Mini PC ThoughtsNov 1, 2019
So recently I've seen a lot of posts/videos talking about mini-PC builds. My last blog post included a couple of options for that too, and since there's more interesting developments in the area, I thought I'd make another blog entry to get my thoughts in one place. This is partially to act as a place for self-reference when I eventually do decide to build my next PC (my last one is from 2015), and partially to allow other like-minded people to get a little insight. Note that I'm not considering anything less than a Core i7 as Atom/Pentium equivalent CPUs just won't be able to handle my needs (gaming/video editing).
So Intel NUCs are currently the king of the SFF (Small Form Factor) PC market with their current entries:
Bean Canyon NUC8i7BEH3, a 4x4" mini-PC packing a Core i7-8559U (enhanced laptop CPU) with Iris 655 graphics.
Hades Canyon NUC8i7HVK, a 6x8" mini-PC pairing a Core i7-8809G (gaming laptop CPU) with Vega M GH graphics (about equivalent to GTX 1060).
There's also been news of AMD attempting to build their own 4x4" NUC, and Intel completely changing their approach with their Ghost Canyon/Element system coming out (dubbed NUC 9 Extreme), which closer resembles a mini-ITX system able to fit a dual-slot graphics card inside.
This got me thinking which would be the direction I would want to go for my next system. Hades Canyon NUC has dropped to £800 recently and may drop even more as the next generation of NUCs come out. It's advantage is that it has a decent 6-core CPU and mid-tier graphics and fits in your hand, but compared to mini-ITX desktops, it's decidedly "mid-tier". You can expand them with TB3 eGPUs at a fair price premium, but that gets pricey very quickly and you'll never get more than 80% of the performance from any GPU you use. You also have to put up with the external power brick.
So what if you go for a more traditional mini-ITX build? You can get a whole range of cases to hold them in, some including RGB if you're into that (not for me), and some are about the size of your average game console. They are also capable of using full power CPUs and GPUs making some mini monster builds, however you also come across two major constraints. They can be a pain to build in, and thermals will always be an issue. Here's just a handful I've seen and my thoughts on them.
Velkase Velka 3 - recently featured in an LTT video. This thing can be picked up with one hand and it's impressive how it's been designed to either allow bigger coolers for CPU-centric builds or fit a graphics card in the back. It may be very basic in the looks department, and the LTT video demonstrates how difficult it is to build in it... but I don't see how you can get a desktop system any smaller than this 4L case without giving up the graphics card. Of course this also limits which you can put inside as there's simply no space for longer GPUs or bigger CPU coolers needed for monster components.
InWin Chopin - an example of a case that has managed to get even smaller at 3.3L... by sacrificing any chance of a graphics card. This would be a good choice if you're on a budget as an AMD APU would be a good fit for it, although the 150W PSU might hold it back from more powerful CPUs.
Phantek Enthoo Evolv Shift Air - ignoring the string of random words in the name, it looks good, has decent cooling, and has a really small footprint (27x17cm), although it is much taller than others at 47cm (making it around 21L). It's a mini-tower which gives it better options for cooling - up to 3x 120/140mm fans, or 2x 120x27mm AIO liquid coolers, and some expansion options (for longer graphics up to 35cm or 2-3 2.5" drives). It would also be able to handle more powerful CPUs like the Ryzen 9 3900X or 3950X when it comes out.
The last question would be whether to go with AMD for their high core count, or Intel for their higher clock speed. For general use and gaming, AMD 3900X is crushing it, but becoming a victim of their own success as supply constraints are inflating the prices. On the other hand, there are still many who swear by the Intel i9-9900K as the king for video editing. Then again, if I go for max performance, the mini-ITX form factor will hold it back as it runs into thermal constraints.
There's always the other option from my last blog entry - replace my existing system with a dual-system case such as the Phantek P600S. That way I keep my i7-4790K and 980 Ti as the full-size ATX build, and get a high performance ITX system squeezed in the top as a dedicated video editing system. But at around 63L, it's of course much bigger than the other cases above - and it would have to be to fit two whole systems inside.
For now, I'm not in a rush to upgrade my current system and mainly wish for the new system to be dedicated to video editing, so the smaller the better. I'll keep an eye on the market however, especially as Black Friday is just around the corner and may be the perfect time to snap up deals.
Edit: added links.alexander1970 likes this.
My Dream System SetupJul 13, 2019
So, this morning I woke to find a random new thread pop up asking what people's dream system builds would be if money were no object.
Funnily enough, I've been having a bunch of conversations with my colleagues about this over the last couple months, so now I'll get a change to just lay it out. Most of this will be a copy-pasta from the thread, but at the end I'll add my thoughts about it.
If money were no issue, my dream PC setup? I've got a few ways to go about it.
Tiny/Static Build (£4820):
Intel NUC8i7HVK - £1000
Samsung 970 Pro 2TB - £990 x2
Samsung DDR4 2666Mhz 64GB (32x2) - £340
Windows 10 Pro - £220
Razer Core X Chroma - £380
nVidia GTX 2080 Ti - £900
Mac Mini Variant (£4039):
Mac Mini (i7/64GB/2TB/10Gb configuration) - £2959
Razer Core X Chroma - £380
AMD Radeon 7 - £700
(If R7 is discontinued, and until 5700XT or above is supported) AMD RX Vega 64 - £325
Portable Variant (£3925):
Lenovo X1 Carbon (7th gen, fully specced): £2645
Razer Core X Chroma - £380
nVidia GTX 2080 Ti - £900
Tower Build (£10,987):
Case: Phanteks Eclipse P600s - £135
Expansion: ITX Expansion+Riser - £25
CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X - £800
Cooler: Corsair H150i Pro - £145
Motherboard: Gigabyte - X570 AORUS MASTER - £390
RAM: Corsair Dominator Platinum RGB 3600Mhz DDR4 64GB (16x4) - £655
PSU: Phanteks Revolt X 1200W - £235
OS Drive: Corsair Force NP600 NVMe Gen4 2TB SSD - £425
Other Drives: Samsung 970 Pro 2TB - £990 x3
Graphics: GTX 2080 Ti - £900+
Windows 10 Pro - £220
Second ITX System - this a dual-system case
CPU2: Intel Core i9-9900K - £460
Cooler2: Corsair H60 (2018) - £65
Motherboard2: ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming-ITX/ac - £177
RAM2: Corsair Vengeance RGB 3200Mhz 32GB (16x2) - £305
OS Drive2: Samsung 970 Pro 2TB - £990 x2
Graphics2 (via Riser): GTX 2080 Ti - £900
Windows 10 Pro - £220
I would use custom cooling to better fit with the requirements of the CPU/Mobo, but that's much harder to price up. This is just for an illustration.
