It’ll be years before we see 4K-resolution transmissions from Australia’s TV networks, but with PC gaming, Netflix and even new smartphones capable of generating 3840×2160-pixel content (and 4K Blu-ray reportedly arriving by the end of 2015, it’s worth looking at how to make your next PC build 4K-ready.
Yes, Microsoft has killed off Windows Media Center, but with alternatives like Kodi (formerly XBMC), your loungeroom is still in good hands. However, a loungeroom PC that’s ready for 4K still needs a futuristic mix of performance and peripheral connections, ideally in a package that won’t have your neighbours complaining about the noise or their lights dimming.
It starts with sorting out your 4K expectations – if they stop at movies, a quiet system build needn’t be complicated, but if you’re expecting serious gaming at that resolution, keeping things quiet and compact becomes a little more problematic.
The smart way to build a quiet loungeroom PC is to use it for content display, not content storage – keep your movie library on a server elsewhere and stream. It cuts down the size and cooling you’ll need for your family-room system.
We’ll talk more about components shortly, but the key consideration is your video signal connection – and that’s a bit of a minefield.
We’ve had HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) in its current ‘version 1.4’ strain for several years, thanks to the starburst that was ‘3DTV’.
But HDMI 1.4 has only what we’d call ‘rudimentary’ 4K TV support – it delivers the standard 3840×2160-pixels, but only at a maximum 30Hz refresh rate. It’s adequate for movies, but definitely not good enough for general PC monitoring and gaming.
Chroma your luminance
For best results, you want your 4K video refreshed at 60Hz minimum, just like your PC monitor. But for that, you typically need the bandwidth-imbibed DisplayPort 1.2 or HDMI 2.0 bus options.
However, that’s only part of the picture (pardon the pun). Video images are sampled into pixels, but they’re also encoded by their luminance (light) and chrominance (colour) components.
The most spectacular-quality 4K video uses full-resolution zero-compression colour, often quoted as ‘4:4:4’, where the first number is the luminance (Y), the second is the blue-difference chroma (Cb) and the third, red-difference chroma (Cr). Combined these and you get the colour space for digital video known as YCbCr.
HDMI 1.4 can only deliver this gold-star 4:4:4 YCbCr colour resolution of 4K video at 30Hz – the bandwidth needed for this colour at 60Hz is one reason why we have the new HDMI 2.0 spec. Before HDMI 2.0, only DisplayPort 1.2 could deliver this.
This isn’t meant to be an in-depth on 4KTV, but be aware – not even HDMI 2.0 guarantees you 4:4:4 YCbCr colour. Sony’s 49-inch KD-49X8500B 4K TV, for example, claims HDMI 2.0 and 4K at 60Hz, but read the specs and its 4K@60Hz output isn’t 4:4:4 YCbCr (check under ‘specifications’ here).
Instead, it uses ‘chroma subsampling’, a compression technique that reduces the colour resolution by half in both horizontal and vertical planes, written as ‘4:2:0 YCbCr’.
Chroma subsampling reduces the data bandwidth required and it’s the main difference between many 4K TVs and 4K monitors – all 4K monitors should be capable of 4:4:4 colour at 60Hz, but many 4K TVs available at the moment only support 4:2:0 colour at 60Hz.
The reduced colour resolution will be less noticeable on movies, but try and use a 4K@60Hz/4:2:0-colour TV as a PC monitor, particularly on text, and the colour problems become apparent.
Gaming at 4K
If FPS gameplay is more your thing, you also have the added issue of needing sufficient graphics horsepower because you’re not just displaying or even decoding 4K-pixel frames now – you’re generating them and that requires considerably more muscle.
In fact, based on the game frame rates we’ve seen, you’ll need at least a GeForce GTX 980 or a Radeon R9 290X to get anything like ‘playable’ rates at 4K, and even then, you’re looking at only between 35 and 50fps on something like Crysis 3, depending on quality settings.
These cards typically have multiple fans as well, so ‘silent’ becomes a relative term. Talk multi-GPU gaming and the issues are multiplied.
Stream your games?
A ‘quiet’ alternative you might think of is ‘game streaming’, a bit like streaming your movies from a NAS box, but instead, you stream your games’ audio and video from your gaming rig to your loungeroom PC.
Steam’s In-Home Streaming has been around for a year or so now and it has been seen to work at 4K. However, the game must be running on your gaming rig at 4K resolution to get 4K output from your loungeroom PC. That implies a 4K monitor on your gaming rig.
And it doesn’t end there. Since you’re sending control data in one direction and AV data in the other, you also need top-flight networking performance, especially in terms of latency, if you want the gaming experience to feel ‘connected’. Otherwise, the delay between you activating a control and seeing the response could drive you barmy.
Quad-core CPU the go
Intel has provided hardware accelerated decoding for HEVC (H.265) and Google VP9 video (accelerated H.264 is already included) on Haswell (4000-series) and Broadwell (5000-series) Intel chips since driver release 184.108.40.206.4080.
However, to get 4K@60Hz output, you need at least Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics from Haswell R-class CPUs.
Intel’s HD 5500/6000/6100-class graphics inside up-coming desktop Broadwell CPUs should deliver 4K@60Hz, but weren’t available at time of writing. Even so, we’d recommend a quad-core Core i5 to ensure a reasonable amount of performance headroom.
Hauppauge still has IR remotes for Windows Media Center, but increasingly your Android smartphone or tablet will work with apps such as Kodi (formerly XBMC).
Wireless keyboard with trackpad – Wireless USB keyboards like Logitech’s K400r are a reasonable choice for compact data entry and go for under $40 on special.
