Gaming in Tight Spaces: Mini-ITX (featuring Gigabyte, Silverstone, and Prolimatech)

History of mini-ITX

I was sitting in my office, browsing tech news online almost a decade ago when I first saw the mini-ITX form factor.  My mind immediately started fantasizing about the possibilities such a small system would afford.  Thoughts of internet terminals built into kitchen cupboards or car PCs entertained my imagination for years.  As the early VIA-based systems got into reviewers’ hands and performance results started hitting the press, like many others, I was left wanting.  A PC that struggles to play flash-based videos, or 720p video content doesn’t get me very excited.

The first system that really caught my attention hit the scene in 2006, the Albatron KI51PV-754.  It was based on socket 754 for AMD Athlon 64 processors.  But, since the socket didn’t support dual core CPUs like the 939 socket did, you’d be stuck with a single core CPU, and a single DIMM of memory, it also lacked a PCIe slot and the price was unreal!  So, it was encouraging to see progress, but obviously the platform was not ready prime time.

Albatron kept at it and in the summer of 2007 released a system based around the new AM2 socket, the KI690-AM2, which would accept Athlon dual core CPUs.  But like it’s predecessor, it also came with a few flaws, it was stuck using SO-DIMMS for memory duty, was still lacking a PCIe port for the GPU, and the cost was still too high.

Then in 2008, nVidia debuted their new ION system, which it was said would answer everyone’s payers concerning performance per watt.  Combining the low power consumption of the modest Intel Atom CPU and a small integrated GPU by nVidia, the ION would have the combination of CPU and GPU power to be taken seriously, at least once everyone was on board.  It’s taken some time to get everyone on board, but this ION system is proving to be very versatile these days.  There is one area where it still does not make the grade…gaming.

Then, another small company hit the scene in 2008, they had been selling nVidia-based graphics cards for a couple years, and decided to try their hand in the motherboard market.  In late 2008, Zotac released a rash of AMD and Intel based mini-ITX motherboards that were clearly aimed at enthusiasts.  The boards were based on all of the latest chip-sets including ION, nVidia 6100 series for Intel, nVidia 8200 series for AMD based systems.  And then in early 2009, the nVidia GeForce 9300 series for Intel-based systems.

Obviously there have been many other mini-ITX products that have been made.  I don’t mean to play down any of the other products, but from my perspective, these were the milestone products.

mini-ITX and Me

The ZOTAC GF9300-G-E was my first mini-ITX motherboard.  It had all the features one could ask for at the time, socket 775 for a powerful Core 2 Duo CPU, dual channel DDR2 support for regular sized DIMMS, a PCIe x16 slot for dedicated graphics, and even onboard WI-FI!  I brought the board home, and went straight to work rebuilding my HTPC around it with an E8400 Core 2 Duo at its heart.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the system still had a fatal weakness…power consumption.  I had built the system in an Antec ISK-300-65 case.  But that “65″ at the end of the model number is significant, it represents the wattage supplied by the case’s PSU.  65W proved insufficient to power the system, even when underclocked, and undervolted.  So, when it was working I was very happy with the performance, but it really wasn’t very well suited for a really small system.

Zotac H55ITX

Then at CES this year, Zotac announced plans to release a new mini-ITX board based around the LGA1156 socket for Intel Core i3/i5/i7 CPUs.  I was drooling on my keyboard when images first hit the net.  Was this going to be the answer to our questions, on paper it was just about perfect.  Quad core support? Check.  Dual channel DDR3 with regular sized DIMMs? Check.  PCIe slot? Check.  Onboard wi-fi N? Check!  So, as soon as they were released, I had two on their way to me.

This is not a review of the Zotac board though, the H55ITX served me for about four months in my HTPC, and while it never impressed me, it worked in the Antec HTPC case I had, and 65W seemed plenty.  The system was stable, and my HTPC was working well for the first time in years.  I finally got around to putting the second board into a SFF gaming PC about six weeks ago.  This machine I built with the intention of overclocking…whoops!  Things went sour shortly after first power up.  I’ll go into really brief detail.

Actually, the very first time I booted the first board, I thought it quite odd that there was a message at the bottom of the post screen stating “FOR EVALUATION PURPOSES ONLY”.  I thought it was just a fluke.  But after powering on the second board for the first time (a few months later), I was greeted with the exact same message.  Once into Windows, I opened CPU-Z and on the motherboard tab, all of the vendor specific fields show “to be filled in by O.E.M.”…hmm.  A quick check on their support page shows the very first BIOS update removes the post screen message, and that’s it.  I think it’s a bit sloppy that Zotac would ship out their boards to distributors with a pre-release BIOS, but apparently, that’s exactly what happened.  So, I updated the BIOS of both boards with the latest version at the time, version 330.  And the message at the post screen did in fact go away.  However, the fields were still not completed in CPU-Z.

So, I’m more concerned with performance and I was willing to forgive all else if high performance was present, but it wasn’t.  My original goal was to build this gaming rig with a Clarkdale-based dual core CPU overclocked to at least 4.5GHz.  I had two Clarkdale CPUs which I had purchased for my extreme overclocking endeavors.  My i3 540 ended up in the HTPC system, the other CPU I had on hand was my very strong i5 670; yes, the same one that I took to 6.8GHz a few months ago.  Seemed like a good candidate, so I set right off to try to overclock it to my target, but I fell well short on my goal.  There is no way to increase VTT/QPI voltage in the BIOS, so I was limited to around 154MHz bclock, with a maximum CPU multiplier of x27, that put my CPU clock at only 4150MHz.  Not bad, but I knew I could do better, but without the option to increase the VTT voltage, I was stuck.