In all of the above, I've not added monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, networking or NAS because that really depends on the workspace you've got. Also I only added Windows 10 in because if money is no object, you have no excuse to pirate Windows.
Note: from here, are my more expanded thoughts and rationale for the above.
I've liked the idea of Intel NUCs since I first saw them, and they've come quite a long way over the last few years.
You get a modestly powerful processor (equivalent to laptop CPUs, either for the mainstream U-series or more powerful gaming G-series CPUs) with 2 SoDIMM slots for up to 64GB of RAM, and 2 M.2 slots that support NVMe in RAID (either for performance or redundancy).
With the Bean Canyon NUC, it comes in a tiny package slightly bigger than an Android TV box.
With the Hades Canyon NUC, it comes with VEGA graphics making it a decent gaming PC in its own right in a more stretched out but still very compact package.
As an alternative, you can also go for a Mac Mini (just make sure you buy your own RAM) which is only a little bit bigger than the above but will function the same way.
Or if you need more mobility, you can go with a Thunderbolt equipped laptop so that you can use it anywhere and just plug it in at home for more performance. I went with the Lenovo X1 Carbon because it's my ideal laptop - slim, light, good battery, good keyboard, and the carbon fibre materials just feel so nice to touch compared to every other laptop I've ever used.
What makes them interesting for a Dream System setup, is their Thunderbolt 3 ports allowing you to plug them into an external GPU enclosure such as the Razer Core X Chroma, allowing you to tap into roughly 80% of the GPU inside. Since money is no object, the nVidia GTX 2080 Ti is the obvious choice for Windows, although for Mac compatibility you'd have to make a slight concession in getting either Vega 64, Radeon VII (which has just been discontinued), or taking a risk with the new PCIe 4.0 compatible 5700 XT and hoping Apple add driver support soon.
This means that your home gaming setup can have monitors, ethernet, keyboard, mouse and anything else all connected to the eGPU, and then all you need is a single cable to connect your chosen computer (NUC, Mac or Laptop) to access everything. It also means you'd have the freedom to take it with you wherever you go (e.g. friends, work, etc).
Of course, the single-cable solution only actually works with laptops that charge via Power Delivery. If you use a NUC or Mac Mini, you'd also need to plug in their power cables (+ bricks) so it's not a perfect solution. But I really like the idea of minimising the amount of space used. It feels like freedom.
The other way you can go is to maximise the power you can squeeze into your tower. A few months back I saw a review of the Phanteks Eclipse P600s case with its optional ITX expansion. As a case, it looked fairly nice and ticked all the usual boxes, but didn't stand out in any particular way other than having a reasonably low price. But then I saw the optional ITX expansion and how you could fit in a tiny second system at the top of the case, out of the way of your main system, and that sparked all kinds of ideas and inspiration.
And I'm not the only one - I saw a bunch of threads of people who would love to have a dual-system case, all asking the same question - how well does it work, and is it worth it?
Well, long story short, for most people it's definitely not worth it. Most people only need one system, and would be better served by spending the money on better parts for their single system than trying to splurge out on a second system. After all, how many people do multiple things at the same time? When you're gaming, you're focused on the game. Even if you need a walkthrough on a second screen, you've got a choice of two monitors for one system, having a laptop on the side (like my Surface Pro 6), or even having a tablet on the side (like my iPad Air). If you're watching a video and feel the need to mindless browse the internet on the side, the above options are all the same but you can even through in your phone this time.
There are basically only 3 cases where it's worth having a second system.
Content creators can use a second system to keep their work and play separate. Capturing, transcoding, editing, streaming, etc, are all best left to a second system where it can safely hog all the resources whilst your gaming system is on your main system to allow you to play at your best without unnecessary lag or performance drops caused by background processes. Or visa versa, depending on your priorities, you could have your rendering station as the main system whilst your little gaming machine is on the side to allow you to play games until the rendering is done.
Another case is when you have virtualisation stations hosting servers, either for home or work or even to host servers for the games you're playing. It's usually a much better idea to keep such workstation tasks on a separate system than the one you're playing on, much like with the above creative uses, except in this case servers and other virtualisation uses are normally kept on 24/7. You can set up a high-efficiency system on an ITX motherboard so that even when you turn off your main system, the other can be left to work without making too much noise. A bit like a NAS, except it's built into your system, and can do so much more.
The final case I can think of is the most pointless of all cases but some people will probably do it anyway. Having a dual-gaming system, so that you and a sibling or friend can play games at the same time. Imagine you and a brother playing Monster Hunter World, hunting together and only needing one desktop tower between you. Or if you're into MMOs like World of Warcraft, and they're into other games like Fifa or Sonic Racing, you don't have to fight over who gets to play since you can both play different games at the same time and can both wear headphones so you don't disturb each other. The only problem with this scenario is that the ITX system will use a riser for its graphics card, and will not be able to get the full performance out of it. Sure, you could use the Thunderbolt 3 port that comes with the ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming-ITX/ac I selected and use an eGPU to make up for it, but then it's no longer just having a single tower and becomes having a tower plus a half-size tower next to it.
Still, having a dual-system case does offer a degree of freedom of choice and upgradability, depending on your needs. You could also opt to just stick with one system at first, and upgrade with the second system later on, going through leap-frog upgrades rather than massive overhauls every few years. The biggest downside is having to buy a special Phanteks dual-system PSU that costs twice as much as more sensible PSUs from Corsair, but if this is a dream build and money is no object, then that's a non-issue. Then there's custom liquid cooling - it would work great in a case like this, but at the same time it can make future upgrades more difficult. If you use flexible tubing for the ITX system, at least you won't have to open the loop and drain the liquid to replace the CPU (and/or motherboard), but trying to work out how to effectively cool 2 CPUs, the X570 motherboard, and 1 or 2 graphics cards positioned at the bottom of the case, gets a little tricky. Or creative, depending on how you look at it.
You also have the option to add 3x2.5" drives and 4x3.5" drives in the case on top of all 6 M.2 drives I filled the system with, however that means a lot more cables, weight and space added to the build, and I was aiming for a dream system that keeps things as clean and simple as possible. M.2 drives are mostly hidden (although 2 in my build would be attached to a daughter board) and a total of 12TB should be enough for nearly anybody. Each 2.5" drive slot can fit a 4TB Samsung 860 SSD or 5TB Seagate HDD, and each 3.5" drive slot can fit up to a 14TB Seagate HDD, making a theoretical maximum of 83TB without needing extra expansion cards.
