It was a little over two years ago that we took a look at the Fractal Design Arc series of cases, at that time we looked at the Arc Midi and Mini. Well two years later Fractal is back with an upgrade of the Arc Midi and giving us a look at a new member of the Arc lineup, the XL.
The Midi R2 has taken the great Arc Midi design and tweaked it to make it better. The top now sports two USB3 connections, the USB 2 are gone. Also the fan controller has been moved from the rear plate to the top front of the case.
As you can see they have heard the cries of the tech enthusiast community and put a window in the side panel. The windows is like all things from Fractal, very well done without being over done and is very subdued in it’s appearance. I love the fact it is large enough to give a good view of the components while not so large as to show the mess. I also like that instead of a clear window they have actually smoked it, the effect is very sexy.
Another nice upgrade is the front panel comes out giving easy access to the filter for the front intake fans. This system is super easy to use and goes back in as easily as it removes.
Internally the case is pretty much the same with the moveable drive bays. In fact looking closely I think it is exactly the same as even the extra back panel mount for the fan controller is still there. The only real addition internally I see is the ability to mount two SSDs to the back of the motherboard tray. This is a GREAT idea but the implementation failed in the fact that this has to be done BEFORE to mount the motherboard. This means upgrading or swamping these drives is a major undertaking.
The Arc Midi is a mid tower case that will fit a full ATX motherboard but even for a mid tower the case has a large feel to it. The R2 however is a nice upgraded of the original Midi.
The new case in the Arc lineup is the Arc XL, this is a full tower brute of a case. Externally the case looks like they took the Midi design and stretched it, that assumption is pretty much spot on. The had bay area is very similar to Midi and even offers the same flexible configuration options. Speaking of flexible HD options, the XL also offers a way to mount two SSD behind the motherboard tray but this time they decided to all small removable trays. This means you can remove the SSDs and replace them without the need to remove the motherboard. I hope we see this added to the Midi R2 in a revision soon.
As I said the XL is basically a stretched out Midi with two more optical bays and the ability to use a 360mm radiator at the top instead of the 240 on the Midi. In all other aspects the design is practically the same except for size. There are two additional USB2 ports added to the USB3 at the top front as well.
During my testing of both cases I found that for me the best cooling solutions for the entire case where to make use of the great intake options. Using dual 140mm fans at the front and a 140 at the bottom I was able to achieve a great positive airflow that kept all of the system cool. This setup can be used in conjunction with pretty much any CPU cooling option. The temperature differences between the two cases where to close to call so the size made little difference other than the fact you can mount a larger liquid cooling option in the XL if you choose.
The filtering used in these cases is a foam material and that gave me some concern. I have been doing a lot of research into case filtering of late and all of my information shows that foam can be restrictive of airflow. I also saw a number of forum threads from Fractal case owners saying they got better temperature by removing the filtering. I tried this with the Midi and the results where more than I expected. I saw almost a 4c drop across the board by taking out the filters. Depending on your needs this might not be that big of deal, however this does raise the point that with these filters you can go a little cooler at the risk of needing to clean more often.
The Arc Midi R2 can be found right now for around $100. The R2 took the great features of the original Arc Mini and built on them.
Arc Midi R2
- Classic Fractal Design with a sexy subdued look.
- Great air flow and cooling options
- Easy to access front and bottom filter
- Smoked window is sexy!
- SSD mounts on back require removal of motherboard
- Filters used are air flow restrictive.
The Arc XL is a great addition to the Arc lineup, giving DIYers the options of a full, mid or mini tower case with the same styling the feature set. Currently price at around $100 it is one of the best values in a full tower case you can find. In fact it is one of the best full tower cases you can find period so that with a great price makes this case a win if you need this kind of size
- Classic Fractal Design with a sexy subdued look.
- Great air flow and cooling options
- Easy to access front and bottom filter
- Smoked window is sexy!
- SSD mounts behind motherboard are easy to use
- Filters used are air flow restrictive.
Thank you to the folks at Fractal Design for providing these cases for our review.
As we continue our quest to look at SFF cases we had an opportunity to speak to the folks at Silverstone and they asked us to look at the TJ08-E. This is an mATX case but still very compact, measuring only 14.5” tall and 8.25” wide, it case easily fit on many desk shelves. What got us excited was this case was a none traditional, design at least none traditional for everyone except Silverstone.
You see over the years Silverstone has bucked many of the traditional case design trends. They are one of the strongest proponents of positive airflow design, even going to the point of designing an entire fan series just to assist with that. They also use a reversed motherboard design that moves the CPU from the top of the case where it gains the warm air as the fans pull air up and out, to the bottom of the case and usually in a direct line for air flow. This is the design we are looking at today.
On the outside of the case you will see we have the option to mount two 5.25” external devices as well as a 3.5” device at the bottom. We have the standard dual USB 3.0 slots, headphone and mic jack and of course the power off and on switch. Behind the large grill area ta the front we have a 180mm Air Penetrator fan that is the sole intake source of air for the entire case.
When we remove the side panel we see a HD bay and then the motherboard tray with a space set aside for a 120mm fan if you decide to use it. Look at the placement and you can see why we said this is a wind tunnel design. The Penetrator fan in the front is known for it ability to direct the air flow from the fan into a solid spacing. While most other fan designs spread the air as it leaves the Penetrator will keep the air in a nicely confined column when it first leaves the fan. This means in this design the air is moving in a very forceful manner from the fan and straight to the back of the case. The majority of that air is passing over the CPU and power areas of the motherboard and then right toward the exhaust port.
Now our listeners know me and I use only SSDs, so do I need to leave the HD bay in front of that fan, no. The design allows for me to remove the 3.5” drive bay and give that 180mm brute a clear shot for maximum air flow.