The second major problem came a short time later.  I had ordered some low-end GeIL DDR3-1333 DIMMs, and when they arrived, I popped them in.  For the next two weeks I struggled to get the system stable and I was not successful.  Although the memory would pass memtest with flying colors, the system remained completely unstable with regular BSOD’s in Windows.  It took me quite a while to determine it was a compatibility issue with the memory, because it would pass memtest as I mentioned.  After switching to some extra OCZ Gold DIMMs I had, the instability and BSOD’s went away.

Around this time, Intel released their new Core i5 655K CPU with and unlocked CPU multiplier.  I thought this would be the perfect solution for my Bclock issues.  If I didn’t have to raise the bclock, I should be able to reach my goal by simply raising the multiplier and CPU voltage as necessary, as long as the CPU was up for those speeds.  But after purchasing the new CPU and installing it into the board, I quickly realized my problems were not over.  Right off the bat, the board was feeding my brand new CPU 1.4V with all stock settings loaded.  And undervolting back to normal levels resulted in instability.  In addition, the “unlocked” multiplier didn’t work!  I’d seen many people with this issue, so I went through methodically, manipulating every setting in the BIOS trying to figure out how to get the extra multipliers to work.

After a couple days of searching support forums and asking for help, I decided to e-mail tech support.  After about a week, I heard back from the USA branch with contact info for the BIOS techs in Hong Kong.  So I sent my request for help to them, and waited, and waited, and about a week later I got an e-mail for one of the techs claiming they would try to provide a beta BIOS to fix the issues.  And about a week later he sent me the beta BIOS and IT DIDN’T CHANGE ANYTHING! I wrote back and to report my findings, and over the next few days the BIOS engineer and I exchanged several e-mails in an attempt to correct the problems.  The culmination of these efforts ended with zero changes to the problems, and the engineer claiming that it worked fine for him.  The only theory I have is that he was using an engineering sample, and my CPU was a retail sample.

It has now been over six months since the board has been available, and Zotac has had 4 BIOS releases, non of which provide vendor information in the motherboard tab of CPU-Z.  The last release was in April, almost four months ago.  It seems crazy to me that they wouldn’t have fixed these simple issues yet.  But, I digress…

Gigabyte H55N-USB3

About the same time I started building the gaming box, Gigabyte announced plans to produce their first ever mini-ITX motherboard.  At first I wasn’t interested, because the onboard wi-fi on the Zotac was a slightly important feature for me.  However, after working with the Zotac tech support and failing to resolve my issues, I decided it was time to move on to a motherboard manufacturer I could trust, enter the  Gigabyte H55N-USB3.  As the very first product in the mini-ITX market from Gigabyte, you’d expect a few shortcomings, here and there.  You might expect an immature BIOS, limited overclocking, or buggy drivers and/or features.  However, I’m very happy to report that you’d be dead wrong!

In case you’ve been living under a rock, I happen to be very familiar with Gigabyte motherboards, I’ve played with quite a few over the last year or two.  It would take me a few minutes to distinguish between the BIOS on this board and that of the P55A-UD7.  This board is built just like its bigger siblings, it’s amazing!  We’ve come to expect lower-end motherboards to have a lower-end BIOS.  But that’s just not the case anymore with Gigabyte!  And sure, you lose the onboard wi-fi to the Zotac board, but you gain SATA3 and USB3.0, which is great for future expansion and compatibility.

Gigabyte H55N-USB3 vs Zotac H55ITX

Here you can see the two boards side by side.  Very similar in layout and design.  But you’ll notice the Zotac’s onboard wi-fi module, and six (instead of only four) SATA ports.  Also, on the back panel, Zotac provides ten (wow) USB2.0 ports to Gigabyte’s four USB2.0 & two USB3.0 ports.  So, feature wise, I’m still a fan of the Zotac board.  But the real game changer is overclocking performance.

H55N-USB3 with box and contents

H55N-USB3 I/O panel

H55N-USB3

H55N-USB3

H55N-USB3

H55N-USB3

Building a mini-ITX based SFF gaming computer

So, what components did I use?  How exactly did I put this system together?  How high was I able to overclock it?  How well does it perform?  How much power does it consume?

These are the questions I suppose you would like me to answer right?  Well, read on…

What components did I use?

Case – Silverstone SG05 The case may be the single more vital aspect of a SFF build.  The who point of a SFF build is to be small; the case you choose will determine the precise amount of “small” that you get.  To my knowledge, the Silverstone SG05 is the smallest case on the market which will support a 9.5 inch long, dual slot graphics card.  Actually, I’m still a bit shocked by just how small this thing is: my main PC is in a Coolermaster Cosmos S case which is almost 6100 cubic inches, the SG05 is only 658, barely more that 1/10th the size! It has one other very important feature for a gaming system, a powerful 300W PSU, which is 80+ certified made by FSP.

Motherboard - Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3 As seen above, a very well-endowed mini-ITX motherboard.