Or just do both:
You can always take things one step further - get a dual-system case, AND a eGPU, so that you have one full-tower gaming setup, using the secondary system as your always-on NAS/content server/gaming server/capture and streaming server/virtualisation or editing and rendering station, allowing it to sometimes be used as a secondary gaming rig where you can plug in an eGPU to bolster the gaming performance, or take that Thunderbolt cable from the eGPU and plug it into your Lenovo/Apple laptop to work/game from there or take your laptop with you elsewhere.
Or go balls-to-the-walls crazy, having your dual system, plus a NUC, plus a Mac Mini, plus your laptop, with at least two eGPUs (one for AMD and one for nVidia) to go between them, giving a performance boost to the ones that need it at the time.
The quest to record TVApr 19, 2017
I feel like writing a blog entry of my last couple days of adventure into the world of TV tuners, PVR boxes, and NAS solutions. So here goes.
What I want to do is record TV so we can play it back whenever we need to. A problem with a simple solution, right? Just get a DVR/PVR box, plug the aerial in, and use the EPG (electronic program guide) to select which channels/TV shows you want to record. There are hundreds of PVR solutions out there and we picked up a Panasonic DMR-BWT735 a few years ago that works fairly well in that respect. Except a year after we got it, it ran out of space. So I went and bought a 2TB Seagate Backup Plus (it was a Black Friday deal or I would never have gone for Seagate) to add to the PVR and triple it's recording capacity. That went well for another year until we found out that the PVR has a limitation of 999 files, which meant we had to go back and delete files... not because we ran out of space, but because of software/firmware limitations of the PVR.
Fast forward to today and I've now got an extra TV in my bedroom but no aerial connection to watch TV on to it. It can stream multimedia like Netflix and Crunchyroll or stream videos from my desktop (which I might as well just plug directly into the TV using HDMI but I digress), but it cannot watch live TV. I've also got a Synology DS210j NAS with 2TB of drives inside which has been collecting dust for the last 7 years or so because back then I hated the iSCSI method of creating network shares that was as buggy as hell. Over a coffee, my dad and I talked about the current state of affairs of all the technology in the house that's not quite fit for purpose (the PVR, the TV, the NAS) and he asked me to suggest ways to improve things. Ten minutes of googling to update myself on current solutions (they really haven't changed much over the last 10 years) and I proposed the following options:
Cheap fix for the PVR situation - get another 1.5TB drive and stick it in another USB port.
Less ideal but still cheap alternative - get a USB DVB-T/T2 dongle to stick into his laptop so he can watch and record TV directly, rather than through the PVR or TV. Or find one that is compatible with my NAS (except, the listed compatible ones are discontinued).
Dark horse option (more expensive but seems to fix everything) - get a HDHomeRun Connect from Silicon Dust. It takes an aerial signal and streams it across the network to any PC, phone, tablet, or NAS, and also supports recording to the NAS (although it seems to require a $60 annual subscription to use their own software for it). This also means I'll be able to stream live TV to my bedroom TV.
Best solution but most expensive by far - build my own HTPC with a PCIe TV tuner card.
While dad thinks over the options I pulled my NAS out of retirement and went about updating it from DSM 2.3 to the latest supported version, 5.3.2 (not an easy process because it wanted me to go in steps first). That took me a couple hours in all but, once finished, I must say the new UI is much easier to work with. I created users and shares on it and tested it out with a random movie and TimeMachine for a full backup of my Macbook and everything worked flawlessly (even though the backup was very slow, probably because I encrypted it). I now have a very practical use for the NAS and it shall remain in permanent operation from now on (even if I don't bother enabling the Mail or Cloud servers).
I also went exploring the various options available with what I do have. The PVR is capable of streaming to other devices (via DIGA Player on phone/tablet or normal DLNA for computers) but my TV does not support the file format it chooses to stream in (my phone says it's mp4 but third party players cannot play it, only DIGA Player by Panasonic). PC can play it (I only tried with WMP) but it cannot use the EPG properly; it only shows the TV show names and not the channel names (also in random order) so whilst I can watch and record, it's not easy. Also I cannot find any way to get the NAS to connect to the PVR to access the tuners.
So that brings me back to the earlier options. I don't want to get another USB drive because that feels silly. And as much as I'd like to build my own HTPC, I can't justify the cost. I could go for the HDHomeRun Connect for £100 and hope to find ways around the $60 annual subscription for their app (I saw a review saying the iOS/tvOS app works well), or I could go for a USB DVB-T2 dongle for half the price and hope that my NAS works with it.
Or maybe there's a newer PVR solution that does all of this in one unit? <Quick google search later> Well, there are newer and better models, but when they go for around £300-400, I might as well build a HTPC for that price.
n3DS Feature discovered :oFeb 2, 2016
So I just learned today that the n3ds allows you to connect to PC wirelessly to put files onto the microSD card. The transfer speeds are understandably slow (2-3mbps) but it was able to copy a game over in 7 minutes.
This means... I never have to unscrew the freakin' screws off the backplate anymore!
Quest of a Monster Hunter fan...Jan 17, 2016
Blogs are like a place to just place your thoughts in the open whether or not someone cares to read it. I haven't done much in 2015 aside from fixing a whole bunch of systems, but since the 3DS scene has exploded and I managed to get most of it working, I thought I might as well just post about my recent experiences in my Quest to play Monster Hunter X.
Background: I've had an o3DS and n3DSxl at 10.3.0.28E. My brother doesn't want me messing with his o3DS so I just went ahead and downgraded my own n3DS.
Downgrading: Used Browserhax to install Ironhax and Menuhax on 10.3, then tried to use safesysupdater v0.8 via Menuhax to downgrade to 9.2. Got two black screen freezes before I just used Browserhax. Did the press-B-out-of-FTPBrony trick for the superstition that it increases boot rates, ran safesysupdater, hit Y, and it worked first time. Checked it with downgrade-check v1.0, checked the Browser version, everything looking fine.
emuNAND: Next I grabbed PastaCFW, FBI and emunand9 to backup my NAND (and copy all files from mSD to PC), formatted my mSD to create that hidden partition for emuNAND, copied my stuff back over, and emuNAND was ready. I also grabbed rxTools and ctfbootmanager to get it to auto-run Menuhax and proceeded to unlink my sysNAND using the system format tool.
NNID: I still haven't reloaded my NNID on emuNAND, but since I don't seem to need it yet, that's a step I'll take when I get round to it.
CIAs: With emuNAND set up and working, I used sysupdater 0.42.cia to update to 9.5 (since safesysupdater didn't work) and used config.cia (to edit the eula settings), then installed the pre-patched MHX.cia with v9 of the translation patch and ran it, talked to all the NPCs, set up my palicoes, chose my starter weapon (Longsword), and slept in the bed to save the game. Exit, use FBI to install the v1.1 update should I ever want to play online, and called it a day.
