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Building an Affordable “Skulltrail” System
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by Rob Williams on February 20, 2008 in Intel Processors

Intel’s new dual-socket enthusiast platform is in every sense impressive, but due to the price of the recommended CPUs, owning one is a dream for many. We’re taking a look at a few ways to build your very own full-featured 8-core “Skulltrail” machine for a price that’s a lot easier to manage.

Sample Systems


It’s time for the fun part… attempting to build a full-featured Skulltrail rig for $2,500 or less! As mentioned earlier, this is not an easy goal thanks to the fact that the D5400XS motherboard costs a staggering $650. It made things difficult, but it was still very possible to look past that and build some fantastic-looking PCs.

The first system built here does not hit our $2,500 goal, but is the exact system we that we have configured here in the lab and will also benchmark briefly on the next page. For this build, we chose components that would reflect a stellar machine for all purposes, whether it be gaming or workstation use. You might notice we stuck with the expensive power supply, and this was because it’s the minimum you should have if you are looking to overclock.

Specification
Part Chosen
Price (USD)
Processor
Xeon E5410 x 2
$590 ($295 Each)
Motherboard
Intel D5400XS
$650
Memory
FB-DIMM DDR2-800
$250
Graphics
ASUS EN8800GTS 512
$340
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
$190
Storage
Seagate 1TB 7200.1
$270
ODD
DVD-RW
$30
PSU
SilverStone DA1200
$380
Chassis
SilverStone TJ10
$300
Cooling
Zalman 9700LED x 2
$110
Total Cost: $3,110

If I were to personally build a Skulltrail rig, I believe these are the same parts I would choose. Overall it’s a well-rounded system that includes everything you’d need… tons of storage, superb audio and a fantastic graphics card that’s up to the task of handling today’s high-end games.

But, we are still $620 over our goal, so let’s start scaling things back a little bit:

Specification
Part Chosen
Price (USD)
Processor
Xeon E5410 x 2
$590 ($295 Each)
Motherboard
Intel D5400XS
$650
Memory
FB-DIMM DDR2-800
$250
Graphics
eVGA 8800GTS 512
$290
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
$190
Storage
Seagate 500GB 7200.11
$120
ODD
DVD-RW
$30
PSU
SilverStone DA1200
$380
Chassis
Thermaltake Armor
$150
Cooling
Zalman 9700LED x 2
$110
Total Cost: $2,760

I found out quick that hitting the $2,500 mark was not going to be a simple task, and we still haven’t come that close. Scaling back the chassis, hard drive and using an eVGA GPU resulted in a system that’s $350 cheaper. That’s some nice headway, but we have still exceeded our goal of a $2,500 system.

Of course, it’s easy to tell that a system can hit the $2,500 mark in some way or another, but some sacrifices need to be made, whether it be the cooling, memory, video card or even the sound card. But, since I’m just a huge fan of the Xonar, it was my goal to leave it in. After all, a stellar game should have equally stellar sound.

Specification
Part Chosen
Price (USD)
Processor
Xeon E5410 x 2
$590 ($295 Each)
Motherboard
Intel D5400XS
$650
Memory
FB-DIMM DDR2-667
$140
Graphics
eVGA 8800GT
$240
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
$190
Storage
Seagate 320GB 7200.11
$75
ODD
DVD-RW
$30
PSU
SilverStone DA1200
$380
Chassis
Thermaltake Armor
$150
Cooling
ZEROtherm NV120 x 2
$90
Total Cost: $2,520

Scaling back on the GPU to a still very respectable 8800GT saved us $50, while using ZEROtherm’s NV120 coolers instead saved us another $20. We further saved $45 by using a 320GB hard drive as well, bringing our total to $2,520 – still $35 above the limit we set out to hit.

There is only one way to downgrade the system further and remain at or under $2,500, and that’s to remove the Xonar sound card. As much as I hate to do that, it must be done!

Specification
Part Chosen
Price (USD)
Processor
Xeon E5410 x 2
$590 ($295 Each)
Motherboard
Intel D5400XS
$650
Memory
FB-DIMM DDR2-667
$140
Graphics
eVGA 8800GTS 512
$290
Audio
Onboard
$0
Storage
Seagate 500GB 7200.11
$120
ODD
DVD-RW
$30
PSU
SilverStone DA1200
$380
Chassis
Thermaltake Armor
$150
Cooling
Zalman 9700LED x 2
$110
Total Cost: $2,460

We are now under the $2,500 limit, so all is good. But the fact of the matter is, one of the lesser reasons that we found it so difficult to bring the machine under that mark was due to the expensive (but worthy) power supply.

As mentioned earlier, the PSU is required due to the motherboard needing them for overclocking. If no overclocking is planned, then purchasing a more reasonably-priced PSU would be fine, but it should still provide ample power for the entire rig. We recommend nothing less than an 800W PSU – just make sure there is plenty of amperage on the +12v rail (or even better, have a single +12V rail).

If the PSU is downgraded to something around the $200 mark, it means you can either upgrade the RAM back to DDR2-800 speeds, while also upgrading the hard drive back to 500GB. In the end, there are a hundred ways this machine could be built and be still kept under $2,500, but it will take time and effort, and vary depending on your personal needs and wants.

Is cutting back worth it?

As I compare our $2,460 machine to the one we have configured in the lab, valued at $3,110, I can’t help but feel that we scaled back so much, we are left with a less desirable setup – only to save $600. Taking our original system and cutting back where necessary, we are left with a $2,700 rig.

Specification
Part Chosen
Price (USD)
Processor
Xeon E5410 x 2
$590 ($295 Each)
Motherboard
Intel D5400XS
$650
Memory
FB-DIMM DDR2-667
$140
Graphics
ASUS EN8800GTS 512
$340
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
$190
Storage
Seagate 500GB 7200.1
$120
ODD
DVD-RW
$30
PSU
SilverStone DA1200
$380
Chassis
Thermaltake Armor
$150
Cooling
Zalman 9700LED x 2
$110
Total Cost: $2,700

To me, this is how Skulltrail should be configured. Sure, it’s $200 more than our original goal of a $2,500 machine, but we have plenty of hard drive space, killer audio, a full-featured chassis, great looking CPU coolers and a graphics card fully capable of delivering fantastic gameplay experiences.

If $2,700 still sounds expensive, recall the fact that the QX9775 processors and D5400XS retail for $4,000… a full $1,300 than what we have here, and that’s just the motherboard and processors. For a full $1,300 less, we can build an incredible machine that’s fully overclocking-ready. Compare also to what you would get for the same amount of money from any PC boutique… you are not going to get anything close to this machine.

That all said, you might be curious about the performance of the $300 Xeon’s we chose to use in our own Skulltrail machine. We’ll deliver some quick benchmarks on the next page, comparing them to our QX9775s.