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Building a Mini ITX Gaming PC

Here we are in 2017. Almost everyone has a smartphone or a tablet or notebook, and some people have all three. Customers want these devices to be light, thin and portable. But, looking at the venerable PC, it seems this same trend has not really caught on. PC enthusiasts are well aware of the Mini-ITX form factor, but the wider market still seems to think of the PC as the stereotypical ATX sized box that has been with us for decades. Most people are simply unaware that they can have a fully capable PC in the size of a paperback book (such as a NUC) or have a gaming capable PC, even capable of 4K gaming, in a package the size of a CD player or shoebox.

We have gathered some popular PC components and we’ll be putting them into a Silverstone Fortress FTZ01 and see just what a mini PC is capable of. Let’s start off with our component choices.

The Components

The Case – Silverstone FTZ01 $185 SGD

The case is obviously a key component when considering a mini build. Silverstone is a company that consistently release and refine small form factor products including power supplies and coolers, so it was really easy to choose Silverstone for the chassis and PSU. The Silverstone FTZ01 is among our very favorites. It’s one of the best-designed ITX cases available. It is surprisingly easy to work with,  especially with its GPU riser system that allows the use of large, high-powered video cards, all the while packing a slim, low profile chassis with a 14L capacity. At 14.8″ (W) x 4.21″ (H) x 13.82″ (D), it’s one of the smallest cases capable of holding a high end system without compromise.

The FTZ01 is is a premium metal body case which offers the flexibility of being placed vertically or horizontally. It retains flexibility with regards to cooling, it will accept a 3.5″ HDD if needed and includes a slot for a DVD or Blu Ray player at its front. It’s size is about what you’d see from a typical Hi-Fi component.

Naturally a small form factor case will come with some considerations, including the choice of cooler, but these are easily worked around with the knowledge of what you need.

The Power Supply– Silverstone SX700-LPT 80Plus Platinum $248 SGD

The Silverstone SX700-LPT  is a 700 watt power supply, meaning its capable of powering essentially any system including overclocked CPUs with high core counts and a single graphics card. It will also power many systems with dual GPUs too, but that kind of defeats the purpose of having a small form factor build. The key reasons for choosing this unit are its small size and the fact that it is 80Plus Platinum rated. This means it has very good efficiency, which in turn means less heat output and a lower power bill. This is a key consideration for any small form factor build where cooling is usually not as efficient as a full sized build.

 

The Motherboard– MSI Z270I Gaming AC $329 SGD

For our motherboard, we chose a MSI Z270i Gaming AC. This board has a raft of high end features, including quality audio, AC Wi-Fi, M.2 support, USB 3.1 and even full RGB lighting.

 

The CPU – Intel i7-7700 – $475 SGD

The CPU was a tougher choice. While we could have gone with a 7700K, its TDP is significantly higher than our eventual choice of a i7-7700. The 7700 means we have a turbo frequency of up to 4.2Ghz while keeping TDP at an impressive 65w. This compares to 91w for a 7700K. So, with a 3.6Ghz base clock and 4.2 Ghz boost clock, the i7-7700 still provides 8 threads and will easily power the latest games and have enough grunt on hand for demanding tasks. it will also be easy for a modest CPU cooler to handle.

The CPU Cooler – Cryorig C7 – $55 SGD

The Cryorig C7 cooler is specifically designed for small form factor builds. It has the same footprint as a stock Intel cooler, which fit’s into the Intel socket area where no other components are allowed. This means it won’t interfere with tall memory heatsinks, chipset or PWM heatsinks. It’s still much better than the standard Intel cooler thanks to the addition of heatpipes, greater fin surface area and a more efficient fan. It is easily capable of keeping the 65w i7-7700 cool.

The GPU – AMD Radeon RX480 8Gb $409

The choice of GPU for a small form factor build will depend on the users budget and usage scenario. The FTZ01 case can handle cards up to 13″ in length and supports dual slot cards.

We chose a reference AMD RX480 with its exhaust blower configuration. This is key as all the heat is dumped outside the case. The card performs well at 1080p and offers a good range of technologies including HDMI 2.0b and Display Port 1.4 for driving high resolution displays. It also brings native HEVC Main 10 support making it a good choice for playback of 4k60p content on modern televisions. A GTX 1060 3Gb or 6Gb would be another good choice for the same reasons.

We also have a GTX 1080 Ti reference card here that would be the ultimate choice, but its expense is something to consider. If you want to game on your sexy 4k TV or display though, its the only choice. Do you fancy gaming on a 4k OLED 65″ TV? Droooooool…

Of course if you’re playing less demanding games such as DOTA or CS:GO, then you can save dollars and go with a cheaper card, though do be aware that a cheaper card might not be capable of pushing to the 120 or 144fps levels that many gamers prefer.

 

The Memory – G.Skill 2x8Gb DDR4-3200 $239 SGD

G.Skill make the highest speed memory you can get, and high speed memory just so happens to run very well on dual slot motherboards. 2x8Gb of DDR4-3200 is a good sweet spot choice of speed, capacity and performance.