Omitted are the many hours I spent going through hundreds of threads on gbatemp and reddit looking for info, guides, tutorials, threads with questions relating to the problems I faced, and the failed files I tried to work with (like CakeFW, which seems to not run with Menuhax).
So the next steps, aside from playing MHX until it may-or-may-not be released in the west, are waiting for the scene to settle down before updating further to 10.3 (or 10.4 if it hits before then), getting NNID linked again to prevent any eShop issues, checking out what other homebrew are being developed, and maybe giving my brother's o3DS the emuNAND treatment too. Conspicuously missing is any mention of emulating, since I don't need to emulate when I've got the original consoles perfectly functional for when I feel like a nostalgia trip.
Edit: And now, thanks to a random interest in pokemon ORAS (AS for me, OR for my brother), both of our 3DSs are updated to 10.5 emuNAND (rei/cakes), all because pokemon wouldn't let us get the Mew event code without being updated to v1.4. But I hope I never have to downgrade an o3DS again... crashed sooooooo many times compared to the n3DS...
Choosing an Upgrade - Chassis EditionAug 15, 2014
Last time I looked at the motherboards on my shortlist, mostly as a way of sorting out my opinions to decide what I want in my future upgrade path (there will always be a need for more drives), and partially to let others see what kind of thought can go into a system build and how system builders work. This time, I'm moving onto cases, or chassis... depending on what a given website chooses to call them.
When I build systems for other people, they often tell me that they don't care what case it is so long as it looks cool. Well that makes my job a lot easier because most people agree that NZXT Phantoms look pretty damn awesome. Some tell me they want to overclock to the moon and get two or more GTX Titan Blacks in SLI, and that's when it becomes a little more difficult because I then need to make sure what size case they mind and making sure that it's either modular (to make room for graphics) or designed well enough to leave that space free. Plus it needs good ventilation, but that's just about every case these days. The last request I sometimes get is that it has to be quiet - or at least as quiet as possible. Well, there's an easy solution for that too, although nobody should expect maximum gaming and absolute silence. Performance = heat = noisy coolers.
My own case... is somewhat easier. I got a monster case (at the time) in the Antec 1200 because at the time, I was testing out multi-GPU setups and nothing else came close when it came to cooling (3x120mm font fans, 1x120mm side, 2x120mm rear and 1x300mm roof fan). These days the epitome of cooling (without going into custom kits) is the Corsair H110 with it's 280mm radiator (2x140mm fans) which generally must be placed on the roof, and most cases aren't designed to support that. For myself, I only have a H60 with one 120mm radiator/fan, making my options slightly easier, but whilst that's one important consideration for me, the main consideration is the same as with the motherboard - expansion.
My Antec 1200 has 9 HDD slots and 3 front expansion bays. That is populated with 4 HDDs and one SSD in the 3.5" slots, DVD drive, front panel card reader, and front panel USB3 ports (doubles as drive bay for 2.5" SSD) for the expansion bays. Still has plenty of space, but what's making me change is the fact that it was not designed for liquid cooling, and my current H60 cooler is fitted in a position that blocks the top PCIe port. Time for an upgrade, but need to pick one that can fit everything I need without being too big to fit under my desk (680mm or 27").
The first obvious contender would be the Antec 1900, a monster of a case. But before I even get into the details, it's too tall (696mm). It fits 12 HDDs and 3 front expansion bays and looks amazing.
The second obvious contender falls into the same trap: Corsair Obsidian 900D. Standing at 692mm, it can store up to 12 HDDs (only 3x3 HDD modules provided) and has 5 front expansion bays. The kind of thing dreams are made of.
So on to a more serious contender, the Silverstone Fortress FT02B that I used in my friend's system build.
It's not so epic as the others, but it's special feature is having the motherboard rotated 90 degrees so the cables all come out of the top instead of the back. That means USB ports is no longer a problem because you get umpteen of them on top. The main reason for this design is to make cooling easier, as it simply sucks in air from the bottom via 3 180mm fans, and pushes it out the top through the PSU, graphics, CPU and chassis roof fans. Since air is only going in one direction, it's supposed to be more aerodynamically sound.
The second feature is the clever design of the hot-swappable drive cage, where each drive (mounted on its side, vertically) can be ejected individually on its own tray. Forgetting about that feature for a moment, in simple terms it means it can store 5 HDDs there, with one hidden compartment for a SSD in the back. It also has five front expansion bays, which is more than enough for me (remembering that I can always turn one into another HDD bay using a 3.5" adaptor).
Whilst I love this design, and the smoothed aesthetics are really appealing, the main factor that turns me away from it is the price, ranging from £175 to £210. At this price, there are other, more appealing options.
Next is the big sister to the Fortress, the Silverstone Raven RV03.
The first thing to say about this beauty is the aesthetic style. Whilst it doesn't have the smooth contours of the Fortress, it has a more angular style and the gold highlights would match perfectly to the Asus Z97 Deluxe. She also shares the 90 degree rotation design of the Fortress with two 180mm fans sucking air from the bottom and pushing it up to the 120mm exhaust fan in the roof. It can also fit two front 120mm fans, another 2 120mm fans at the back of the expansion bays (can't be used if occupied), one more 120mm fan on the side and again on the rear.
It has 7 front expansion bays and 4 isolated HDD bays on the back and 2 SSD bays. Being on the back and isolated means they don't pick up heat from each other and can cool themselves more efficiently, plus it also saves space making the overall case smaller. There is also the option of either using 3.5" adaptors for each expansion bay to fit a drive in there, or using a Silverstone adaptor to turn 3 5.25" bays into 4 3.5" drive mounts. Whilst the latter appeals, considering my needs the first would be more than adequate (and somewhat cheaper). Plus I could turn them all into hotswap trays.
The one other "feature" of this case is the space saving position for the power supply. I use quotation marks because whilst it does save space, it also limits options as the maximum depth for the PSU supported by this case is 180mm, and my Enermax Galaxy DxX 1kW is 220mm deep. If I go for this case, I have no choice but to buy a new power supply to go with it. Not a bad thing really considering that with all these updates, I'll practically have a new computer anyway and can use my old PSU in my Antec case still and put it as a secondary PC somewhere... but it's an expense that can still be avoided by picking a case with more space. Also, the Raven can be picked up from £85-100, which is much more affordable than the Fortress.
On the quieter side of things, is the Fractal Design XL R2.
This is a case I quite like the looks of. Normally I frown on cases that have a front door, as I have a habit of wanting to plug things in there - see my front panel USB and memory card ports. On the other hand, a front door is a generally good idea for when said ports are not in use. It also has a closed, noise dampening design and whilst I love my Antec 1200 to bits, I have to admit that it's a noisy beast. Fractal are also on the cheaper side of things at £75-100.