The PSU fits at the top of this case and has a magnetic filter at the top covering the PSU intake. The rest of the top area is closed with the exception of a small grilled section at the top rear of the motherboard tray. This leads behind the tray to and slightly indented area that then exhausts out the rear of the case through another grilled area. This is added so the positive air flow design of the case has a way to dray some of that positive pressure out the upper areas of the case.
Now a case of this type of design practically begs for a tower cooler and Silverstone thought of this, adding a neat little feature to help out. At the bottom of the case this this small adjustable platform. It can be positioned so it’s lifted platform can be against the bottom of a large tower cooler and provide support. This helps reduce some of the strain these coolers can put on a motherboard. The design is super simple and really very ingenious.
Speaking of well thought out features, remember that 180 brute of a fan at the front of the case? Well obviously it needs to be filters. Silverstone designed the filter for easy removal without opening the case. A gap between the grilled front and the fan, a small slot is used to allow the filter to be easily removed. The slot is open on both sides of the case so you can remove it in the direction best suited for your layout. The key to removing this filter is to push it in one side and have it start coming out the other.
Now you might have noticed I am not diving as deep into various features as I have in other case reviews, well that’s because the major feature of this case is it’s cooling design. To find out how well that held up I moved my Haswell 4770K build into this case. To help with this Silverstone sent their Strider Plus 750 watt modular PSU. When I say modular I mean modular, every cable on this PUS can be removed allowing for a maximum choice in cabling used. With 80Plus Silver certification and a large fan for cooling this PSU is overkill for our build, but a nice overkill. To make this work even better with our SFF case, Silverstone has developed for their entire Strider lineup a short cabling kit. This kit has all the cables you will need in a build but has greatly reduced the length of those cables. This means there is less excess cable running around and cable management is easier.
Now I can tell you as I started the build that what I said back in the early looks we took at SFF building still holds true, be aware of the motherboard layout and your build design in advance. For this build I was using the Z87N from Gigabyte, a board I might add I love to work with, well at least in mITX builds. As I have mentioned in a few reviews the Gigabyte mITX layout can be a pain because all the connections, except the front audio is on one side and close together. This layout created an issue for me during my build. The USB3 header is positioned so that I would not be able to to use the Water 3.0 Performer cooler I was trying to put in, I was forced to used the included USB 3.0 to 2.0 adapter that Silverstone includes with the cased.
Also, I noted that we got the shorter cabling kit from Silverstone for it’s usefulness in SFF builds. Well because this case supports mATX boards it can have a few reaches that are a bit longer, however the modular design of the Strider PSU shows it’s value and I was able to move and match long and short cabling to create the perfect cable set for my build.
Looking at the finished build you can see how the wind tunnel design should come into play, the 180mm Penetrator fan will be providing solid air flow unimpeded. Enough with the theory, does it deliver? Now I will begin by saying that the test results I am about to compare this to will seem unfair. I had planned to move this same build to another case and then compare but my results in the TJ08-E where such that I saw no need.
The setup I will be comparing too had the same components except the cooler was a Water 2.0 Extreme and the case used had used dual Noctua 120 for intake. In theory this base should provide much better cooling. Well the theory got blown away in the wind tunnel of the TJ080-E. CPU temperatures under load where only 2C warmer in the TJ08 than with the baseline system. Now some of this of course could be credited to the upgrades made to the Water 3.0 but shifting from a 240mm radiator to a 120 the difference should have been bigger. Especially when you realize that the 240mm radiator had been using the fan as intakes and where providing cooler outside air while this case test was using the fan as an exhaust. All these factors taken into account and the only reason we can have for the increased efficiency of the CPU cooling is the case design.
This is further displayed by the system temperature reported by the motherboard. The TJ08 was able to deliver almost 8C cooler temps for the system than the other setup. Before someone argues that this was because the radiator was exhausting heat into the case as I mentioned above, when I did the first build I tested with the radiator as exhaust and intake and saw zero difference in system temp. The amount of positive air flow seemed to counter act the setup and no system temp increase was found. So now we see the positive airflow and wind tunnel design of the TJ08 clearly show it’s power.
Looking at the finished build however a few of you might have the same concerns I had at first, what about the GPU? It has no outside air access and it’s fans face away from the wind tunnel made by the Penetrator fan. Well our testing only showed an increase of 3C on the GPU under load. It would seem the front intake is so overpowering the exhaust capabilities that a lot of that fresh air is still getting up to the GPU fans to help there as well.
The design of this case and the power of the Penetrators fans have proven themselves in our testing. The Penetrator came with options for low and high on fan speed and even at low the performance was outstanding. Any concerns about the fans noise level need to be taken from a view of perspective. If I sat in a silent room and listened, at low the fan noise could be heard but was not bad, at high it was much more noticeable but still nothing awful. However if I turned on one house fan or the kid was up running around, or the TV was on, or I was gaming in headsets or any of the many other constant noises a typical house has where active, the noise of the case fan all but vanished even at high.
I have always read about Silverstone’s efforts at positive air flow design and their commitment to SFF building before others took an active interest. Now, seeing those efforts in action I can tell you they are not hype, they are real. Priced at $100 the TJ08-E is a great mATX case for any build, the Strider series PSUs begin at $75 for 500 watts are fully modular and adding the short cabling kit is $20 more. This PSU is a perfect fit along with their SFX PSU designs for the SFF builder.
- Compact Size: smaller than some Super ITX cases
- Lots of options: the mATX design gives you a wider range of motherboard and add-on card options than a pure ITX build
- Amazing cooling: the Penetrator fan and the wind tunnel design means this case can deliver a lot more cooling that you would expect from a single intake fan design.