CPU – Intel Core i5 670 I tested both this and the i5 655K extensively, and this CPU proved to be a vastly more capable overclocker.  A better choice for most users would probably be an i3 540 which have been shown to be very capable overclockers for a much more sensible price.  Another worthy candidate for a build like this would be a Lynnfield-based quad core i5 or i7 CPU, although it will put a greater strain on the PWM on this motherboard, and a greater draw on the PSU.

CPU cooling – Intel Core stock HSF, and the Prolimatech Samuel 17. There are a couple other good choices on the market.  But I choose the Prolimatech due to my highly positive experience with their tower cooler, the Megahalems.

Memory – 2x2GB OCZ Gold DDR3-1600 8-8-8 I removed the factory heatspreaders because I think they are ugly.  The DIMMS will have plenty of cooling from the CPU fan.  These DIMMS represent a good value, although there are many other great choices on the market.  I would advise against anything high-end if you choose a Clarkdale-based dual core CPU, and the integrated memory controller (IMC) on these CPUs is not strong enough to properly drive most high speed memory.  If you choose a Lynnfield-based quad core CPU, the high speed memory may be worth your while

Video card – VisionTek Radeon HD 5850 1GB This is a reference design 5850, so brand is not important here; all boards based on the reference design are only separated by their BIOS.  This GPU represents a very good value, it has near top end performance for a reasonable price.  It has a very high performance-per-watt factor, and it fits!  The other very sensible choice from the green team would be the new nVidia based GTX 460 GPU.  However, I wanted maximum performance, and the 460 doesn’t quite match up to the 5850.

Storage – Intel X25-M 80GB SSD and 1TB Western Digital Caviar Green I had the SSD sitting around after upgrading to a G2 drive in my main office PC, it’s being used for Windows 7 x64 only.  The 1TB drive is used to store all of my games and media files.  I’m not using an optical drive in this build, as all of my games are digitally downloaded from Steam.  If you are on a tighter budget, you could forgo the SSD and still have stellar performance.

Monitor – Dell UltraSharp 2007FP All testing (except 3DMark tests) will be performed at the native 1600×1200 resolution.

I’d like to talk about price for just a moment.  Systems “designed for gaming” do not always live up to their hype, especially for one on a budget.  The reason for this is the graphics card.  There are a ton of online PC vendors around, and many of them will build you a “gaming system”.  They’ll use a high end Core i7 CPU, triple channel memory, and a bunch of other cool stuff that sounds great on paper, but then they put a low end graphics card into the mix (to save on costs), and it just ruins the whole thing from the perspective of gaming.

The system I build here would cost about $1300 (not including the monitor), although following my advice an purchasing a Core i3 540, and forgoing the SSD could cut the cost down to well under $1000.  Yet you’d be hard pressed to find a machine as capable for gaming from one of the previously mentioned online vendors.  Please heed this advice, if you want to build a gaming system, start with the graphics card, and go from there.

How exactly did I put this system together?

First, I stripped the case down to the basics to ensure all the components had clearance, to ensure all the PSU connectors were long enough, and to form a basic game plan of how to organize everything to go in it properly.  This is not an exact science, and it took many attempts to get everything situated and happy.  You’ll also notice I modified the PCIe power connector by soldering on a splitter at the end, giving me the dual connectors required by the 5850.

222 mm (W) x 176 mm (H) x 276 mm (D)

Will fit a 9.5" graphics card without modification

Only room for an SFX PSU

300W FSP built PSU

The PSU has 1 80mm cooling fan

cables are a bit long for such a small case

Next, I stripped the stock heaspreaders off the OCZ DIMMs:

2x2GB OCZ Gold DDR3-1600 8-8-8-24

Then, I unpacked and prepped the Prolimatech Samuel 17 heatsink.  This thing is a very impressive looking cooler to me….totally means business considering its size.

Prolimatech Samuel 17 box

mounting brackets included for all modern systems

it will accept a 120mm cooling fan (not included)

the mounting surface is slightly convex

Then, I assembled the motherboard, CPU, CPU cooler, and memory outside the case.  Here you can see one of the delta fans I’m using for cooling, very powerful and fairly loud.

mobo, CPU, memory, and HSF installed

such a pretty little package

RAM is hard to change with the cooler installed

the fan is a 120x25mm 3400RPM Delta which will provide 113CFM of air flow

Then, I did a quick test fit of the graphics card to give you an idea of the clearance.

very slim clearance for the graphics card

the meat and potatoes

Next, I mounted the motherboard assembly into the case.

motherboard assembly installed

This next part was the trickiest.  I now had to wedge the graphics card into place.  It looks as if it’d fit with room to spare.  However, with the reference 5850 design, the PCIe 6-pin power connectors are on the end of the graphics card, and it was impossible for me to plug them in after mounting the card.  So I had to get the card into the case with the power hooked up.  But if the PSU was installed first there wasn’t enough room to get the card in.  So I had to have the power connected from the PSU to the card, and both outside the case.  The other thing in the way was the fan mounted on top of the Samuel 17 cooler, it had to be removed prior to getting the graphics card in.  Then I reinstalled the fan, and finally the PSU.  I also reversed the PSU; normally, the fan faces down and draws air out of the case.  But as one of my major concerns is the PSU, I turned it around to allow it to draw cool air in through the vents in the top of the case.

added the graphics card and PSU

slim clearance for PCIe connections on the end of a long graphics card

After getting the graphics card and PSU installed I installed the second Delta as a front intake fan, and the front panel.

the front fan mounted crowds the area even more

front panel installed

The last step was to install the storage bays.  Obviously, I’m not overly concerned with appearances (ie wire management) with this build.  For me, it’s all about the performance!