It has up to 8 HDD slots and 4 front expansion bays which is perfect for me. It also has a number of options for fitting fans in various places for cooling, both for intake and for exhaust. The drives are in two cages which are modular, fitted either facing sidewards or forwards (better for cooling) and can even be positioned over the slot for the bottom 120mm fan to allow space for a big radiator on the front inlet fans. In theory this might mean buying spare cages to fit up to 16 drives is possible, however this also means that PSU length will be limited to 190mm so it's not all that feesible. On the other hand it is a quiet case and fairly affordable, with plenty of space for drives and expansion. Definitely worthy of a spot on this list.
Then there's the more unusual design of the Thermaltake Urban T81.
This case is claimed to be inspired by "suicide doors" in cars, where the hinge is on the back of the door instead of the front. It has two doors, one for the main compartment of the case and one for access to the drive stack. It also has a modular design for flexibility, with up to 8 HDDs and two 5.25" expansion bays. They're all removable if you need the extra room, e.g. when putting custom liquid cooling kits, reservoirs, radiators and the like. It also has many options for mountain radiators for CLCs or even just a whole lot of fans. It's a monster in how customisable your cooling is.
The downside to this one is that it only has two expansion bays, which I could live with actually, but I don't like such limitations. I'm not the target audience for this case, but it still is a design amazing enough to be worthy of mention. It can be picked up for £125-155.
Moving back to Silverstone (I know, right?), there's the Temjin TJ07.
I keep going back to Silverstone, but there's good reason for this. They make good cases. This time the Temjin is special for its ability to slide its motherboard tray, making it much easier to install/access. It also has good options for CLCs with its top 2x120mm Fans (Corsair H100i anybody?), unlike the other Silverstone cases. Also, unlike the other Silverstone cases, it doesn't feature the rotated motherboard design. Instead it's just got the classic, rear out the rear design, although it does support EATX and SSI motherboards with an extended CPU tray cutout for mountain backplates onto Xeon CPUs. Should I ever ditch the personal PC design and just turn it into a freakin' server.
This one has two HDD cages with their own fans, each with 3 slots. It also has 7 5.25" expansion bays to put anything extra needed in there. Also, being all aluminium is supposed to be good for cooling. Finally, the one feature that I'm least likely to use - it has two PSU slots. Yes, two. For a redudant ATX/PS2 PSU. How crazy is that?!
I won't dwell on this one because no matter how much I like it, it runs for £200-215 and seems to be getting harder to source. I know it's run its course with several other designs being more popular, but still...
Finally, we have another Corsair. The Corsair Graphite 760T.
It's got a full body window design for showing off your custom kit and all your blinking lights, plenty of cooling options for both CLCs and custom liquid cooling kits, is designed in such a way that you can never have an issue with graphics card length, and looks pretty damn cool. That said, the more cooling you squeeze into the case, the louder it's going to get... but considering that my Antec 1200 is as loud as a case will ever get, which isn't too bad since it's under my desk, it's not so much of an issue.
It's a little limited in that it only has six HDD slots, with both cage of 3 drives being modular/removable to suit your cooling needs. They can also be reconfigured to have them either sitting beside each other or stacked on top of each other (if you have a longer PSU like me). You can even go ahead and buy more modules to stack up to 12 HDDs, should you so feel inclined. The other limitation is that there are only 3 5.25" expansion bays, but that's not so bad when you can have up to 12 HDDs squeezed inside. On the other hand, it also has cleverly hidden 4 slots for 2.5" drives (meaning SSDs) in the back, so I no longer even need to waste a 3.5" slot with a 2.5" SSD, when I can give them their own private location in the back, away from the hustle and bustle of the HDD trays.
Making a good buy an even better buy, the price is right too, at £140-155. More than some of the others in my list, but with this level of finish and quality, it's worth it. The one down side is that I won't be able to maximise it with 12 drives with my current PSU - once again it's too long for that (only 1cm to clear for the cables, which just ain't happ'nin'). And I would've liked more than 3 expansion bays, since I do intend to buy a front panel hotswap tray for 3.5" drives, which means I have to choose what to get rid of - front panel USB (plus SSD slot, which isn't necessary for this case) or front panel card reader. Or just toss out my DVD drive altogether (which I don't actually want to do, because there are still those rare occasions where it's good to have). Another thing is that the Graphite is just about as plastic-y as the NZXT Phantom. Every other case has strong metal everywhere, whilst this has lots of plastic frames and acrylic doors. That's the price of style, but it's something to make a note of.
My favourite so far is the Corsair Graphite 760T. Sure the Raven also looks amazing and the expansion options are extensive, but I have no other way than to buy a new PSU to get it. Sure the Fractal Design is quieter and has the perfect number of expansion options, but it has a door that may get in the way and cooling won't be as great as other cases. Sure the Thermaltake Urban T81 is customisable to many different designs, but only two front expansion ports? No thanks. I wish I could put more consideration into the Obsidian 900D or Antec 1900, but height is an issue and there's no way around that.
Of course, this isn't a decision just yet. It's just a spot to voice my considerations and bring the main information into one area to help me decide. When my real decision is made, that will be the day I buy it. Then a week or two later, pictures of my upgrade will pop up here for you to enjoy.
Also, in a future edit I'll add pictures and links to each of these. It's late now so I'll leave it at that. Done now.
Choosing an Upgrade - Motherboard EditionAug 12, 2014
So I've been doing a lot of research into Z97 motherboards in the last couple weeks and feel like posting some of my findings here as a way of sorting out my own thoughts and considerations into this.
I've said in my last post that my motive for upgrading is a shortage of free SATA ports in my system, and how it's impossible for me to use PCIe expansion cards because my top PCIe x16 port is blocked by my Corsair H60 (fitted to the lower rear fan of my Antec 1200), and the GTX 770 on the second PCIe x16 port blocks the PCIe x1 port. Maximus IV Gene Gen3 only has 6 SATA ports, and being mATX means not so many expansion ports. Great for the time, but an enthusiast constantly keeps adding to their PC and eventually I ran out of options. So I need to upgrade.
The first requirement for my choice of motherboards is that it must be ATX, not mATX. Any future expansion may require some of those PCIe ports, e.g. for tuners, discreet audio, high end WiFi AC, RAID cards, etc. Currently I only use a single graphics card, so that at least helps in keeping options open. Also, ideally, the top PCIe port should not be the primary graphics port.