- Easy Filter access: with only two intakes from the outside and both filtered plus no case opening to clean, this system should stay very clean
- Removable HD Tray: removing the 3.5” tray really opens up the front intake to give maximum air flow. Plus the bottom 3.5” area can hold an HD and SSD if you like without impeding the intake
- Only a single designed SSD mount: This case must be of an older design because the only SSD mount designed into the case is a bottom screw hole system.
- Top Panel needs lots of screws to remove: hard to call this a con but you have to remove 6 screws to take off the top panel.
As you can tell I had to stretch for some cons for this case. The TJ08-E should be on everyone’s short list for an mATX build that is compact and powerful. Be sure to include the Stride PSU with the short cable kit to get the most out of the build potential.
We would like to thank Silverstone for provide this case and PSU for our review.
As aired the weekend of September 21st
By Edward “Computer Ed” Crisler
With my running obsession with SFF system building I was drawn to a few of the boutique or limited availability case designs. The folks at CaseLabs were kind enough to respond to my inquiries and so I soon found the Mercury S3 case sitting at my front door.
Just a quick bit of history for folks, CaseLabs has been around since 1971. They have done custom enclosures for various electronics and in 2010 turned their attention toe the enthusiast PC world.
The Mercury S3 is their mini ITX case, or as we have come to call these types of cases here, a Super ITX design. Measuring 10.5” wide, 15” tall and 15” deep this case might be mini in some aspects but is more like a Dwarf than a pixie. Small but burly, the S3 is actually bigger than the Prodigy.
When you order an S3 case you are met with a WEALTH of options ranging from choosing colors for specific parts to choosing to go with solid parts, grills parts for air flow and even windows for various sections. The only way to truly get a feel for the options offered is to go to the site and look for yourself. http://www.caselabs-store.com/mercury-s3-case/
With this in mind and my preference for airflow I went with an all grilled setup and the ability to mount dual 120mm fans in the top and front. The grill work is not a bunch of small holes but an actual open grill that allows a LOT of air flow. This grill work is present in all the openings on the case, so this means front, top, both sides and back as well as bottom for the PSU. Obviously nothing is going to starve for air.
I asked for the case to come with the USB 3.0 ports installed, also on the front are a set of large buttons, the Power button has a blue LED circle to show the power is on and the reset button has a red LED in the middle of it for an HD indicator light. It is not often I will comment on something as mundane as a button the the level of build detail CaseLabs puts into their cases shows with the fact these are nice industrial grade buttons.
All four of the cases panels; top, sides and front, are removable by just grabbing and pulling. They are held in place by a nub and clip system that is very secure but allows for a pure tool-less design. If you look closely that the picture I have posted you will notice that the case frame and the clip system is attacked together using screws. That right folks screws, there is not a pop rivet in sight, the entire case can be broken down, including the frame with just a screw driver. Modders everywhere rejoice. The case is constructed 100% from aluminum and the material used is not thin. The case is super light weight but also very strong.
In the front we see the setup I requested, for dual 120 mm fans The setup will work with just dual fans or if you wanted to mount a 240mm radiator as well. As you can see I have the option to install an external drive, the mounts for all of this is modular and you can move the drive opening to the top or bottom with this setup.
Speaking of the optical bay mount, the system CaseLabs uses is innovative and something I would like to see others do. Instead of a static bay place in the case they have opted for a unique rail system that can be used as needed. Basically they include a set of strip aluminum that is the length of a typical optical drive with screw holes in it. You attach the strips to the sides of your drive and then the strips attach directly to the case frame. The result is a strong and stable mount that is not in the way if you do not want it.
Moving inside the case we see a LOT of open space which opens up a wealth of building options. The motherboard tray has a large open cutout for backplates and can be removed from the case completely with just 4 screws. With this much room in the case I did not find this necessary but it is nice to have the option. Below the motherboard is your area to mount your PSU, no need to worry about a 140mm size here, pick the PSU you want to use and it will likely fit.
The large open area at the bottom front is a great place to put cables out of the way of the main airflow area. However it is also an excellent location for other uses such as water cooling loop components. There is a plate here covering a 140mm opening that could be used for an intake fan but is there primarily for use with a pedestal that cane be bought for this case to offer even more water cooling options.
The flip side of the case has trays for holding HDs as well as shows the large three slot section for expansion cards. I really like this as it allows for oversized coolers to work within this case with ease. I would like to note that when I moved to mounting the HDs I hit the only real complaint I had during my time building in this case. The HD trays are held in place by four nuts that can be a bit hard to reach so I had to find a socket to fit my tools and handles these. After removing the nuts the HD can be mounted in the tray and then is put back. Considering the other methods used this one seemed a bit out of place.
The back of the case is fairly standard with fan mounting for exhaust and the top panel pops off to reveal a mount for dual 120mm fans or for a 240mm radiator. You do have a neat option for the top from CaseLabs, they have drop in mount that allows you to mount the radiator and then drop the assembled setup into a top opening that is then attached to the frame. Again this is a massive boon for those doing custom cooling loops.
Now with all these cooling options and the mazing openness of the case I was surprised to find no filtering system. We have become spoilt by so many cases coming with filtering and this case is meant for those that want to dive into their build and do it themselves in the truest sense of the DIY movement. I spoke with our friends over at Demciflex and had a set of filters made for the case. This was a bit of an issue since the case is aluminum and magnets will not stick to it. Demciflex has a solution for that however, using a thing magnet with two sided tape to attack to the case and then the filter grabs that magnet.
So with all this information how was the case to build in? A pure joy! This case is designed for the serious hardware enthusiast that wants options open in every direction to build that one system that is 100% his creation. As you can see I went a bit Noctua happy but the air flow is amazing and the noise level none existent. Now to be fair this was before any cable cleaning up so please be kind commenting on the picture.