SSD and HDD installed

system complete - rear

system complete - front

system complete - left

So, there you have it…small enough to be easily portable.

How high was I able to overclock it?

Overclocking can be intimidating to first timers, but as long as you take it step by step, and approach it methodically, it’s not nearly as difficult as it may seem.  I wrote a 3 Step Guide for overclocking your i3/i5/i7 CPU, be sure to give it a read if your attempting an OC for the first time.

I started by testing the overclocking potential of my CPU with my custom water cooling loop.  I found that this i5 670 CPU is a very strong chip.  4.5GHz was much easier than expected, and 4.6GHz also fell with ease.  After a few hours of playing and tweaking I was able to get a maximum frequency of 4848MHz stable for 20 passes of LinX.

i5 670 LinX stable at 4.85GHz on water pretesting

Obviously I wasn’t going to be able to run that high with the Samuel 17 cooler but I still find it valuable to find the capabilities with a little more cooling.  I had too many Intel box coolers sitting around recently and threw out the non-copper-core versions.  So this one has a copper core like the one that would come with a top end i7 870.  I don’t overclock with stock Intel coolers very often and this exercise reminded me why….they’re terrible!  I was unable to give the CPU any more than about 1.2V or it would go into the temperature danger zone.  For me, that means above 95°C when running LinX.  Now keep in mind my ambient temps were very high, about 31°C during this testing.  On the left, my maximum OC with the Intel cooler, 4140MHz with 1.2V and getting pretty hot!  On the right, the Prolimatech performs the exact same test with the exact same test conditions… but keeps the chip 26 degrees cooler!  Nice…  silentpcreview also recently reviewed this cooler and came away impressed, but they also compared it to the Scythe Big Shuriken, which when equipped with the same fan was able to outperform the Prolimatech cooler.  So be sure to consider that one as well.

4.1GHz on Intel cooler hitting - 98C max

4.1GHz on Samuel 17 - max temp 72C

Next, I went to work pushing the CPU back up to the limit of the Samuel 17….I ended up with a very respectable 4.6GHz with 1.35V.  I also spent a little time overclocking the 5850 graphics card.  With stock voltage I was able to increase the GPU clock from 725MHz stock to 850MHz, and the 1GB of GDDR5 memory from 1GHz stock to 1200MHz (4800MHz effective).  I was pretty impressed with that overclock on stock voltage.  I spent a bit of time pushing the GPU core further with the help of some additional voltage.  But considering power consumption, my performance-per-watt diminished very quickly as I raised the voltage.  So I decided to stay with the 850/1200 I had already established.  These will be my 24/7 clock speeds.

final stable OC of 4.6GHz

5850 FurMark stable OC 850/1200

How well does it perform?

Well, this is where I run a bunch of tests to see what kind of performance a system like this can provide.  I’ve run all the tests twice to compare the stock speeds with the benefits of overclocking.  So, on the left are the results with the system at stock speeds, and on the right….overclocked.

Stock settingsCPU – 3.6GHzMEM – DDR3-1066 7-7-7-16 GPU – 725/1000 Overclocked settings CPU – 4.6GHzMEM – DDR3-1840 9-9-9-27 GPU – 850/1200

For all testing I was using ATI’s Catalyst 10.7 driver package in my everyday Windows 7 x64 OS.  There were no special benching type tweaks applied and I didn’t change any settings from test to test.  I configured each bench as best as possible to maximize image quality, including AF x16, and AA x4 unless otherwise noted in the screen shots.  I configured the ATI Catalyst Control Center 3D settings as seen here:

CCC 3D settings used for testing

I started with the four Futuremark synthetic gaming benches and then moved on to 8 real world gaming tests.  Here are the results all summed up.  I’ve also included the screen shots for each run at the bottom of the  article.

3DMark results

Futuremark testing is my speciality but not the point of this article and have pretty limited relation to real world testing.  However, it is nice to see some significant gains can be had from overclocking.  If you’re interested in pushing your overclocks to the max for this sort of thing, please check out the “Benchmark Buffet!” which will help you understand the basics of competitive benchmarking.

Game test results

As you can see most of the tests scaled very well with my OC’ed settings.  All of the games were into comfortable frame rates with the system OC’ed although there were a couple that were just barely there.

Crysis, as we all know is a beast of a game.  I’ve played through the entire original game again and Warhead (for the first time) with this system, with maxed settings and AA x4….and for the most part my frame rates stayed in the 30s and 40s.  Very comfortable in my opinion.  There are certain action situations where frame rates can drop but they are rare.  Overall, I was very impressed with the performance.  To be able to play this title on a box too small for my shoes, that cost less than $1300 is fantastic!

Another title that was struggling is STALKER. This game is a beast as well and shows nice improvements with multiple cores. It’d probably have a nice boost from a quad core CPU in this situation although there probably are areas where it is GPU limited as well.  I’ve been playing the game with this system and it’s not perfect with the settings maxed.  For better gameplay I’ve disabled the DX10.1 features and it plays nicely.