The K830 with its backlit keys is even better suited to low-lit loungerooms.
USB audio – ASUS’ Z97I-PLUS should be one of the better audio performers, but we recommended external USB audio to give gaming and movie sound tracks the platform they deserve.
Creative’s X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro at around $90 is a good place to start.
SilverStone Milo ML06 ($70, Video only), Corsair Obsidian 250D ($130, gaming)
Alternative: BitFenix Prodigy ($99, gaming)
The ML06 is the size of an old VHS recorder, so, a warning – it’ll be a tight fit and you’ll need an SFX PSU. But, you will have a build that won’t look out of place with any Hi-Fi system.
The Corsair Obsidian 250D costs $30 more than BitFenix’s Prodigy, but better fits most loungerooms.
A more open design than the Prodigy, the 250D is solidly built and dust-proof, thanks to its magnetic dust covers. It’ll also take a stock GTX 980 graphics card (beware those with custom coolers).
ASUS Z97I-PLUS ($190), ASUS H97I-PLUS ($135)
The Z97I-PLUS includes dual-band AC Wi-Fi, ideal for loungeroom streaming. The H97I-PLUS is almost identical, but with the H97 chipset and loses wireless to save around $55.
Intel Core i5 4590S (for ML06, $300), Intel Core i5 4590 (otherwise, $270)
You could possibly save $30 with a standard 84-watt Core i5 4590 and underclock it (provided the motherboard supports it) to get within the NHL9i’s cooling range.
In either the 250D or Prodigy cases, the Core i5 4590 will be fine.
Noctua NHL9i ($65, ML06 case), Noctua NH-L12 ($90)
The Obsidian 250D case only has 95-millimetres clearance above the motherboard, but the single-fan NH-L12 is exceptionally quiet and just 66-millimetres.
Sandisk Ultra II 240GB SSD ($150)
If you’re not into gaming, stream your movies from a NAS server and go the 120GB version instead.
For gaming, 240GB should handle half-a-dozen big-budget FPS games before you need to worry about space.
EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Superclocked ACX 2.0 ($830)
We’d go EVGA’s Superclocked ACX 2.0, which is a stock 267-millimetres long and its low-profile cooler also fits the vertical dimensions of the case. Many GTX 980 cards are longer and taller, so choose carefully.
The PCI-E power connectors may still be a tight fit. GTX 970 cards are a cheaper alternative but offer lower 4K performance.
Seasonic X-650 ($200, 650-watt for gaming), Seasonic G-450 ($110, movie), SilverStone SFX 80+ Gold 450W ($120, ML06 case)
It’s not cheap at around $200, but as quiet as they come and Seasonic PSUs are virtually bulletproof. If you don’t game, Seasonic’s G-450 uses a slightly noisier fan but at only half the cost.
SilverStone’s ST45SF-G (SFX 80+ Gold) is the paired (and quietest) option for the ML06 case.
To be blunt, it’s pretty difficult to stuff up a standard tower PC build these days – you’d have to be either exceptionally unlucky with your component choices, or trying to fit a whole computer store’s worth of components inside.
But building a Mini-ITX system, there’s no room for luck – you have to know all components will fit right from the get-go. And that means it all begins with the case.
It presets your physical dimensions – the three key dimensions being the height above the CPU, the space around the PSU, the length and height for a graphics card.
For example, the ML06 is only 99-millimetres tall – add the motherboard, the CPU and SilverStone says you’ve got 70-millimetres maximum for the CPU cooler, still a pretty tight squeeze. Intel’s stock low-profile cooler should fit, but stock doesn’t mean the quietest option.
Motherboard compatibility listings from third-party cooler makers make for good reading: Noctua’s NHL9i is only 37-millimetres tall and known for its quietness, but comes at a cost – it’s not recommended for 84-watt TDP CPUs.
Reduced cooling capacity means it runs CPUs hotter than other coolers. As for the 250D, you only have 95-millimetres (says Corsair, tinyurl.com/l35r7yq) of empty air. Further, the 250D’s Perspex top panel requires some clearance to ensure you don’t overcook it.
The same clearance issues apply for PSUs – as we’ve said, the ML06 needs a special SFX form-factor PSU. Even larger ITX cases have a maximum PSU length they’ll support.
The BitFenix Prodigy case, for example, limits length to 160-millimetres, as the case encloses the PSU. By contrast, the 250D leaves this space open, allowing up to 180-millimetre long PSUs.
Graphics card fit
Adding a PCI-E graphics card requires sufficient length to handle larger cards like the GTX 980. But there are added issues as well – the 250D has limited clearance above the card, so you need to beware of custom coolers.
ASUS’ DirectCU II cards, with their custom high-profile coolers, are said to foul the 250D’s top cover. Choose stock-design/minimum-height card coolers that are as close as possible to the height of the standard rear-retaining bracket.
Make sure you check the PCI-E power cables also fit in the available space beneath the case lid – it will be tight.
How easy is it to build?
The one thing dimensions don’t fully tell you is the difficulty in putting mini-ITX systems together.
Our hot tip is don’t try to fit components into spaces down to the last millimetre. Not only does this restrict airflow, but we’ve found you can’t always take quoted specs as ‘gospel’. Motherboard stand-off sizes, for example, can change the above-CPU clearance.
You also need to consider room for routing cables, particularly with GPU PCI-E power cables. The smaller the case, the more conservative your choices need to be.
If nothing else, you can see how vital research is in creating any mini-ITX build. Choosing components on price and performance is an age-old axiom, but when you start talking ‘mini-ITX’, considerations literally do take on a whole new dimension.