 

The Storage – Zotac 240Gb SSD $149 + Western Digital 1Tb Blue SSD $499+ Seagate 2Tb HDD $115

These days, a 128-256Gb SSD simply runs out of space once you put a few programs on there. Think Grand Theft Auto 5 or similar which takes up the best part of 70Gb! For this reason we chose a smallish 240Gb Zotac Premium SSD for the OS, then a Western Digital 1Tb Blue SSD for games and and a Seagate 2Tb SSD for media storage. You can omit the HDD of course if you have a NAS or external drive. This will make the system much quieter. Mechanical drives really do make an annoying whirring noise that is really noticeable when they spin up.

 

The Build

Moving onto the build, as we see below, the Silverstone FTZ01 has a unique GPU cage/holder with PCIe extender which allows the card flat relative to a normal GPU/MB installation. This alone allows the case to be several centimeters thinner than would otherwise be possible.

Here is the PCie Extender card itself. Inside the cylindrical hole is where you place the GPU into the slot.

Here is the RX480 attached to the GPU mechanism. The little black plastic piece in the middle is designed to support the weight of the GPU. This a is a good idea since GPU sagging is become more of an issue as GPUs seemingly get ever heavier.

Below is the system prior to installing the GPU cage. This gives an illustration of some of the options available with the FTZ01. If you don’t install the cage and use the IGP, you could install a dual radiator watercooler. Some users might wish to skip gaming altogether and this would allow you to run a heavily overclocked i7-7700K if you like, or even the likes of an ASRock X99ITX or one of the upcoming X299 or AM4 ITX motherboards.

On the outside of the case, the fans have magnetized dust covers which seal up the system very nicely.

 

Here is the system in its complete state minus the WD 1Tb SSD and hard drive (which would be located just underneath the main power cables at the top right). The GPU is located below the SSD. The space to the bottom right is where an optical drive can be placed. Cable management is usually a bit of a nightmare in smaller form factor builds where space is the primary consideration, but in the Silverstone FTZ01 the cables can be routed quite well, which improves airflow and assists with cooling.

The scale of the system is well illustrated here with the I/O of the motherboard and graphics card clearly visible.

Below is a good comparison of the size if the unit vs a full sized Corsair 760T case. As you can see, it’s a lot smaller in every dimension!

 

But how does it perform?

Here is the main spec of the system. 8 cores at 4Ghz+ at 65w.. Nice!

 

One of the supposed weaknesses of a compact system is the compromising on cooling. The FTZ01 has no problems with airflow, and the i7-7700 stayed under 80c, which is quite good for a Kaby Lake processor under 100% load. Obviously the Cryorig cooler isn’t as good as a top end air cooler, let alone a water cooler, but under 80c is perfectly worry free.

 

The beauty of 8 threads is you can do some serious work with them. As you can see below, a i7 7700 smashes an overclocked 2600K at video encoding. The 2600K is one of the best processors Intel ever made, but its starting to show its age now. the i7 -7700 is a good 25% faster without an overclock.

We ran a few game benchmarks to see how we’d go. With the RX480, 1080p is the real sweet spot for high quality gaming. Once you go to 1440p, you’ll have to dial back the quality a bit to maintain 60fps.

Rise of the Tomb Raider with Very High settings held at 70fps, Far Cry Primal 61fps and Ashes of The Singularity 47.5fps when set to Extreme with DX12 mode enabled. These are difficult games to run, but all are easy with a RX480. Of course you can add about 10% of performance if you go with a RX580.

Don’t forget that games like CS:GO, Overwatch or DOTA can get by with a low end card, but to get the best experience in these games, high FPS is still desirable. If you’re running a 120hz+ monitor with freesync, you’ll need a decent card to get the best out your games.

 

Summing it up

The Total for the system is $2700. Of course you’ll need a monitor and peripherals to go with it. This is certainly not cheap, but we think this is a good balanced system. You can easily put a top end graphics card in there and game happily at 4K, alternatively you could go for a cheaper CPU or skip the graphics card altogether. Even a Kaby Lake dual core will do the job for non compute intensive tasks. Another option might be to go for some generic memory, for example 2x8Gb of DDR4-2400.

Why ITX? It’s just more convenient! You get the full power of a modern PC, whilst combining it into a small form factor. A smaller footprint adds a lot of flexibility when it comes to the uses of the system. A living room gaming PC? A portable LAN PC? Living in a university dorm room? Not everyone wants a huge snarling beast of a system decked out in Christmas RGB lights. Some people want their systems to be functional and blend in. The wolf in sheep’s clothing. Having experience in PC sales in a previous life, it’s amazing how many people automatically assume a small PC is a weak PC. It is not!

The point here isn’t so much to build a top end system or a budget system, it’s to show what an ITX system is capable of. Other than really high end multi GPU systems, a well though out ITX build can do everything a full sized build can do. We all like Ultrabooks, slim phones & compact tablets. Why not apply the same thinking to your next PC? Bigger doesn’t always mean better!

 

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