The last game I’d mention is Grand Theft Auto IV which really needs a fast multi core CPU for best performance.  This title is definitely CPU limited on this system and could really benefit from a quad core.  You can see in the screen shot that it makes best use of the CPU power available in comparison to all the other titles here sitting at an average of about 75% CPU utilization.  Despite this, my settings are maxed, and gameplay only slows down to bothersome rates when it’s dark and foggy, and I’m driving around with my headlights on….in these situations police chases can be difficult as FPS drop into the low 20s.

How much power does it consume?

This is a very serious concern for a SFF build because of the space limitations for a power supply.  Most SFF cases designed for mini-ITX motherboards either have pico power supplies (with an external brick), or SFX sized units, like the one in the SG05 shown here.  As I mentioned before, Silverstone has selected an 80+ rated 300W PSU made by FSP.  FSP has been pretty generally well regarded over the years, and we’d expect this to be a decent PSU based on the specs.  However I’m throwing a lot at it; more than what is recommended by Silverstone. They specifically suggest upgrading to a larger unit in the case of running a 5850 GPU.  And I’m pretty sure they’re also assuming a system running at stock speeds so I’ll really be putting this thing through it’s paces.

I started by measuring power consumption at 100% stock settings.  First idle, then with CPU only, then stressing the CPU and GPU simultaniously.  I did this with LinX set for 3 threads, and FurMark at the same time (if you set LinX to 4 threads, there isn’t any CPU power left to run Furmark, and the GPU is not pushed to the max).  Then I restarted and applied my final OC’ed settings for the CPU and GPU, and repeated the testing with idle, CPU only, and CPU + GPU stress testing.  Stock runs on the left, OC’ed runs on the right.

Idle power consumption.  As you can see, idle power consumption was 75W with the system at default clock speeds, and 114W with my OC’ed settings.

stock idle - 75W

OC idle - 114W

CPU load only.  Here, the stock system was pulling 133W max, and OC’ed it was pulling 194W max.

stock load - 133W

OC load - 194W

CPU + GPU load.  Here, I ran three threads in LinX in order to load three virtual cores, but left the forth to process the GPU load with FurMark.  If you perform this test with 4 threads in LinX, you’ll notice that the GPU load is not maxed out.  Here I was drawing 272W max with the stock system, and 373W max with the OC’ed system.  This was really getting close to the limits of the power supply, so I only ran it for a few minutes.  But despite this, I was quite impressed!

stock CPU + GPU load - 272W

OC CPU + GPU load - 373W

*I also would like to point out that while the PSU is rated at 300W DC output, when I am monitoring the wattage with my Kill A Watt meter, I am monitoring the AC input power.  In between the AC input and the DC output….the power is going through a conversion that is not free, the conversion consumes some of the input power (which generates heat)….exactly how much is lost during the conversion depends on many things….but basically, the 80+ rating on this PSU indicates that it is pretty efficient, but at max load it’ll probably consume more than 20%.  But for safety, we should assume that it is 80% efficient at full load…that means if the system is drawing 300W, I would see 375W displayed on the Kill A Watt meter (300/0.8).  So, by my calculation, any more than that 375W on the display for a sustained period of time should raise red flags for me.

In addition to the stress testing shown above, I kept an eye on the power meter during each benchmark run shown below, and annotated the maximum wattage that I observed during each.

AC power usage, real world VS synthetic

I was really quite impressed as I ran through test.  I was expecting Crysis to be closer to the limit than it is.  As you can see from the  data in the chart…..STRESS TESTING IS WAY MORE TAXING THAN REAL WORLD USAGE!!! I think I may even try upgrading to a quad core CPU, and I think this PSU will be perfectly adequate…..but I will not be stress testing the GPU & CPU simultaniously if I do <wink wink>

Building a mini-ITX based SFF HTPC

I also rebuilt my HTPC, replacing the Zotac motherboard with the Gigabyte offering.  Still housed in the Antec ISK case, the power draw was my biggest concern.  With the Zotac board, I was unable to undervolt and underclock the system and retain stability.  However, with the Gigabyte board this was accomplished without any trouble on my very first try.  The most rigorous activity this system is used for is watching streaming video via Hulu desktop, and for watching 1080p x.264 video’s through my wireless N home network.  With the Gigabyte board installed, I had to revert to a USB wi-fi dongle….a small price to pay for a low power, low noise, STABLE system.

The system is configured as follows.

  • Intel Core i3 540 dual core CPU
  • Intel GMA HD iGPU
  • 1x2GB OCZ Gold DDR3-1600 (single channel) @ DDR3-1333
  • 30GB OCZ Vertex SSD for OS (all media stored elsewhere, on network shares)
  • DVD-R/RW optical drive

I tested both boards at stock settings and they were virtually identical in power consumption.  Again, measured at the wall both system’s idled at about 45W.  While streaming a HQ show via Hulu desktop I saw draw as high as 73W.  Streaming 1080p x.264 content via my wireless network the power draw peaked at 62W.

After installing the Gigabyte motherboard I underclocked the CPU to 2.66GHz by lowering the multiplier to x20.  Then I undervolted the CPU to 1.0V, the iGPU to 1.0V, the VTT to 1.0V, the PCH to 1.0V, and the vDIMM to 1.5V….the result?  Idle power consumption dropped to 40W, Hulu playback dropped to 65W, and the 1080p stream only needed 58W to run properly.  I’m actually very impressed by the performance per watt here and I personally don’t think the ION platform has anything on this.

