Installing the CPU
Clamping down the CPU is always the scariest step when building a PC. And with Intel's LGA 2011-v3 socket, which is used on the X99 platform, it's a bit more complicated than with standard consumer-level chips. First, for some reason, a number of manufacturers, including Asus and MSI, have chosen to orient the socket upside down. We bet that along the way, more than a few high-end PC builders have been blind-sided by this quirk, realizing only after it was too late that they clamped their CPU down incorrectly. Ouch! So please take note of the triangular markers, highlighted in the photo here, that should be lined up whenever mounting an Intel CPU. If you don't see them in the same corner, STOP! Your CPU is not oriented correctly.
Once you have the CPU placed correctly in the socket, it's time to go through the additional steps required to lock in an LGA 2011-v3 CPU. First you slide the top edge of the clamp under a bar, and then you actually need to lock it into place. Unlike the smaller consumer-level Intel processors, this step requires two locking bars, one on either side. That doesn't mean it's harder to install, it just means there's one more step involved. Our photo montage below will walk you through each step, one by one. We've highlighted the latches and bars you'll need to contend with in each step.
The more robust mechanism used for LGA 2011-v3 processors is likely necessary to even out the loads on the CPU's heat spreader, which is about twice as large as on current-gen LGA 1151 chips like the Core i7-6700K. Using a single clamp as on LGA 1151 would likely lead to a high degree of stress on just one side of the CPU's heat spreader.
Installing the Motherboard
All right, the time has come to install the motherboard in the case. This is when your PC actually starts looking like a PC! Note that if you're using an air-based CPU cooler, you'll probably want to affix that to the motherboard before installing the board in the case, but as we're using a liquid cooler, that step will come later.
If you're an experienced PC builder, the first two steps we're going to go over will seem pretty basic. But we know some builders forget these steps, which they may come to regret later, so we're going to mention them here. First is the installation of the I/O panel. If you're lucky, and if you're using a high-end motherboard you probably are, the board came with a padded, custom-cut panel, which is a breeze to install. If you're using a mid-range board, the manufacturer may have "cheaped out" by going with a punched-out sheet metal panel, which we absolutely despite. They're hard to snap in, and even harder to fit the motherboard ports through. Anyway, we imagine you're going to have a padded panel like the one shown here, as any motherboard befitting an ultra-high-end build will have one.
Next comes the motherboard standoffs. Forgetting to install these can lead to some nasty motherboard short circuits. And while most high-end cases have them pre-installed, that isn't always true. We were a bit shocked to find that our SilverStone Primera PM01 only had 6 of the 9 require standoffs installed. Annoying! Thankfully we caught the issue before we had our motherboard halfway installed. By the way, the easiest way to attach standoffs into the motherboard mounting panel is to affix a screw to them and then screw the combo in as a unit. There are probably specialized nut drivers that will work, but there's really no need for them if you use the approach we suggest here. You can see how we installed the standoffs in the accompanying photo.
Now it's time to connect all your cables. As we mentioned previously, in addition to the standard 24-pin motherboard power and 8-pin CPU power connectors, new-for-2016 X99-based boards will have a second 4-pin CPU power connector. Yes, you must feed all these connectors power! In addition to power, you'll want to make sure you connect the front-panel USB cables to the motherboard USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 headers, and the fan power leads to the 3-pin and 4-pin motherboard fan headers. And finally, there's the front panel power and LED leads, which are always a pain due to their small size. The SilverStone case we used featured something we've never seen before: front panel leads that were actually labeled positive and negative. How thoughtful! No more guessing whether one way or the other is right! You'll see that we're using the Asus Q-Connector that came with our motherboard to affix each of the leads, which allows you to make just one connection to the motherboard. Most manufacturers have their own version of the Q-Connector at this point, so hopefully this process will go just as smoothly for you.
The last connections you'll want to make at this point are to any of the SATA drives you mounted in an earlier step. Just run the SATA data cable to one of the SATA connectors on the motherboard. Typically, the first six are controlled directly by the chipset, and these are the ones you'll want to use for your primary drives. Consult your motherboard's manual for more information on which SATA connectors are in fact Intel connectors.