The setup you see before you is a Haswell i7 4770K overclocked to 4.3Ghz with a Sapphire Vapor-X 7970, all on a Gigabyte Z87N-Wifi. For cooling I am using a Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme with dual Noctua fans pulling air into the case and dual Noctua fans for front intake and then a Noctua 140mm fan for exhaust. For comparison purposes I had this same build in a Prodigy case. In the Prodigy the 7970’s slightly oversized cooler would just touch the side panel and result in a lot of noise as the fans spun up. The extra space in the S3 paid off by keeping the 7970 silent under even heavy load. As for cooling the S3 achieves temps much lower than the Prodigy. Under gaming load the i7 is not cresting 50C where with the Prodigy the same setup was hitting closer to 60C and with higher motherboard temps as well.
With a base price of $200 and the cost going up as you add options and color choices the S3 is far from a value oriented case. Add to this the need to put more money in to have a filtering system as well as buying your own fans ( the S3 comes with none) this is not a low cost way to build. However that is not the target of this case. This case I meant for the tech enthusiast, the hardware tinkering that does not ask how much, they want to do what they want to do and buy what they need to do it.
The styling of the case is basic, very industrial and with no real effort at styling the case. However there is an elegance in simplicity and this basic design has some appeal. Add in some nice color options and there is definitely room here to place your personal stamp on the cases style. The simple design and easy disassembly of the entire case makes this a modders dream as well.
With the higher price I am not able to recommend this case to the general public, it is just not something most people will be able to appreciate. However if you are one of those people that loves to tinker, to tweak everything and want options in every aspect of your build the S3 shines. If you want to do a custom water cooling loop with an ITX base for the build the S3 is the most versatile choice you can make, it is literally designed with this in mind. This really is an amazing case that is very well built and has some great features for the builder, however the target for who will benefit is laser accurate and thin. If you are looking for a true BUILDERS case then this is an awesome choice.
- Excellent construction quality
- Wealth of choices when ordering from color to feature set.
- Easy to access and build in design
- Amazing air flow potential
- Options, Options, Options!
- Cost to build will be high for most
- very large case for an ITX build
- no built in filtering
It is not often we get a chance to look at the more tinker oriented components when building a PC for the show. Our focus tends to be more regular user and beginning DIYers. However when the chance to look at this level of parts comes around my geek flag flies and I am in hardware geek heaven. The Mercury S3 is not for everyone but that is okay. This case is aimed right at the uber hardware tinkering geek and hits the target dead center. It is a pure geeky joy to work with and the tinkering in me is in love. If you are exploring custom water cooling or just love the idea of all the options and the DIY attitude to the extreme then this case is a must buy!
Thank you to the folks at Caselabs for giving us the chance to play with this case, also to the folks at Demciflex for getting us the custom filters so quickly.
Review as aired the weekend of 14 September 2013
By Edward “Computer Ed Crisler
When it comes to building a gaming computer a lot of people are turned off by it due to the cost. They think they need to spend a lot of money to enjoy the PC gaming experience. I wanted to prove them wrong and so last week I set about to build a low cost gaming rig. Since I love building in SFF I did this using the Node 304 case and a Gigabyte F2A85XN motherboard. To ensure the best results I opted for the high end of the APU lineup and used an A10 6800K to which I paired 8 gig of Kingston DDR3 2133 RAM. I topped off the build with a Samsung 120 gig base 840 SSD and ended up with a smoking quick little computer.
For testing I made a few presumptions. After all this was a budget build so that meant little money. I presumed I had thrown all my money into the computer so I started firing up F2P games. I chose Neverwinter, Star Wars, DC Universe, League of Legends and then added a beta FPS game I love, Loadout.
My goal in this testing was to explore the play experience. While I did use benchmarks during the testing they where for base data, not the end data results like so many sites use. Benchmarks are all well and good but actually using the computer is all that matters at the end of the day and I was striving for a smooth playback with decent graphics. I am a bit pickier than most so I figure my judgement on this will give more casual gamers great results.
I kept my testing realistic and started at the high end, 1080 resolutions with the games set to medium detail level within game sliders being used. I made use of the default settings to keep this simply. The experience was really solid with all of the game delivering good playback. I did see some stutter in super congested areas within the MMO’s but during the combat or in areas where there was risk of combat the playback was very smooth. League of Legends and Loadout where nice and smooth the whole time and gave good playback.
Next I dropped to 720 resolution and cranked the detail to high, this to me seemed a more realistic setting for this type of setup. At these settings the games had outstanding play with only the barest noticeable stutter in super congested common areas in the MMOs, nothing however to really harm the play experience.
With a total cost for the build of under $600 I think I achieved what I set out to do. A term used a lot today is a Steam Box and this build qualifies. It was super compact and could fit on an entertainment center easily, making use of the TV as a monitor. The use of 720 resolution might be snubbed by many enthusiasts but it does give a solid gaming experience.
Now I could have stopped here and been happy with the results but I wanted to see if there was more. The 6800K is a fully unlocked APU so it can be overclocked. Pushing the system to 4.6GHz with the iGPU at 1 GHz I got a nice boost in my frame rates but the overall experience stayed about the same. However I was curious at how much kick this little brute had, so this started me thinking. The scenario is that you have built this $600 PC and have been gaming on it a bit but you realize you have been bitten by the PC gaming bug and want more. You want 1080 gaming with high detail and you want some of the more advanced games.
Since there is a PCIe slot on the board we are using we do have the option of putting in a high end video card. However I am always hearing people in enthusiast forums talking about how a high end card on an APU is a waste, it will bottleneck the card. Well that is our first test, will it bottleneck the card?
To test this fully I decided to go way over the top. I put a 7970 GHz edition with 6 gigs of memory on this APU based system. Now this is a lot more GPU than this type of build will likely ever get but I wanted to see if the APU was bottlenecking the high end discrete GPU. To do this I needed a baseline and so I used a Haswell i7 4770K clocked at 4.3GHz with 16 gig of Kingston DDR3 1600 memory and the same video card and drivers.