My HTPC - 40-65W AC

streams media from internet and NAS via wi-fi N

Conclusion

So, I asked a question at the start of this journey:

“Is it now possible to build a competent mini-ITX gaming PC, or is this market better left shrouded to the HTPC and misc PC sections?”

My conclusion?  YES!  It is possible, mini-ITX has come a long way since its humble beginnings and it has now reached the point where it is a viable platform for a powerful gaming machine.  It’s amazing to me how much power I am able to pack into such a small box.  It easily fits in my backpack and only weights a little more than a desktop replacement “laptop”, yet packs a MUCH bigger punch!  I look forward to continued growth in this segment over the coming years.

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3

This board has performed so far beyond my expectations I would recommend it to anybody…not just somebody on a budget or for a boring office PC…ANYBODY!  This motherboard is fully featured, stable, polished, and the BIOS is far more mature than you’d expect.  It feels very similar to the P55A-UD7 top of the line LGA1156 motherboard from the same company and all this for a very agreeable price.  If you want a small PC don’t look any further!  I don’t hand out awards in my review, but if I did, this would be a Platinum!  Thank you Gigabyte for providing the two H55N-USB3  motherboards used in this review!

On a side note, I upgraded my HTPC with the new motherboard when my wife wasn’t around.  A couple days later she asked me if I had done something to the system.  I wanted to know why she was asking, and she said “because it hasn’t had a hitch or crashed in days!”  I was laughing out loud and told her about Gigabyte supplying an upgrade for it….she wanted me to make sure you know she is very grateful to be able to watch an entire show on Hulu without a crash, “Thanks Gigabyte!”

Prolimatech Samuel 17

When I first started this build the Samuel 17 was not yet announced.  I started by using the Intel stock HSF, and was really frustrated by the lack of decent options available at the time.  When Prolimatech sent me the press release for this cooler I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to try it.  I am impressed with its performance and considering the size I feel like they did a very good job with it.  I also have some experience with the Scythe Big Shuriken which would be the other major player in this size category.  I tested it a bit on my first mini-ITX board with the Core 2 Duo E8400 and honestly I was not impressed.  Since I have not compared the two coolers side by side I cannot tell you which one is better, but I do have a lot of faith in the testing methodology of SPCR, and they said it’s better.  So Prolimatech may want to look at some ways to improve the Samuel 17 to match or better the Shuriken.  If they do, I’ll try to get the pair for comparison.  Until then what I can tell you is that the Samuel 17 didn’t dissapoint in my testing and I am very satisfied with my stable 4.6GHz overclock.  Something I couldn’t even come close to with the stock Intel cooler.  Thank you Prolimatech for providing the Samuel 17 cooler used in this review!

Silverstone SG05

Silverstone did not provide the case used in this review, I bought it second hand, off the shelf from a local store here in Japan.  However, it’s combination of size, features, and performance deserve recognition.  So, I wanted to make sure I mentioned it in my conclusion.  It’s a very impressive piece, and does great things for this emerging SFF market.  I’ve seen tons of new designs popping up, but the majority of them are too small, or too large.  Take for instance the new Lian Li PC-Q08 looks like a great new addition to the segment….but don’t be fooled, by comparison IT’S HUGE!  Almost twice as big as the SG05 I used.  On top of that, it costs more and does not include a PSU.  Well done Silverstone, I’m looking forward to more cool products from you!

Screenshots

Below you’ll find the screen shots from each of the gaming tests performed. Stock clocks on the left and OC’ed results on the right.

Stock 3D03

Stock 3DMark03

OC 3D03

OC 3DMark03

Stock 3DMark05

Stock 3DMark05

OC 3DMark05

OC 3DMark05

Stock 3DMark06

Stock 3DMark06

OC 3DMark06

OC 3DMark06

Stock 3DMark Vantage

Stock 3DMark Vantage

OC 3DMark Vantage

OC 3DMark Vantage

stock StreetFighterIV

stock StreetFighterIV

OC StreetFighterIV

OC StreetFighterIV

stock GTAIV

stock GTAIV

OC GTAIV

OC GTAIV

stock Far Cry 2

stock Far Cry 2

OC Far Cry 2

OC Far Cry 2

stock Dirt2

stock Dirt2

OC Dirt2

OC Dirt2

stock Crysis GPU

stock Crysis GPU

OC Crysis GPU

OC Crysis GPU

stock Crysis CPU

stock Crysis CPU

OC Crysis CPU

OC Crysis CPU

stock Crysis Assault

stock Crysis Assault

OC Crysis Assault

OC Crysis Assault

stock ClearSky

stock ClearSky

OC ClearSky

OC ClearSky

stock Batman

stock Batman

OC Batman

OC Batman

Stock Aliens vs Predator

Stock Aliens vs Predator

OC Aliens vs Predator

OC Aliens vs Predator

Stock Call of Juarez

Stock Call of Juarez

OC Call of Juarez

OC Call of Juarez

-MIAHALLEN

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

55 Comments:

Aynjell's Avatar
Another computing community I help moderate is owned by craig brugger and is specialized for small form factor computer builds.

www.losias.net

Sorry, not really spamming but it seems kind of spammy.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
I've been watching that OSIDIAS build at XS.....amazing
nd4spdbh2's Avatar
i have always wanted a sweet little rig like that! awesome build!
bcsizemo's Avatar
In most switching power supplies efficiency increases as load increases. In reality if your system only ever pulled 300-400W then an 800W PSU is just going to be wasting a little more power in heat. (Now it might run cooler because it was designed to handle a higher heat load, but it would be using more power to do the conversion.)