The second requirement is that I want more SATA ports off the bat. If I can get 8 or 10 ports, then I can actually fill up my case (should I need to in future). My current case can fit 9 3.5" drives, with 3 5.25" bays (one of which has a FP USB3 adaptor and can store 2 2.5" SSDs, and another I plan on using as a removable 3.5" tray). I currently have 4 3.5" HDDs, 2 2.5" SSDs and one 5.25" DVD drive in place. Those who pay attention may notice that 7 drives and only 6 ports means my DVD drive is currently unplugged and I'm relying on a USB BluRay drive for any disc media. We may be beyond the age of disc media, but sometimes there's no other way and USB isn't perfect either.
The third requirement is a little more difficult to pin down, which is future-proofing. I don't want to upgrade until the next upgrade offers something worth paying for, and all Z170 offers (based on leaked info for Skylake, which is aiming at Q2 2015) is 20 PCIe 3.x lanes and support for some random other things (PCIe 4.0 for servers, Thunderbolt 3) and a couple bits that intrigue me: support for up to 3 SATAexpress x2 ports and up to 3 M.2 x2/x4 ports. Many enthusiasts are crying for minimum 24 lanes to play with, but the fact that it can support all these next generation SSDs on the chipset (before factoring in third part controllers like ASMedia) means that it might just pick up speed next year.
That said, currently the only SATAe device I've seen is the prototype Asus Hyper Express, which is actually just a pair of mSATA SSDs in RAID 0 with a pretty enclosure to make it look like a SSD. M.2 on the other hand has been around a short while, with the Crucial M500 and M550 both having M.2 variants (but only at standard SATA3 speeds) mostly for use in laptops. The only two M.2 cards worth mentioning right now (i.e. commercially available) are the Plextor M6e and Samsung XP941. The first has wider support (can be run in legacy mode, although this will soon be more common with a BIOS update) whilst the other is the only one that takes advantage of Ultra M.2 (PCIe 3.0 x4 speed). Both get much faster speeds than SSDs, but since it's early days, bugs need BIOS fixes and more M.2 drives need to come out to show what the medium is truly capable of.
Moving on, here's my shortlist of motherboards that I'm choosing between.
Asus Z97 Deluxe (not the NFC/WLC combo, because value).
Gigabyte GA-Z97X Gaming G1 (not the WIFI-BK model, because value).
MSI Z97 XPOWER AC (most expensive on the list thanks to a PLX chip, also the biggest using XL ATX).
ASRock Z97 Extreme 9 (normally I avoid ASRock like the plague, but they've gotten better recently and this one has certain special features making it worth considering. Plus it's the cheapest on the list).
It might also be tempting to add the ASRock Z87 Extreme 11ac, since it has more SATA ports than anybody will ever need (22 SATA3), but let's not be silly. Plus it costs twice as much as any other board.
Additionally, I've also thought about the Asus Z97 WS, which has the PLX chip for quad-SLI support and shares many features, but it costs more and lacks WiFi (that that I'd be using it) and seems lower value for my needs.
What's special about all of the above Z97 motherboards is that they all have 10 SATA ports. Other good Z97 motherboards (at lower price points) like the Asus ROG Maximus VII Hero has 8 ports, but has some weird design choices like how using an M.2 card disables two of the PCIe x1 ports (which leaves me with just the top PCIe x1 port or the bottom X16 port running in x2 mode). I want more flexibility, so I went with higher end motherboards that have made different choices in how to juggle shared resources.
To prevent this post spreading too long, I'll drop my coverage on each motherboard in spoiler tags.
Asus Z97 Deluxe (£190)
Asus has been my favourite for a while now. Previously I went with MSI because of how well they handled overclocking, and before that Gigabyte because they used to be well priced and I was sick to death of dead ASRock boards. Then I started hearing reports of MSI motherboards failing and so I switched.
This particular motherboard comes with WiFi AC (2x2) and Bluetooth 4.0, 6 SATA ports, 2 SATAexpress ports (which doubles as 4 more SATA ports), a full length (80mm) M.2. port, the best integrated sound in any motherboard, and more ports than I care to look at. It has 2 PCIe 3.0 x16 ports (x16/x0 or x8/x8 mode), one PCIe 2.0 x16 port (running x4 mode), and four PCIe 2.0 x1 ports. The top port is a PCIe x1 port which my case would block access to, so I can use my graphics in the top PCIe x16 port with no problems.
The M.2 port shares resources with one SATAe port, whilst the other shares resources with two USB3 ports and the third PCIe x16 port. On one hand, it's cool that you can actually use M.2 and SATAe at the same time on this board (leaving 6 SATA3 ports left to use), but on the other hand it sucks that using the second SATAe port takes lanes away from the already limited PCIe x16 port, or using that PCIe port means you lose access to two potential SATA ports. That said, with such good integrated audio and integrated WiFi, and with two Intel NICs that support Teaming, that only leaves RAID cards and Capture/Tuner cards that might need to use the expansion ports, and there are still plenty of SATA ports available in the rest of the system. Oh, and that 2 port SATA3 card I've been waiting to use will make up for some of those inconveniences.
I could also talk about performance, but one Z97 board performs the same as the next. This one doesn't use a PLX chip so there's no added latency to devices, nor any real need to disable the abundance of controllers (doing so speeds up POST times). It's a good all-rounder, and Asus UEFIs are solid.
Gigabyte in my eyes means the middle ground of motherboards. They tend to be cheaper, tend to be well thought out, and tend to be relatively stable. They don't quite boast as many features as Asus, but not having to pay the premium generally means better value for those who don't actually use said features. That doesn't mean they don't always try, as the Gaming G1 is aimed at enthusiasts looking for monster gaming rigs.
Whilst you'd need to shell out an extra £80 to get the WiFi Black edition with a bundled WiFi AC/BT4 expansion card and the promise that the board has survived an extensive stress test before being shipped from the factory, it does come with 8 SATA3 ports, one SATAe port (doubles as 2 SATA3 ports), four PCIe 3.0 x16 ports (running dual x16 mode, x16/x8/x0/x8, or quad x8 mode), 3 PCIe 2.0 x1 ports, Killer E2200 and Intel gaming NICs, and an integrated audio controller featuring "upgradable OP-AMP". Ignoring the silly names, being able to run quad SLI is certainly a feature for extreme gamers pushing those 4k UHD graphics. On the other hand, the top PCIe port is the primary graphics port so I'd have to upgrade my case to use dual-graphics at full speed, or just stick to one graphics card (I can live with that for now).
Another benefit with this board is that there is no resource sharing, as there are enough lanes to handle all the features listed above at the same time. Now, the eagle eyed of you may notice that M.2 hasn't been mentioned, and that's because this board doesn't support M.2. That explains how they got around having to juggle a limited number of lanes. For now, that's not a big loss as there are only 2 M.2 cards with getting, but for future-proofing...
So in short, this motherboard leans towards gamers more than the other boards lacking two features that gamers probably wouldn't miss - WiFi and M.2.
