    • This feature provides mouse-controlled graphical BIOS, designed with basic and advanced interfaces. Among other useful features, the UEFI BIOS includes the F12 command for taking 1024 x 768 images of the current BIOS screen, which are transferred to a removable device such as a USB drive. New F3 and F4 commands provide accessing and adding selected BIOS menu settings to a Shortcut List.
    • For quick overclocking of the processor, the CPU Level Up command offers choices of overclocking to 4.2, 4.4, or 4.6 GHz.



    ROG UEFI BIOS, showing the CPU Level Up setting for simple overclocking


    Furnished Utilities


    The included AI Suite III provides the following utilities:

    • 4-Way Optimization
    • EZ Update
    • USB 3.0 Boost
    • System Information
    • USB BIOS Flashback
    • USB Charger+
    • Audio Configurations
    • MemTweakIt
    • RAMDisk
    • Sonic Radar
    • Perfect Voice

    It was relatively easy to build a system on this board. I was able to overclock the processor to 4.2 and 4.4 GHz, using the BIOS’s CPU one-step Level Up feature. These speeds were stable with 100% processor load invoked by the AIDA64 utility program, and they provided very nice framerates in FSX, P3D, and X-Plane 10, as benchmarked with the FSXMark07 procedure. After selecting the 4.6 GHz overclock with the Level Up feature, I experienced repeated “blue screen of death” crashes and returned to the 4.4 GHz setting.


    Though I don’t have this problem (yet), there is a reported issue with this board, related to a frozen time clock function in the UEFI, leading to incorrect system time. A fix has been reported. One system builder indicates this may not be permanently fixable with a BIOS update, so I can’t currently recommend this board.


    An alternative for a similar cost is the ASUS Z87 Pro motherboard, which has similar features, plus built-in Wi-Fi, as well as CPU/GPU sharing with the Lucid Vertu program, which is furnished along with drivers and other software on the included disk.


    Processor: Intel Core i7-4770K. This mid-priced 4/8 core processor for LGA1150 motherboards is extremely popular because it’s unlocked and relatively tolerant of overclocking. It has a default frequency of 3.5 GHz, turbo boosts to 3.9 GHz, and it’s routinely overclocked by many users (on a per processor basis) to 4.4 GHz or higher. It also includes integrated graphics processing, so with many applications, such as office computing, and not including flight simulation, it can be used without an add-in graphics card. This processor’s specifications appear to be identical to those of the year older i7-3770K processor for LGA 1150 motherboards, except for updated integrated graphics in the newer processor.



    Retail package for i7-4770K processor and included cooler


    Processor Cooler: CoolerMaster Hyper 212 EVO. I used an air cooler for the initial build of this computer. The EVO is a great choice, for design and value. It was reengineered from the older but highly rated Hyper 212 Plus model, to achieve nearly 100% contact between the cooler’s flattened heat pipes and the processor case. This is a technology Coolermaster calls “Continuous Direct Contact.” It also has an improved fan, compared to the Plus model.



    Cold plate end of the Coolermaster Hyper 212 EVO cooler,
     showing “continuous direct contact” feature of heat pipes


    Though air coolers may be somewhat less efficient than liquid coolers, I subscribe to the “what if” question: what is the respective cooling capacity of air and liquid coolers if certain components fail. My engineering sense is that if the fan of a single fan air cooler fails, there is still some cooling available from the heat pipes and fins, by natural convection.


    On the other hand, if the coolant pump or radiator fan fails on a liquid cooler system, there will be very little coolant flow through the radiator or heat removal from the radiator, and theoretically, there will be very little heat removal. That said, I may change this build to a high quality liquid cooler after more testing.



    Coolermaster Hyper 212 EVO processor cooler


    Memory: Corsair Vengeance 2 x 4 GB DDR3 1600 MHz. According to Corsair, “Vengeance® DDR3 memory modules are designed with overclockers in mind. Vengeance DIMMs are built using RAM specially selected for their high-performance potential. Aluminum heat spreaders help dissipate heat and provide the aggressive look that you want in your gaming rig. As a bonus, the attractive low price of Vengeance memory will also leave lots of room in your system build budget.”


    Though I used available 1600 MHz DIMMs for this build, I’d recommend 1866 MHz speed memory, which can sometimes be purchased for close to the same price as 1600 MHz memory. I like Corsair memory products because of their high quality and value, and I once had a very positive warranty experience with a Corsair memory issue.