Either way, excellent write up.
sno.lcn's Avatar
Fantastic read, great article Miah!
JonSimonzi's Avatar
I've always wanted a powerhouse mini ITX build. This article just makes me want one more.
MattNo5ss's Avatar
Great article and well worth the wait

Me too...

Is there a powerhouse mini ITX club?
WedgeWhacko's Avatar
Great Write up.
I believe it would be one great little folder.....
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
SOunds good....Maybe I'll start on after the next upgrade
soldierguy's Avatar
Really like what you did here. I need to think small!! I've gotten stuck on large!!. I've got 2 big Coolermaster Cosmos cases haha. I'm at the opposite end. I guess I'm stuck always thinking "I might need more room"? Anyway i like what you did. Totally cool.
EarthDog's Avatar
Great read MIAH! The hits keep coming!
infam0ussteven's Avatar
Great read, I'm really impressed with Gigabyte for offering such a great board with a good bios at a decent price.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Yup....they totally hit the ball out of the park on this one IMO
ratbuddy's Avatar
Nope, there's a curve. Efficiency goes up to a point (around 50% or so) then goes back down.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
I'm planning to rebuild this with some proper modding in the next few months to turn it into the ultimate mini-ITX rig....what do you guys think of the following upgrades?

Intel i5 750 CPU - Which I'd hope to run at 4.2GHz or more, plus it has a good IMC and 4 real cores. I'm not going to pursue an i7 because I'd turn off HT anyhow.

Corsair H70 CPU cooler - all internal. I'll have to replace the 3.5" HDD with a 2.5" and then relocate both it and the SSD.

Corsair Dominator GTX3 memory - rated at DDR3-2400 9-11-9-27, but I'll probably try to run DDR3-2000 CAS6 or DDR3-2200 CAS7.

Gigabyte Radeon HD 5870 SOC - stock clocks of 950 core and 1250 memory should give a noticable boost in GPU limited games. I'll have to mod the case a little for this to fit.

500GB Momentus XT - to replace the 1TB Green drive I'm running now.

And last but not least, I think I'd be pushing this 300W PSU a bit too hard, so I'll plan on upgrading to the new 450W SFX unit by Silverstone.
soldierguy's Avatar
Like I said, I like what ya did, but case this whole PC thing goes
belly-up at least with my two big Coolermasters I'll have some
really nice luggage.
WonderingSoul's Avatar
This makes me hungry for tiny megahertz!
madhatter256's Avatar
Thats the same motherboard I plan on using for my parent's next computer build. They don't need a full-size board and large case, but common parts are a must.
Jolly-Swagman's Avatar
Awesome Article MIAHALLEN, very informative and some very impressive results too, thank you!
Aynjell's Avatar
Shouldn't we be hungry for tiny gigahertz by now? =D
Jmtyra's Avatar
mmmMM, I like the idea of two video cards in that small of a form factor. Yus. /cheer

Wish there was an ITX board that would fit 2x larger GPUs like 2x 460/470/480. That'd be awesome.
Aynjell's Avatar
That will never happen. ITX only supports 1 slot, with the possibility of the cases support an exhaust slot. So realistically micro-atx is your only option. What you're describing in fact is micro-atx.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Unless of course you got a dual GPU video card and a case that would fit it
Jmtyra's Avatar
Well go and burst my bubble.
Aynjell's Avatar
Micro ATX is still plenty small. It's a good compromise. I personally wish we'd get a motherboard with a good layout and a case with 5 slots.

slot 1 -> PCI-E Sound card
slot 2 -> gpu 1
slot 3 -> gpu 1 heatsink
slot 4 -> gpu 2
slot 5 -> gpu 2 heatsink

I mean the only real way to make most boards these days work in any way similar is to go water cooled in a micro atx box.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Getting ready for the next upgrade. Playing around with some modling to verify my measurements. Looks like everything is going to fit perfect

My mini-ITX v2.0 parts list:
case - Silverstone SUGO SG05 (interior will be painted)
PSU - Silverstone 450W SFX (cables will be recut for fit and sleeved)
mobo - Gigabyte H55N-USB3
CPU - Intel i5 750 (aiming for 4.2GHz or more)
CPU cooling - Corsair H70 (with one 120x38mm 118CFM San-Ace)
memory - 2x2GB Corsair Dominator GTX3
graphics card - Gigabyte 5870 SOC (undervolted to 1.1V)
OS storage - 80GB Intel X25M SSD
games/media storage - 500GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid drive

Just waiting for the last few parts to arrive











MassiveOverkill's Avatar
The production run of Lan Gear's Da MOM will be lengthened so it can accomodate a 5970:

http://hardforum.com/showpost.php?p=...&postcount=486
MassiveOverkill's Avatar
Yeah, but the leader of the club is going to stick a mini-ITX board into an Antec mini-P180.