MSI for me means overclocking. Well, Asus ROG also means overclocking, but whilst Asus does it with flare, MSI does it with military grade 4 efficiency. Or so the marketing seems to imply. Undoubtedly they're good at overclocking, but overclocking is one of those things that most motherboards seems to be able to do equally well these days. Nearly every board can reach the 4.8Ghz that review sites see as a standard, and struggle to reach 4.9Ghz.
The XPOWER AC has 10 SATA3 ports, an M.2 port, five PCIe 3.0 x16 ports (one dedicated to the CPU to avoid latency, and the other four using the PLX chip to split the 32 lanes between the 2-4 graphics cards you plug in), two PCIe 2.0 x1 ports and the usual networking extras like the built in WiFi AC/BT4 adaptor and Intel NIC (just one this time). And "Audio Boost". Moving on.
No SATAexpress this time, and the M.2 port will knock out two of the SATA ports. However, with 10 ports, that's still more than enough. Also, this is an XL ATX motherboard, so mid-tower cases just won't cut it. Full tower or go home. Finally, this is the most expensive motherboard on the list. It does a lot, but you're paying a hefty premium for it, and that's not even including getting all those graphics cards (4x GTX Titan Black anyone?) to fill up the slots.
It's pretty much an extreme board for overclockers and extreme gamers. Overwhelming.
The dark horse of my list. When I first started building PCs, I often with with ASRock partially because they were so cheap and partially because I was able to source them below market price (the benefits of haggling). That also meant that I saw more of them die than I care to remember (you get what you pay for). Average lifespan was 1-2 years. These days however they're turning up more and more often in review sites as being affordable, reliable, and ridiculously feature filled. I mean, just look at that ASRock Z87 Extreme 11ac again. 22 SATA3 ports, 2 mSATA ports (shares resources with two SATA ports), and an eSATA connector, all for £360. Too much, unless you really need RAID 50 or 60 with 16 SSDs or something on that SAS controller.
So back to the Z97 Extreme 9. This one has 6 SATA3 ports, 2 SATAe ports (or 4 SATA3), M.2 2.0 x2 port, Ultra M.2 3.0 x4 port, 4 PCIe 3.0 x16 ports (dual in x16 mode, triple at x8/x8/x16/x0 and quad in x8/x8/x8/x8, thanks to a PLX chip), 1 PCIe 2.0 x16 slot (x2 mode, which is SILLY), a mini-PCIe slot, 2 Intel NICs with Teaming, integrated sound and no WiFi.
The lack of WiFi is made up for with the mPCIe slot, so you can plug in your own WiFi AC/BT4 card if you wanted/needed it. I suppose that keeps costs down, as this is the cheapest motherboard in the list. Also, the M.2 x2 slot shares resources with one of the two SATAe ports, whilst the UM.2 x4 port has four dedicated PCIe 3.0 lanes from the CPU giving it the best possible speeds (claiming up to 32Gbs theoretical, or 1.16GBs speeds compared to 0.79GBs actual speeds with a Samsung XP941). That by itself actually tells you what this motherboard is designed for - to get the most out of a Samsung XP941 PCIe x4 M.2 card. The PLX enabled quad-SLI is just an afterthought in this otherwise insanely built motherboard. Also, it claims it can support up to 110mm M.2 devices, which currently don't exist. Yet.
But is this motherboard worth the latency on the PCIe 3.0 x16 devices? Well, I don't know enough to be able to tell what difference that might make. I may update this if I find out. In other news, it's also the second motherboard in this test that can support an M.2 card and SATAe drive at the same time, and even support a third at the same time.
One other point to make, is that I don't know how the Realtek powered "Purity Sound 2" audio compares to others. Surely not as good as Crystal Sound 2 of the Asus, but these are just names until you've got them side by side blasting music at you. That and all these controllers built into the motherboard make the POST times top over 20 seconds, so disabling any unused controllers can easily reduce it down to around 7 seconds, depending on your setup.
So which motherboard to get? The Gigabyte doesn't have M.2, the MSI doesn't have SATAe, the Asus doesn't have PLX for triple/quad-SLI, and the ASrock doesn't have the dedicated graphics port and audio quality isn't as good as its competition. Still pretty good I hear, as only audiophiles with high quality headphones/speakers will notice the difference. On paper, the ASRock comes out top with the lowest price and the most features, but I will always hesitate to jump into another ASRock board without first doing all the research. On the other hand, Asus is also a good bet with a decent price and the features to meet my needs, but is the most handicapped by resource sharing (due to the fact that it doesn't use PLX).
Another factor to take into account is whether I get Core i5 or i7 to go with the motherboard, as I would need to get both at the same time. i5 is enough for gaming, and i7 is better for multi-threaded tasks which I do from time to time. Additionally, if I want to start running Virtual Machines (I've got the software now, just need the time to set it up and maybe reorganize my filing structures across my drives), I will benefit from both HyperThreading as well as getting more memory (and faster memory). Memory is easy to upgrade at a later time, at any time, so it's not worth thinking about right now.
Then there's the issue of M.2 or SATAe. With no major reason to get them yet, I'm only considering them for future-proofing, for when they step it up a few notches. May take a year, may take 2, but it's an option and one I can take, with fairly clearly defined advantages, suffering only from lack of products in the market and high price per GB for the ones in the market (£350 for the Plextor 512GB and £400 for the Samsung, compared to £150 for Crucial MX100 512GB and £160 for Samsung 840 EVO 500GB).
Finally, there's the matter of which case I will ultimately upgrade to. First I'm focussing on my more immediate needs in the motherboard and CPU, but my upgrade path will ultimately pull me out of my current case and get a more modern one with better support for my system expansion. What was once a gaming and testing machine is now becoming something like a mini-server, and the case needs to reflect that. I dropped a few names in my last post, but probably the next post I make will be one of those focussing on which case to get and how it will all fit in the case. And when I do finally open my wallet to these upgrades, I'll probably write another post with plenty of pictures to show how it is done (partially for educational purposes, and partially to display my price as an enthusiast).
Life of a PC EnthusiastJun 29, 2014
So I thought I'd try out this whole blog thing again after so many years (talking to fellow bloggers had no impact on this whimsical decision). What can I talk about? Computers.