For testing I used 3DMark Firestorm and was watching the GPU score, if the APU was bottleneck the GPU this score would reflect it. This test is pushing 1080 resolutions so I felt it was a perfect pairing of test and GPU to see if the APU was bottlenecking.
Now the scores that rely on the CPU went to the Haswell as expected. However my first surprise came when I saw the overall 3DMark. The Haswell, in overall score was only 12% faster. I ran these tests three times to verify. 12% overall is NOT a huge difference, especially when we are talking about a 236% price difference for the chips.
As if the overall scores where not surprise enough the graphic scores where nearly flabbergasting, the APU stayed within 0.8%, that’s right less than a single point of percentage. In fact in one of three tests it outscored the Haswell by 0.1%. This is pretty clear that from a raw power point of view at 1080 the APU is NOT bottlenecking a high end video card. If my testing was not enough for you how about AnandTech? In an article they posted on 1440 gaming they found that for the majority of games the A10 APU was the best buy for single video card game play at 1440. They did this BTW on a 5800K so they used a slowed base speed APU at stock speeds vs my overclock.
What about actual game play though? Well with the bottleneck issue proven to be a myth I dropped down a little in video card, I wanted a more reasonable build price. With 7950 cards now being seen near $225 that seemed a good point and still gives a higher end card. Next I started firing up some games, this time though I did some stuff with a bit more kick. I used a modded Skyrim, Crysis 3, Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Bioshock Infinite, Civ V and our choices from the F2P crowd as well.
Now again the actual game play was our goal and in all but Crysis 3 I was able to run at High default settings and get great game play at 1080. For Crysis 3 I did step back down to medium but even in medium Crysis 3 looks AMAZING! Now in fairness the game ran good at high but the playback was better at medium and so that was what I would suggest. In all the other games on high the playback was smooth and nice, enjoyable game play with no noticeable stuttering.
The results are actually pretty amazing. With a system costing less than $825 I was able to achieve the same gaming experience are systems costing hundreds of dollars more. What is especially cool is that I could build the system at a lower cost, have fun with it and then just put in a video card to kick it over the top. None of the parts I bought where replaced to do this, just a GPU added.
This testing proves to me that the AMD APUs are a lot more than just a budget based chip. Sure they can build a budget system and in my opinion if you are building a system that is using the integrate GPU the APU is the ONLY way worth going. However they are not done there, this budget build can give a solid platform to take your gaming experience to the next level. The high end enthusiast might look at other options for their build, but for the majority of users, the APU is the place to start.
BTW if you want see more than a discussion on this, head over to the LANOC event on September 7th. I will be there along with a slightly modified APU build as discussed here. Come join us and see it in action.
A special thank you to all the companies that provided the parts used in this article.
Show Segment Aired Weekend of August 24th
This year was the first year we have a Golden Mic winner in the motherboard category and it is time for this gem to shine. The Z87N is an mITX board build for the Socket 1150 or Haswell platform. It offers all the performance the Haswell platform brings in a small form factor package. Taking a cue from their excellent Z77N lineup, Gigabyte has kept the design along the same lines as the previous model and then added some nice new features.
(Quick apology to everyone, in my haste to get to the testing I seemed to have neglected to get board shots. Rather than take apart the system it is right now I will be using stock photos from Gigabyte.)
If this baord layout looks familiar to you, it should. The basic layout is pretty much identical to the H77N and Z77N boards from Gigabyte. This is actually a very good move for consumers and for Gigabyte. For consumers it means the design is one that is tested and proven to be reliable and stable. For Gigabyte it means they do not have to spend a bunch of money of developing a new design and this helps keep consumer costs lower.
For internal connections the Z87N has a USB 3.0 and 2.0 Header, Four SATA 3.0 connections as well as dual channel DDR3 slots, a PCIe x16 slot and two PWM fan headers. The board sports a full rear IO panel;
- PS2 port for either a mouse or keyboard
- Dual HDMI and a DVI for video connections if you choose to use the onboard Intel graphic
- full 7.1 surround sound options
- Wireless N support with a hi-gain antenna connection
- Dual Gigabit LAN Connections
- Two USB 2.0 and Four USB 3.0
To all these features Gigabyte was sure to include their particular extras Bluetooth connectivity and their ultra durable design. This design makes use of a modified PCB to increase durability, heat removal and even humidity protection. It also uses solid capacitors and the power system is designed to be more efficient and work cooler. Add to this a dual BIOS to make sure your protected from bad flashes or failures and you have a motherboard built the way we have come to expect from Gigabyte.
The bacos however come when we start using this motherboard. The first thing you will notice is that Gigabyte has designed their UEFI BIOS and it is a stunner. Do not adjust your settings this is the BIOS! The home screen as you can see offers a wealth of information including real time updates while you are making adjustments. This is an amazing improvement over the previous BIOS setup, so much so that I found myself spending double or more the time I normally spend in a BIOS just to admire it.
Gigabyte also redid their in Windows tweaking software. This software makes it easy to see how the system is working as far as temps and voltages. It has a special section just to let you customize the various temp, fan and voltage alerts you can received, meaning you can have your system warn you when you think it should. The Fan controls software is similar to software we have seen other companies use for a few boards now but a welcome addition to Gigabyte boards. It will allow you to adjust how the CPU and System respond to temperatures in your system, meaning when you want it to be your system is all but silent.
Finally we come to the overclocking options using Smart Quickboost. you are given a number of options here. The basics for a light, medium and extreme overclock. You then get the options for the system to auto tune and advanced to allow you to manually adjust. One additional option that I have never seen before is for energy savings where it actually down clocks the chip.