Installing the CPU Cooler
Now that you've attached your CPU to your motherboard, and your motherboard to your case, you can take on the challenge of mounting your liquid cooler. There are a wide variety of models available, from simple models using a single 120mm fan, to huge custom designs using dual 240mm fans or even triple 120mm fans, sometimes with separate reservoirs, pumps, and radiators. We're using a standard-issue Corsair Hydro H100i v2, which just so happens to be the most popular liquid cooler on the market, as of this writing. And it's popular for good reason: it's highly-effective, relatively quiet, and is backed by Corsair's excellent customer support. It also looks pretty cool!
The nice thing about mounting a cooler to the LGA 2011-v3 socket is that Intel has thoughtfully included mounting ports in the socket specification. That means you don't actually need access to the back of the motherboard to mount the cooler. And while all modern cases have a cut-out to give you that access, it's always cumbersome to reach around the back of the case while affixing a bracket in the main compartment. Rather than messing with all of that, we can jump right into the good stuff. That means affixing the four posts that come with the cooler, and then getting your thermal paste applied. Note that the Corsair cooler has paste pre-applied to the cooling block, but going with a custom solution will provide a more effective thermal interface, so why not do it right from the start? We use Noctua NT-H1 for all our builds, and we suggest you do too! You'll need to use some rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab or paper towel to remove the existing paste, and then apply a new bead directly to the CPU heat spreader.
Note that another commonly-repeated rule of thumb really doesn't work well here, and that is that the thermal paste application should be about the size of a pea. While that works for the smaller heat spreaders of lower-end CPUs, LGA 2011-v3 uses big chips, and you want the whole heat spreader covered. So be generous with the application, and if you're not sure if it worked, affix the cooler, remove it, and check for proper coverage before proceeding.
All right, once you have your paste applied, you can bolt down the cooling block, and then wrestle with the radiator assembly. Depending on your cooler and case, you may find that there are quite a few locations you can mount the radiator, or perhaps only one. Hopefully you've done your homework, however, because a few unlucky builders may find that the radiator of their cooler of choice doesn't fit anywhere! In fact, this problem often results from incorrect case manufacturer specifications. You see, the case we're using here, as well as other cases we've reviewed in the past, have specified that a 280mm cooler can fit up top. But in fact that's not true, because these coolers, with fans attached, are often too thick to actually install once the motherboard is in place. If you look carefully at the photo below, you'll see that our 240mm cooler, which isn't as wide as a 280mm cooler, just barely cleared our motherboard heatsink, and even then, it was so close that we decided to mount it in an offset position, to allow us to still have access to the headers and connectors at the top of our motherboard. Had we used a case with a fixed 5.25" bay up front, we would have been out of luck here.
The truth is that case manufacturers have a ways to go in the quest to achieve compatibility with the full range of coolers on the market. We think one of the problems is that this is a moving target: as larger and larger coolers become commonplace, case manufacturers have to scramble to check whether their existing and in-development cases will work with every other manufacturers' coolers. It's not an enviable position, but luckily for you, we always double-check compatibility of cases and coolers recommended in our DIY PC Buyer's Guides, which requires more than just looking at the spec sheet!
Installing the Memory
This is in theory a relatively easy step, but it's where more PC builders trip up than anywhere else! That's because RAM fits very tightly into the RAM slots, particularly new DDR4 memory, which we're using here. If you don't have the RAM fully locked in, it will not register and the PC will not boot. Scary! So take the time to properly insert the RAM at this step, before installing the motherboard into the case. As long as the motherboard is on top of a towel or another soft surface, you won't damage it while pressing the RAM down into the slots.
Two important things to remember when installing memory in the X99 platform:
- The chipset provides quad-channel operation, and to take advantage of this, you need four matched RAM sticks. While the system will boot with fewer sticks, you'll lose out on one of the great advantages of this high-end platform!
- For optimal performance and compatibility, start by populating the second and fourth slots away from the CPU, on either side of the socket. For more help with this, scroll up to the photo in the middle of this page, where we've temporarily inserted four red-colored RAM sticks to make it easier to identify their positioning in the board. Our black sticks tend to blend into the background!
All right, we're just about done. Last step: dropping our video cards into position!