Kirstie Allie is then going to be the spokesperson for Weight Watchers, and then Ron Wood is going to be the spokesperson for Botox injections.
Audioaficionado's Avatar
Nice article miahallen

I used to have a love affair with Shuttle's SFF builds. I swung back to HUGE because of all the hard drive arrays I built and the much easier cooling of a CM full tower case.

I've been looking at the Shuttle SX58J3 but I don't know if it could handle a Gulftown and 2 GTX 460 cards though.
13.11" x 8.46" x 8.03"

Silverstone SUGO SG05 is over 2" shorter and 1" flatter and looks great.
10.87" x 8.74" x 6.93"

BTW: i5-750 vs i7-875K unlocked Processor

Would this unlocked processor have the same problems on your Gigabyte board?
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Thanks man
Which problems?
Audioaficionado's Avatar
"the 'unlocked' multiplier didnt work!" issue you had with the Core i5 655K CPU & Zotac H55ITX
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Oh...NO NO NO....that was a Zotac issue....the Gigabyte board is fantastic. My 655K worked just fine in it
ChanceCoats123's Avatar
Very nice renders. What program did you use?
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Back when I was in school in '99 for industrial design I got a student copy of Rhinocerous 3D....it's v1.0 http://www.rhino3d.com/

Still works well, but the rendering engine is single threaded so these renders took like 10 minutes each Still better than the Pentium 166 machines we used at school though
Ronbert's Avatar
Read this a while back and never got around to commenting on it. I really like what was shown here I've always wanted a nice little gaming system but small and compact it's awesome to see that it can be made a reality.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
OK, Almost all the parts have arrived, and I've done the cutting mods on the case today for a test fitting.......EVERYTHING FIT

teaser


I ordered the wrong molex connectors and I'm waiting on the correct ones to arrive....then I'll strip down again and paint, and sleeve, and post my article....so it'll still be a couple more weeks. H70 testing under-way
ITXGamer's Avatar
Micro ATX motherboards are slightly smaller, in one dimension only. Micro-ATX cases however, are often not that much smaller than ATX. They still follow a traditional case design. The real space saving size of a mini-ITX comes with the design of the case like mounting the power supply on its end.
soldierguy's Avatar
Great. Can't wait to see you fire it up. Almost there
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Progress has continued....but I started a build log for the v2.0 build:
http://www.techreaction.net/forums/s...ead.php?t=3804

I also did a full performance assessment already:
http://www.techreaction.net/2010/09/...-and-gigabyte/
soldierguy's Avatar
Oh Great I'll check it out.
zizux's Avatar
This reminds me of my Epox media pc that I modded. Put plexy windows on it, had a radeon 9800 with a 3ghz p4. I loved that thing for lan parties.

Awesome build very clean.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
Thanks, I've already done build log for the 2nd gen build:
http://www.techreaction.net/forums/s...ead.php?t=3804

I also did a full performance assessment already:
http://www.techreaction.net/2010/09/...-and-gigabyte/

I'll be working on the 3rd generation very soon. It'll be fully water cooled with a GTX 580
mbentley's Avatar
I finally got a chance to read this article and I'm certainly glad I came back to it. Great read
Knufire's Avatar
I student teach a mini Build Your Own Computer class at my high school. The teacher always pushes kids to at least look into SFF builds, but to the average high school students small = less powerful and impressive. I've always used this article as proof to the contrary.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
That's pretty cool...thanks for telling me
Azanulbizar's Avatar
Great build, Miahallen! Cant'wait to see your third version.
I am planning to do a SG05 build myself. Given the emergence of new hardware, would Gigabyte H67 ITX and Core i7-2600 be a good combination?
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
I'm still waiting for more Z68 itx options as I won't do it without OCing
But, if you don't care to OC...then yes
Azanulbizar's Avatar
Thank you!
I think I'll get myself a 2600K for the ability to upgrade mobo once a decent Z68 shows up. Will a 6950 fit in here, or should I better use a 6870?
mgsickler's Avatar
Great read!

I actually am getting rid of my full tower setup today and switching to a mATX board with the Silverstone FT03 case. The only thing that worries me is going to be having crossfire 6950's so close to each other.
soldierguy's Avatar
Great build and specifics too. Thanks for all/good read.
vulcanman09's Avatar
just posting this for your interest

http://www.ebay.com/itm/380350508351...84.m1423.l2649

not a true mini-dtx case

but the potential is great . but the shipping cost is ridiculous

cannot find them any where else though

this will be my next mini-dtx case

in anyone is wondering ??? mini itx is a 1 pci slot case

mini-dtx is a 2 pci slot case

it even has 2 holes at the back for external water cooling tubing
SteveLord's Avatar
I had a Shuttle SFF (Socket A) when I was deployed. Was able to pack that + my Samsung monitor (the thinnest LCD at the time) into a backpack and carrying case. Took them all with me on 12hr desk duty assignments.
MIAHALLEN's Avatar
It's a nice case, but it's significantly larger than the Silverstone case I used. I have a nice little spreadsheet comaring case sizes, and the Cubitek case is roughly three times the volume of the SG05.
http://www.overclockers.com/forums/s...d.php?t=682587
vulcanman09's Avatar
true

it is classified as a mini dtx case

slightly taller than a micro atx cube case

but lots of room for full length video cards as well as tall cpu heatsinks
Leave a Comment