Here's my current system build: http://uk.pcpartpicker.com/p/j6VVGX
CPU: Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz Quad-Core Processor
CPU Cooler: Corsair H60 54.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler
Motherboard: Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z/GEN3 Micro ATX LGA1155 Motherboard
RAM: Corsair XMS3 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory
OCZ Vertex 3 120GB 3.5" Solid State Drive
Samsung 840 EVO 250GB 2.5" Solid State Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F1 DT 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive (x2)
Western Digital Caviar Green 3TB 3.5" 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive (x2)
Graphics Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 770 2GB Superclocked ACX Video Card
Case: Antec Twelve Hundred ATX Full Tower Case
Power: Enermax 1000W 80+ Platinum Certified Semi-Modular ATX Power Supply
Optical: LG GH24NSB0 DVD/CD Writer
OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Full (32/64-bit)
Monitors: LG M2280D-PU 22.0" Monitor, Dell U2412M 60Hz 24.0" Monitor
Peripherals: Logitech G15 Wired Standard Keyboard, Microsoft SideWinder X8 Wireless Laser Mouse, Logitech Z523 30W 2.1ch Speakers
Extra: Akasa front panel USB3 (has slots inside for two internal 2.5" drive mounts), OEM front panel memory card reader (+1 USB2 port).
My brother's PC specs:
CPU: Intel Q9550
RAM: Corsair XMS3 8GB 1600Mhz (4x2GB)
Motherboard: Asus Rampage Extreme
Cooler: Arctic Freezer Pro 7
Storage: Samsung Spinpoint F1 500GB (x3 - had them lying around when I built it)
Graphics: ATi Radeon HD4870X2
Power: Tagan 1kW
Case: CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 (he picked this because of looks and the noise suppression)
A few years down the line and I upgraded to Sandy Bridge with an Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z and a Core i5-2500K and a Corsair H60 to cool it. I made a couple similar systems for my friends too - one of whom commited the cardinal sin of spilling tea over the top of his computer, completely frying his Asus Sabertooth and 2500K, but fortunately sparing his GTX 460. Another friend wanted a system built for his college work, so I took the opportunity to upgrade to a GTX 560 Ti at the time and gave him my old HD 4870 (he wasn't much for playing games). Later on I got my first SSD, the OCZ Vertex 3 120GB, and upgraded from Vista to 7. Never again will I build a system without an SSD (unless it's on a tight budget). This patter continued for a while, with friends building new systems, me trading out some of my parts to give to them, sometimes even helping them exchange between each other (some have better salaries than others who might have none). All the while, I could use my parts for testing parts/systems when building for clients who actually paid commission. That and hacking Xbox/360 on the side (IDE drive hotswapping is fun, if dangerous).
And now I'm faced with the first world problem of wanting to upgrade my system again, but not being entirely pleased with the choices at hand. I've added as many drives as my PC can fit (even sacrificing the DVD drive for the second 3TB drive I got). I don't miss the DVD drive since I got a USB BluRay drive (getting BR playback to work on Windows is a pain in the...), but I no longer have options for expansion (the pain of having an mATX motherboard). I even tried buying a PCIe SATA3 card (2 ports because it was cheap), but I discovered it doesn't fit because my H60 blocks the top PCIe port.
So how do I choose my next upgrade path?
What I want is a full ATX motherboard upgrade with more than 6 SATA ports and the top PCIe port not to be x16 in length. This will allow future expansion cards to be added (say, sound, SATA, WiFi-AC and TV tuning/capture maybe) and at the same time give me my DVD drive back. Z97 and Devils Canyon just came out with some interesting offers to this effect, including the Asus Z97-DELUXE, the Gigabyte GA-Z97X-Gaming G1, the ROG Maximus VII Formula and the MSI Z97 XPOWER AC, all of which have 10 SATA ports. Some of these motherboards also have useful other features like WiFi-AC built in, sparing me the need to go out and buy an expansion card (although I already have one for my house).
Of course, I could save some money by just going for a motherboard with less SATA ports and less unnecessary extra features (who needs WiFi anyway when the router is just 1m away from the PC). On the other hand, by getting a better motherboard now, it maximises my options with a greater level of integration. But with Broadwell around the corner, am I better off just waiting? I've said the same thing with Ivy Bridge and Haswell, as neither gave me reason enough to upgrade over Sandy Bridge (even after I hit the limitations of mATX a little over a year ago).
So yeah, I have options, and considerations, as to which motherboard to go with.
This one isn't that tricky. If I'm going Z97, I might as well get Devil's Canyon. Either Core i5-4690K or Core i7-4790K. 3.5Ghz or 4Ghz + HT. As a gamer, I don't need HT so I can save money there. But the 4Ghz stock speed (TB to 4.4Ghz, without even any overclocking) just sounds too tempting.
Since Haswell and Devil's Canyon both respond well to faster speeds, I finally have a reason to push beyond 1600Mhz. I'm not sure if I'd rather go with 16GB Corsair Vengeance Pro 2400Mhz or Corsair Dominator Platinum. The latter costs more, but I don't know what the difference is. Leaning towards Vengeance.
With an upgrade in motherboard, I think I might want to go for an upgrade for my case too. That Antec 1200 has served me well, however it's beginning to show its age (it's over 6 years old now). There are some amazing cases now available, including the Antec 1900 and the Corsair 900D Obsidian. My computer sits under my desk anyway so aesthetics isn't so important and noise doesn't directly reach my ears, although it does somewhat limit the height I can use (680mm or 27").
EDIT: Just to drop a quick shortlist, here are some of the cases I'm considering. The Corsair Vengeance C70, for its portability, the Corsair Graphite 760T for its well placed SSD layout (also giving room monster graphics, even though I won't be getting them), the Corsair Obsidian 800D (because it IS a full tower case), the Silverstone Fortress FT02 (90 degrees, all cables up top, alternatively the Raven series because they just look awesome), and finally the Silverstone Temjin TJ07 (drives underneath, 7 5.25" slots).
Since the main aim of this build design is to emphasise expanded storage, then I would understandably want to increase the number of drive in my computer (since this PC is already practically turning into a server). I'll need to start getting a few more 4TB drives in there, or whatever size they have by the time my last 2TB of free space is consumed. I do have a NAS (Synology DS210J), and a USB HDD dock, however the NAS is best used as a standalone server for torrents, file downloads and file sharing (it actually works kinda bad as a network drive) and the dock gets annoying to use real fast. My current idea is to use a built in hotswap rack, specifically one that does NOT have a lock or a fan built in (I've had that before, and hated the noise and vibration it caused). This way I can make use of the growing collection of hard drives lying around without needing to drag around that USB dock.
And since this upgrade path is already including just about all the parts needed to make a brand new computer, might as well throw in a 600W PSU for the new (or more likely, old) system. That way it's all new!
So what does this look like?: http://uk.pcpartpicker.com/p/nFVVGX
Naturally, going to take this in steps. And I'll probably wait until a few more SATA Express or M.2 reviews come out to explain why anybody getting a Z97 motherboard should care about such features. But if a friend needs their computer upgraded any time soon, that might speed up the decision making...