    Graphics Cards: NVIDIA GTX 770. NVIDIA provided a sample GTX 770 card because it’s a mid-range choice of the cards in the new GTX 700 series. It can operate up to four monitors, provided they are connected in this order: the first two to DVI, third to HDMI, and fourth to the DisplayPort connector. In testing, I’ve connected three high-qualify 32” Samsung 1920 x 1080 LCD/LED television receivers, used as monitors, to this card. The work fine and look. The engineering sample I tested appears to be identical to the EVGA GTX 770 card, part number: 02G-P4-3770-KR, with the following specs:

    • 1046MHz Base Clock
    • 1085MHz Boost Clock
    • 133.8GT/s Texture Fill Rate
    • 2048MB GDDR5 Memory
    • 7010MHz Memory Clock
    • 224.32GB/s Memory Bandwidth

    EVGA currently produces 12 models of their GTX 770 cards, with different clock speeds, memory size, cooling means, case designs, and prices. The sample model’s case is designed to match the top end GeForce GTX Titan card.



    EVGA offers 12 versions of the GTX 770 card.


    Solid State Drives: OCZ Vertex 4 256 GB and Corsair Neutron Series 240 GB. Solid state drive prices continue to decrease, and many flight simulator enthusiasts are purchasing SSDs as primary drives. In fact, I have two flight simming friends who’ve purchased a 500 GB and a 1 TB SSD for their respective new computers. With two sample SSDs available from previous testing, I set up the Vertex 4 SSD as my boot drive and host to various office programs and utilities. The Neutron drive is set up for hosting installations of FSX, Prepar3D, and X-Plane 10.



    OCZ Technology’s Vertex 4 256GB SSD



    Corsair Neutron


    Here are the comparitive performance specs of the two drives:


    Performance Spec

    OCZ Vertex 4 256GB

    Corsair Neutron 240GB

      Max Sequential Read


    555 MB/s

      Max Sequential Write


    370 MB/s

      Max IOPS 4k Random Read



      Max IOPS 4k Random Write




    Both have relatively high Read specs, though their Write specs differ. However, for flight simulation, it’s the Read speed that’s most important, especially for retrieving new scenery files as the airplane moves over the earth, so I could have reversed the two without impact on sim performance. Both of these SSDs are SATA III 6GB/sec.


    My previous testing confirmed that with FSX: Acceleration and Prepar3D 1.4, there is no framerate performance benefit from SSDs, but there is a convenience factor in having Windows and all programs on both drives load faster. Also, there’s presumed improvement in reliability, energy use, and noise of SSDs compared to hard drives.


    Power Supply Unit: Corsair HX 850 Modular power supply. This 850 Watt product easily accommodates the components of this build, and it has a Gold energy efficiency rating of 80% PLUS®. It has modular cables and connectors, to reduce cable clutter and improve access for changing components. According to Corsair, HX series power supplies generate less heat than others, so they require less cooling, and the thermally controlled fan spins only when it’s needed. According to its performance data, the fan is off below 20% power load.



    Corsair HX850 Modular 850 Watt power supply


    A smaller power supply would be fine for this computer system, such as 650 or 70 Watts, unless a second graphic card were to be added. There is heat loss in power supplies, and each is tested for its efficiency versus system load. For this product, the highest efficiency occurs at about 50% load, as shown in the accompanying graph from Corsair, so it makes sense to purchase a larger power supply than needed, such as this 850 Watt model.


    In other words, pay a little more up front and save energy for the life of the product. The list price of this model was $170 US, at time of writing, which is only $20 more than the similar 750 Watt model or $30 more than the $650 model.



    HX850 efficiency vs. system load, showing highest efficiency at about 50% load


    Optical Drive


    To complete the build, I added two inexpensive optical drives. Several models, featuring speeds of DVD+R: 24X, DVD-R: 24X, and CD-R: 48X, are available from online retailers for under $20 US, plus shipping and/or tax, as required. These products are highly reliable and mature, such that competition based on speeds or features seem to be no longer a factor.




    I’m very pleased with the results of this DIY project. I hope to not experience the frozen motherboard clock issue, or that if it does occur, I hope the referenced fix will work. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at benchmarking results of this computer for flight simulation use with single and multiple monitors, and also with a few component changes.

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