For our testing we are using an Intel i7 4770K provided to us by Intel. With a Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme cooler hooked up I decided to see that the auto tune could do. This makes the system begin stepping through various overclock settings with stability testing being done at each step. The final settings for out setup was able to get to 5.0 GHz, that is letting the motherboard decide the settings.
Priced at $135 on Newegg, this is the lowest cost mITX Z87 board available, and at the same time one of the best made. Packed with features, a great new BIOS design, good software package and all these with a value pricing, the Z87N is a great choice for anyone building an Intel based ITX system. We got to look at quite a few motherboards this year with our efforts at small form factor building and this board stood a head above the other closest choice to win our Golden Mic Award for 2013.
- Good value
- Solid feature set
- good overclocking
- excellent construction
- amazing new BIOS interface
- great software tweaking pack
- Header placement all on one side of the board, could be hard to work with in some case designs
- Wish they would kill the dual LAN and PS2 ports to allow for more USB
Thank you Gigabyte for allowing us a chance to test this motherboard.
Review Segment as aired the weekend of August 17th.
When we did our original build this year I wanted to look at AMD options but to be honest they where either poorly done or did not exist. The few companies at that time that had A85 mITX boards were not sampling them for review and when I had looked for them, they where hard to find.
However my contacts at Gigabyte told me to be patient, they had one coming. A couple of weeks later in a conversation with some contacts at AMD I found out that AMD was working with gigabyte to make a high quality FM2 mITX design. Well the wait is over and the result is here, the F2A85XN.
Now first let me say I loved the fact they seem to be standardizing a new look. The box and even the board’s coloring is the same as you find on their new Z87N-Wifi. The new black look gives the board an enthusiast feel and looks really nice.
The layout of this board in many ways mirrors that of the previous ITX boards we have seen from Gigabyte. The SATA, front panel and power connectors are along the same side of the motherboard. This design is good and bad. It works out nicely for using cases that mount the motherboard horizontally such as the Node and Prodigy. However if you use a case that mounts the board vertically then this layout can be a pain depending on the way the case is designed. For example in an N200 case this layout is hard to work with due to how close the motherboard sits to the top of the case and makes adding a top fan next to impossible.
The board is pretty stock ITX in the fact it has two slots for RAM as well as a single PCIe. The power system of the board is more robust than that on the Intel boards but this is due to a higher power demand in the case of the APU. The CPU heatsink mount area is very open to give good options for cooling. For connectivity the board comes with WiFi, Bluetooth and Gigabit LAN. You will also find on the back 4 USB 2.0 and 2 USB 3.0 ports, dual HDMI, DVI as well as a PS connector and surround sound audio connections.
The board supports DDR3 up to 2400 speeds and Gigabyte made it easy to achieve those speeds by adding support for XMP and AMP. This means setting your memory to it’s rated speed is super easy, nor more tweaking to make the settings work, use the ones the company recommend by just clicking your mouse and you are off to the races. This is a solid feature and by supporting both methods you can be pretty sure your RAM will be supported by one or the other. This is a welcome feature because APUs LOVE RAM speed, being able to get to full speed hassle free is awesome.
With this generation of mITX Gigabyte made a minor adjustment on their wireless that I really like. The previous generation used two antenna attached to the back board and then in long wires to give you good separation for single. These where attached to a weighted base with a soft bottom to not scratch surfaces. While these worked well the issue I had was that depending on your desk it was not always possible to fin a nice, out of the way place to put them. The new antenna has dual leads to the back of the motherboard but is a single antenna design that swivels along a magnetic base. The base is very broad and stable without the magnet but it does have some interesting options for mounting by including it as you can see.
This board is very versatile with the ability to offer itself to the the enthusiast or even just the HTPC builder looking for small form factor. We where able to overclock our 6800K with ease to 4.6GHz and never have a heat of stability issue with the board. I am kind of excited to see how far we can go. Speaking of that we will be seeing more of this board soon as we have a couple of FM2 build we will be discussing in the coming weeks.
Priced on Newegg at around $105 this is a great motherboard and should be on every APU systems build list. If you are going small form factor it is simple the BEST mITX board for FM2 you can buy.
- Quality ITX board for FM2
- Enthusiast grade quality in the build
- Easy Overclocking
- Good Wifi and Bluetooth plus LAN to give you lots of connection options
- AMP and XMP memory setting support
- Reasonable price
- Connection layout can be an issue for some cases.
- Wish they would kill the PS2 and have added more USB
Thank you to the folks at Gigabyte for providing this board for our review and use in future projects.
Review as aired on Computer Ed Radio the weekend of August 10th.
Review by Edward “Computer Ed” Crisler
As you all know we have developed a serious love affair here with SFF computer building. I love the compact design and way it changes how you think about building a computer. No longer is it about how much money can I throw at it, but rather thought into how components will fit and work together. In our IOTX gaming build I had a listener point out that while we built in an ITX case the concept of ITX was not what we showed but rather the concept of Small Form Factor. With this in mind I did a lot of looking at computer parts and to expand my vision. It was during this expansion that I stumbled across the N200 case.
The N200 is a mATX case, this means it will work with either mITX or mATX motherboards. The case is actually very small but the still large enough to accommodate a larger motherboard layout, this means you have more options for your build. To give a sense of size I took this shot of it next to a Prodigy case. Now in fairness the handles on the Prodigy make it taller than the case itself but as Bitfenix has pointed out to anyone that asks the handles are what make it a prodigy. As you can see standing next to an “ITX” case, the N200 is actually quite small.
The front of the N200 is a grilled plastic to allow for good air flow. The area is broken by a plastic bar that has your power, USB/USB3 and headset jacks. The look is interesting with a kind of retro feel to it, I feel a bit like I am looking at an older IBM design. The case has a 5.25” and 3.5” bay opening, using the 5.25” bay will disrupt the design of the front look. When I first saw this I had an urge to get some white vinyl and cover the bar and then extend the white strip across the top as a racing strip.
