Build a PC 2013: ITX Gamer PSU
So we are now at week two of our building of an ITX gaming rig and we have made our decision on the case. For the focus of this build we will be looking at the Fractal Node 304 case, so without further ado lets move on the our next component, the Power Supply.
When most people build a PC and think of the power supply they focus on the wattage of the unit. In the case of an ITX build, even one with a high end gaming card Wattage is less of an issue than you might imagine. Even a Core i7 3770 @ stock speeds with a HD 7970 for video will come in under 400 watts during gaming load in an basic ITX build. So for a moment we can spend less time on Wattage and more time on other factors.
Two factors play a roll in picking a good PSU for an ITX, the first is the depth of the PSU. Depth it the measurement from the back of the PSU, where the external power hooks up, to the front of the PSU where the cables for the inside of the PC are. Most PSUs come in wither 160mm or 140mm depths, usually the lower wattage ones at 140mm. When looking at ITX cases that will fit our gamer build theme we find that the 140mm depth is the most recommended. The reason for this is that the smaller case space often leaves the PSU crammed against a case wall of some sort on the inside and the shorter depth means the cables have to make less drastic bends to route, in some situations even fit.
You can see in the picture on the right where we have put a 140mm PSU into the Lian Li Q25 case. The cables at the end are bunched up and barely fit in the case, a bit of pressure had to be applied to the PSU to make sure it screwed into the case mount correctly. I also attempted with a 160mm PSU and was unable to make it mount without risking bending the HD rack or damaging the cabling, if it would have fit at all. While many of the ITX cases out there for gaming builds say they can fit a 160mm case, including our case of choice the Node 304, my suggestion is to look at 140mm and be safe. (Actually there is one other option but more on that in a moment.
The second factor to consider is modular cabling. Now at first thought this should be a no brainer, a modular PSU means you only have to use cables you need and thus can eliminate un-needed cabling and make cable management in the case much easier. This initial thought is right but becomes a bit more complex when you take into account factor one, Depth. You see by their nature most modular cables need an end piece that will stick out of the PSU end to allow you to easily remove it or add it. This module adds depth to the PSU design, a depth that is often not taken into account my manufacturer specs. This added depth could make a PSU that otherwise would have fit no longer fit or at the very least make it very difficult to work with.
Now I mentioned there are two factors and in many cases these are the primary concerns. However some cases, such as the Node add a third factor, the cable placement on the PSU. Most non-modular PSUs have a bundle location where the cables come out of the PSU for you to use in the computer. Depending on the way the PSU is meant to be mounted in the case for it’s air flow and the case layout you could find the cable bundle in an awkward place. For most non-modular this is not an issue as all the ones I have looked at come out the same side. However modular cables are a very different story. Many modular PSUs spread the modular connections across the back of the PSU, this could put some of the connection a place that is awkward to work with or could even make them impossible to use.
To understand what I mean about cable placement, look at the picture on the right and you will see the Node 304 case with a PSU in it. As you can see the cables for the bundle are exiting the PSU from a single side and in this example that side is farthest from the motherboard. In this particular setup this is important because if you are using a long video card it will be coming down that motherboard edge and if your cabling is across the back or for some weird reason coming out the other side, it could interfere with if not out right limit your choices on a video card.
So now that we know what we need to look for, lets look at a couple of PSUs. First up lets look at the Fractal Design Integra R2. Fractal sent us the 650 watt model of the PSU with their case and putting them together it is easy to see why, these are built for each other. With a 140mm depth the Integra is short enough to work well in pretty much any case you throw at it. While it lacks modular cables, it still brings a solid package for an ITX build with a small size and good wattage, more than enough power for most builds. The cooling for the PSU is provided by a very quiet 120mm fan. The only real draw back is the PSU comes with regular length cables and an extra long 4/8 pin motherboard cable. This means you will spend extra time with cable management.
Our second PSU was provided by the folks at Silverstone, for this build they wanted to show us their SFX lineup, a truly build for ITX PSU. Now normally here I would have a picture of the PSU for you to look at but for this PSU you need some perspective to understand what you are seeing. On the left is a Thermaltake EVO Blue 2 Modular PSU and on the right is the Silverstone SFX 450 Watt Gold. As you can see this is not just smaller in depth than a traditional PSU, it is smaller in all dimensions. Also unlike the EVO and for that matter most modular PSUs that have at least some of the cables as none modular the SFX is 100% modular.
With 450 watts of power and a tiny size this sounds like a great PSU for an ITX build and it is but it gets even better when you realize that all the cables for this PSU are shorter than normal cabling, making cable management in an ITX build much easier. This smaller size however does come with two draw backs, the first is price. The SFX comes in at around $100, making this a fairly expensive option. The second is that it has a smaller fan, a limit based on it’s size. The 80 mm does the job well enough but under load can get noisy. However from a pure build point of view it is a great PSU.
These two PSUs are obviously not the only ones that could work, in fact I found that in the Node case Thermaltake’s EVO actually is a great choice. In the picture on the left you can see that the EVO does fit in the case and the way Thermaltake kept the modular connections close to one end of the PSU results in the EVO being able to allow a 10” video card with ALL the power ports in use. Further testing however showed that the flat cabling used by the EVO made cable management easier that the traditional wrap on PSU cables and thus even with longer cards in the PSU still caused no issues and made cable routing easy. As I mentioned before it is about exploring the various factors and find which combination best fits the build you are doing.
If the two PSUs we were sent specifically for this series, the SFX and the Integra, we have extreme polar opposites in almost every way. This total opposite methodologies make this choice a lot tougher. If I was building in the Lian Li case then the SFX would win hands down because it’s small form allows the case to gain some cooling options it otherwise could not have. In the Node the PSU has no real effect on the cooling options so that comes off the table. Most people would say the Integra would win because it offers more power at 650 watts over the SFX at 450. That however is not a huge issue since a 450 will easily power even a powerful gaming ITX rig. The modular design on the SFX is big selling point and the fact that it is small enough that the modular setup does not create issues is a real bonus. In the end however it was a strength of the SFX that was it’s downfall, at least for our final build.
The SFX because of it’s small size comes with an adapter to make it fit in standard PSU mounts. This adapter pulls the PSU to the center of the mounting location, the issue arose with the short cabling that comes with the SFX. This is a strength of many ITX builds because it makes cable management easier. Because of the position of our motherboards 4 pin connection the short cable could not routed in any manner that would make me happy with the finish product. It required a more direct route and even with the more direct route was tighter than I liked. Also while the 450 watt PSU is enough to power the system while gaming the fan that cools it kicks in more that the fan does on the Integra, in fact I never heard the fan on the Integra once. The increased noise and the build circumstances we are facing made the Integra our choice of PSU. As we have said, finding an IXT build component is about studying what you are building.
Now reading this you might think I settled on the Integra and that is not the case, it is a great PSU. It has been totally silent under all testing, even when pushed for hours at a time the fan just cannot be heard. While the Integra is only a Plus Bronze and the SFX is a Plus Gold the difference in power draw from the wall is only around 1.3 watts during gaming, not nearly enough to matter in long term use. The Integra is a solid PSU that will work well in an ITX or more traditionally sized computer build.
I said earlier in this article that the Integra R2 felt like it was built for the Node 304 and after using it in many builds I can tell you that this impression still holds true today. Perfectly sized for our case, enough power for any level build and overclock in an ITX system and priced at about $80 the Integra truly seems to be built just for this build.
Thank you to the folks at Silverstone and Fractal Design for providing a PSU for our build.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 23rd, 2013