The top of the case is bare and very basic with an opening for a 120mm or 140mm fan. The top has a filter in place, held by pins in the 140mm fan holes, other than this, as I said the top is bare. The bottom of the case has large feet to give the case good lift and a filter for a PSU. The both side panels have a raised area to give a bit more room inside and the working panel has a hole for a 120mm fan while the back is plain.
Opening the side panel we see a nice work area, large compared to what we have been working with. The 3.5” bays for external and HDs are removable. In fact the HD bay can actually be shifted back to give more room for fans in the case front it you want. The cable routing has a small space in the back of the case with access point at the front of the case but not the top. During my build testing I found that you can run the 4/8 pin for the motherboard through the CPU cutout if you plan ahead but that is the only way to hide that cable.
The front of the case will support dual 120mm fans and can be used with an AiO unit like the Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme. The front panel holds the air filter and once removed reveals that there is space to mount the fans between the front panel and the case. This means you can easily put two fans on the outside of the case frame and then the radiator and two more fans on the inside. To do this you must move the HD back or remove it as well as the external 3.5” bay.
Even with the HD and 3.5” bay removed you still have decent drive storage as the back plate has holes for 2.5” drive placement. To use these you mount rubber feet to the bottom of your drives and they slip into the holes on the back. In my working with this case I found that using just two of the holes provide a very secure mount for an SSD. This means you can alternate the feet placement on up to 4 SSDs and mount two inside the case and two on the back.
The case come stock with two fans, a 120 in the front and the rear. For our testing however I wanted to see this case used in the manner Coolermaster shows on it’s site. For this I used a Thermaltake Water 2.0 Extreme in the front and then moved the stock front fan to the top of the case. I used the Water 2.0 cooler with just two fans at the front of the case and as intake. I was a bit concerned of how this would effect the temperature dynamics of the case. For this build I used an AMD A10 6800K on an mATX motherboard and overclocked it to 4.6GHz. I did notice a rise in the internal case temp as opposed to what you would normally see if the heat was exhausted but it was mild. The nice side effect was a drop of the CPU temp, a nice drop of about 4C compared to pulling from warmer inside air. Because of the filter at the top I also tested with the top fan as exhaust and intake. As intake the internal temps where a little better and the positive airflow means dust has a harder time getting past unfiltered areas.
This is a solid little case but not without it’s flaws. The upper fan area is in my experience to close to the motherboard. While it is workable with a regular case fan I would personally look for a slim model. When I moved from an mATX board to an mITX board the upper fan created more problems. The mITX board I am using has a lot of the connectors at the top side of the board. This is not true of all mITX boards but enough of them that I suggest being sure what board you will use before choosing this case. With the board I tested with you could not use the upper fan with a full size fan.
Also the rear fan to me is perplexing, I mean what were they thinking? The fan supports 120mm, a standard. But then it also support 92mm and 80mm? I am not sure I know ANYONE that would want to trade a 120mm fan for a 92 or 80. To make this even more perplexing they only gave the air flow the area of a 92mm fan, cutting the potential of a 120 partially. Considering they came with a 120mm fan stock in this case the design just makes no sense.
Priced at $50 the N200 is a budget case and actually very feature packed for the price. The smaller size than a prodigy with more versatility make it an interesting choice for an SFF build. Overall for the money this is a solid case.
- Value Priced
- Small Size
- Drive Mounting Options
- Large AiO Support
- Top Fan Placement
- Limited Cable Routing
- Rear Fan Not Fully Open
The case provided for this review was purchased by Computer Ed Radio
Segment aired the weekend of July 20th, 2013
By Edward “Computer Ed” Crisler
This time around as we have done our gaming peripheral shootout, we wanted to look at a bit more budget oriented products. With this in mind we asked for membrane based keyboards and mice plus headsets that where solid values. For this Steelseries sent us the 3H Headset to review. Priced at around $30 the 3H is a small budget oriented headset that is designed to deliver “Pro Gaming” sound according to the folks at Steelseries.
This is a very no frills package with no drivers needed for the analog headset and no fancy lights or bling. The headset itself is an on ear design, meaning the padding for the cups rests on your ear, and folds up to be very compact. The result is a headset that is much smaller that what we have reviewed in the past.
The microphone uses Steelseries patented method of retracting it back into the headset itself and this helps with making the overall headset very small. The design is very light weight and the headband is very comfortable.
I have to tell you I was not happy when I started to use these, the reason why is the on the ear design is just not comfortable for me. The headset felt very small on my head and that tied to the light weight design made me feel constantly as if I was about to break it. However when I let people with smaller heads make use of it they did not have the same issues I had. This is a purely subjective feel.
When I got past how these felt on my head I was blown away by the sound. These little headphone produce sound quality that is very close to their big brother, the Siberia. Despite a smaller driver the sound is big, deep and rich. In fact I would go so far to say that in their price point there is no headset I have heard that sound better. The mic was of solid quality, matching the clarity of the Siberia headset as well.
This will seem a quick and simple review to many but this is a quick and simple headset. This would be awesome for traveling or if you have a smaller head or even for a child. The sound output is outstanding.
- Value Priced
- Great Sound
- Very Compact for Traveling
- On the Ear Design
- Small Cups
Thank you to the folks at Steelseries for providing us the 3H Headset for review.
Segment aired the weekend of July 13th, 2013
By Edward “Computer Ed” Crisler
When you go buy a gaming mouse today it is pretty much the norm to see something with a sculpted design. Curves and small platforms along the sides, all supposedly designed to make your hand sit more comfortably on the mouse. So when Steelseries first introduced the Sensei as their premier mouse it was kind of an odd duck, with it’s simple design. After using it however I quickly became sold. So now, a year and a half later I have been given a chance to look at the Sensei RAW, a toned down version of the original.
The RAW comes in two versions, a rubberized coating and a glossy back coating. We had the option of which we wanted to see and I chose the rubberized. I like the rubberized components and their feel, they are not slick to hold and they tend to be very durable.
The Sensei design is one of the few, truly, ambidextrous mice out there today. What I mean is the design is balanced. What you see on the right is mirrored on the left, this allows the mouse to be used with either hand and have the same feel and button options. As a right handed mouser this does not really translate as a big deal to me but the left handed people I had test it fell in love as soon as they started using it. The mousing world is very targeted at right hander mouse use so this design allows for everyone to enjoy using this mouse.
While the RAW brings the design of the Sensei to a more budget audience it does lose some of the bling features. Gone is the nifty LCD back screen, multiple color setup and the internal ARM processor. The RAW also does not have the DPI doubling feature of the original Sensei, in fact looking at the setup software the choices for control are reduced from the original quite a bit. This however is not in my eyes a detriment, the simple functionality is something I enjoy. Instead of the many settings you had with the original, the RAW is very basic, you have the same button options but mouse control is only adjustable for CPI, polling rate and the White LED on the mouse can be adjusted for level and pulse.
From just an outward appearance the RAW is identical to the original Sensei and is also identical in fit of the hand. The size is a nice balance between big enough for large hands but not to big or small hands. This design was truly designed with Goldilocks in mind, it is just right. The mouse has two buttons on each side, a mirror of each other. This offers a good range of easy to reach buttons. For me personally, my old man hands lack the dexterity of youth so I find myself hitting the left buttons by accident all the time. It only took me about 10 seconds to disable them in the driver software.
The white illumination I spoke of is in the mouse and the Steelseries logo. It is not overwhelming on high and can be set for various pulse levels. When used with the Apex RAW keyboard they set looks perfectly matched.
While the RAW might not have the features of the original Sensei it does have amazing tracking. I was able to get good mouse tracking on a number of surfaces and during all my testing never once noticed I had switched from the original Sensei to the RAW.
Priced at $60 the RAW is in a fast growing and incredibly competitive group of gaming mice. The RAW has a great feel and the performance is spot on. While it lacks the bells and whistles of it’s big brother it kept the spirit of the original. The Sensei Raw should be on anyone’s short list of a good valued gaming mouse.
During the show I commented that the RAW did not come with a braided cable, I was wrong. Not sure what I was thinking but yes the cable is braided.
- Ambidextrous design
- Rubberized covering is a comfortable gripping surface
- Not overwhelming with features and buttons
- Great tracking
- Braided cable
Thank you to the folks at Steelseries for providing us the Sensei Raw for review.
Segment aired the weekend of July 6th, 2013
By Edward “Computer Ed” Crisler
When we decided to do a second peripheral shootout we made a point of contacting the companies that took part in our first such comparison. Of our original three, only Steelseries stepped up to answer the challenge. For this round they brought their Apex Raw Gaming Keyboard.
As with the other keyboards in this shootout, the Raw is of membrane design. This helps to reduce the price of the keyboard, the Raw is coming in at about $70 on Amazon. The membrane system of the Raw is rated to 5 million key strokes and comes with a one year warranty.
The Raw manages to fit 17 macro keys (34 potential with profile switching) into a regular sized keyboard. I like this as the constant effort to add more Macro keys seems to make the keyboards larger and larger and sometimes harder to find your way back to the home keys without looking. To accomplish this they have a single row of 5 keys along the left side and then 12 keys, raised across the top above the function keys. This position will be awkward for rapid macro needs during the heat of an intense play session. However for those emote nuts out there this setup gives some easy to access option.
The keyboard does not sport any extra USB ports of sound jacks and the media keys are special functions keys embedded within the existing keyboard. To make the keyboard stay standard sized and add macros to the left, Steelseries resized the space bar. At first I was concerned this shorter space bar would represent an issue but it does not. I checked on existing keyboards with the longer space bar and all my space bar presses where always near the center. My making the space bar shorter on the Apex family they can keep a smaller keyboard size and have the macro keys. The extra depth of the space bar means that the center hits are actually more accurate on the bar, all in all it was hard to tell there was any difference during daily use.
The Raw is backlit with just a white light and has various levels of intensity for you to choose from. I found however that in full light conditions the backlighting is a bit dim and so just left the lighting on high. The white lighting made the keyboard easy to see in lo light options and the lighting in general is well done and evenly applies.
The key throws, distance they travel when pressed, are very tight, among the tightest of any keyboard I have used. This means the keyboard is very responsive to typing. The membrane used is all but silent when typing but has a mushy feel when compared to any mechanical keyboard. While this is true of all membrane keyboards the Raw seems to have an even mushier feel than most. The result is a strange feel even moving from another membrane keyboard. The good news is within an hour or so you get used to it and the keyboard is very responsive.
As for the actual construction the Apex raw is the heaviest non mechanical keyboard I have ever used. In fact just by heft and feel you would think it was mechanical. The keyboard has forgone the normal popout feet for the increasing of the keyboard tilt, and instead gone with an interesting design. The padded feet at the back of the keyboard can be swapped out for a thicker model to increase the angle. This method works very well and has the advantages that the legs on the back will not be broken off.
Once you get past the strange feel the Raw is an outstanding keyboard that has proven a joy to use. The silent operation is the single quietest keyboard I have every used and the even backlighting make it an excellent choice for those late night gaming sessions.
- heavy construction
- silent operation
- even backlighting
- lots of macro keys without being overly large
- no braided cable
- mushy feel during early use
Thank you to the folks at Steelseries for providing us the Apex Raw for review.
Segment aired the weekend of June 27th, 2013